After struggling to hit shots for more than a month, Killian Hayes finally found his touch on Monday.
The third-year guard opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer, and proceeded to hit two more in the midst of a 19-7 Detroit Pistons run that cut an 18-point deficit to six. They eventually lost to the Boston Celtics, 111-99, but Hayes’ second half was a reminder of the growth he’s shown this season. He finished with 17 points, nine assists and two steals and was Detroit’s best all-around player, while coming off the bench.
It was Hayes’ sixth-straight game leading the second unit, following 32 consecutive starts. Like his fellow 2020 draft classmates Isaiah Stewart and Saddiq Bey, Hayes has seen his role fluctuate this season. He began this season in his current role, backing up Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. Cunningham’s shin injury paved a path for him to start, and also coincided with his best stretch of basketball in his young career.
Against the Brooklyn Nets nearly two weeks ago, Dwane Casey decided to give Alec Burks — a strong Sixth Man of the Year candidate if he played for a playoff-bound team — the start over Hayes. From some onlookers, benching Hayes after turning his career around might’ve looked like a demotion.
But Hayes, Stewart and Bey have all had to adapt to the reality of the NBA this season. It might be anti-climatic to see the first draft picks of the Troy Weaver era have to accept bench roles, but the Pistons — at 14-41 overall — aren’t good enough to guarantee anyone a starting job.
After starting 53 games in his rookie season and all 82 games last year, Bey was moved to the bench on Nov. 14 and has since bounced between the two units. Stewart, who started all of his 71 games last season, came off of the bench for three games at the end of January.
Hayes’ role, much like for his teammates, is fluid, Casey said after Monday’s loss. With 27 games remaining, the coaching staff will likely continue to tweak lineups to keep the roster competitive and evaluate different combinations. The Pistons want to compete, but they also need data on how their core players can handle different roles and levels of adversity.
“Everybody right now, they’re right on the same career path, same career timeline, so to speak,” Casey said after Tuesday’s practice. “That’s where you have to make sure you keep those roles clear. We still have to come back with reinforcement because everybody, I’ll give you an example, Killian takes 15 shots, Ivey takes 15 shots, there’s not a big line of difference between those guys. But to still function as a team, as a group, we have to have roles and a good job for you may not be a good job for me. Those roles have to be clear.”
Through his 50 games this season, Hayes is averaging 9.7 points and 5.7 assists while shooting 38.2% overall and 31.7% from 3. His splits are similar to his career numbers. From Nov. 12 until Dec. 28, he averaged 11.6 points and 6.4 assists while hitting 41.4% overall and 35.7% from 3. His 3-point shooting in that stretch was a big improvement for a career 28.9% outside shooter. He shot the ball with confidence on Monday — a confidence we often didn’t see through his first two seasons or the first few weeks of this season.
But after returning from a three-game suspension on Jan. 4, Hayes lost his rhythm. In 11 January games, he shot 39.7% overall and 31% from 3. Ivey, on the other hand, is averaging 15.9 points and six assists (against 3.1 turnovers) while shooting 45.6% and 38.6% from 3 in his last 14 games. The rookie is playing his best basketball.
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It’s not surprising that the Pistons want to see how their 2022 fifth overall pick plays while surrounded by two elite shooters in Alec Burks and Bojan Bogdanovic, and a vertical spacer in Jalen Duren, who Ivey has developed strong chemistry with. It’s not a knock on Hayes, but a reflection of the reality that the Pistons need capable playmaking with their second unit. As we saw Monday, Hayes will still receive opportunities to shine. He hasn’t complained about his role.
“Last couple of games, I’d been struggling a little bit,” Hayes acknowledged after Monday’s loss. “Just staying with it, keep shooting the same shots, staying confident and it felt good seeing them go in tonight.”
Long-term, the Pistons will still have to figure out how all of their pieces fit. Bogdanovic and Bey have overlapping games, and Bogdanovic has been the superior scorer. Hayes is part of a crowded backcourt featuring two top-five picks in Ivey and Cunningham, who will return to full health this offseason. Stewart is managing a shift to power forward to accommodate Duren, who has proven himself as a starter as a 19-year-old rookie.
It’s all part of Detroit’s rebuilding process. The 2020 trio have established themselves as solid role players. To solidify their roles on the roster, they’ll have to continue embracing them.
“All of the young guys I’ve had in the past have accepted those roles and then they took off. It’s not to say that you’re going to stay in that role,” Casey said. “That’s what summer work is all about, it’s what after-practice work is all about, is to continue to grow. And my hope for you is, if you don’t stay in that role but you do improve and become a go-to guy, or a stopper on defense. We don’t have to hide you on a bad player. That’s why with young guys, roles are temporary and it’s your responsibility to grow.”
Contact Omari Sankofa II at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.
Next up: Cavaliers
Matchup: Pistons (14-41) at Cleveland (34-22).
Tipoff: 7 p.m. Wednesday; Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, Cleveland.
TV/radio: Bally Sports Detroit; WXYT-FM (97.1).