Where Killian Hayes fits in Detroit Pistons future ahead of his most crucial year

Detroit Free Press

Killian Hayes saved his best for last.

Against the Indiana Pacers on April 7, he scored a career-high 28 points with six assists, four steals and a block. During the Detroit Pistons’ season-finale two days later against the Chicago Bulls, he tallied 26 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and a block.

The 2020 seventh overall pick reached the 20-point threshold in consecutive games for the first time in his career, stuffing the stat sheet as a playmaker and defender to put a neat bow on another uneven season. Hayes, at times, looked like the Pistons’ most well-rounded player. He teased the upside that led to him being one of the highest-graded point guards in his 2020 draft class.

Hayes’ third season was his best — a low bar to climb, yes. He set career-highs in points (10.3), assists (6.2), steals (1.4), games played (76) and minutes per game (28.3).

But he didn’t correct his biggest hole: scoring efficiency. Despite a hot stretch early in the season, Hayes finished the year shooting 37.7% overall (last among 106 players who attempted at least 10 shots per game; his career average is 37.6%) and 28% from 3-point range (lowest among those with at least 250 attempts; 27.4% for his career). He was again last in the NBA in effective field goal percentage, which accounts for 3s being worth more than 2s (field goal percentage does not). His 42.6 eFG% was 211th among 211 players who played at least 50 games and 20 minutes per game this season.

His issue isn’t ability, but consistency. Among Pistons guards, Hayes is the most proven passer and defender. His lack of scoring hurts his other contributions. Opposing defenses scheme around the expectation that if Hayes hits a few shots, he likely won’t sustain it for four quarters.

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As he approaches extension eligibility for the first time in his career this offseason, the Pistons will soon have to decide if a long-term commitment is the right decision.

“Still gotta be consistent, that’s the main thing for me,” Hayes said after the Pistons concluded their season with a loss in Chicago. “Just being consistent every night. Playing the same way, making sure my teammates are involved. And keep learning about the game. I’m far from a perfect player, I have so much to learn, so much to improve on. That’s what gets me excited to see the journey that I’m going through, that I’m on.”

Hayes is aware he needs to improve his shooting. He spent most of last offseason overhauling his 3-point mechanics. After an ice cold start — he made five of his first 26 attempts — the work began to show. From Nov. 12 until Jan. 13, Hayes knocked down 37% of his 4.2 attempts per game over 30 games. He averaged 12.4 points and 6.7 assists, shooting 43.1% overall during that span.

After Cade Cunningham went down, Hayes put together his longest stretch of efficient offensive play. He hit the game-clinching 3-pointers in overtime against the Dallas Mavericks, walked with a different swagger and looked like a player on the cusp of permanently turning things around.

“It feels good to finally get on the side where things start working for you,” Hayes said after the Pistons clipped the Mavs, 131-125, on Dec. 1. “Just gotta keep working. I put in a lot of work. I have the trust from coach, all my teammates, they’re always pushing me every day. It feels good.”

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That two-month stretch, in addition to Hayes’ final two games of the season, were outliers. After Jan. 13, he shot 35.1% overall and 21.1% from 3 in 33 games. He was moved to the bench for a stretch. Couple that with his 27.4% overall, 19.2% splits over his first 13 games, and it’s clear why his final percentages don’t reflect the growth he showcased for a time.

Hayes was the NBA’s least-efficient player for the third season in a row. And while his 82.1% free throw percentage is healthy, he only took 112 attempts. Only 13 players who played more than 2,000 minutes had fewer attempts; none are lead ball-handlers like Hayes.

He needs at least one reliable skill to impact the scoreboard. If it’s not his 3-point shooting, he could compensate by getting to the foul line more frequently. His final two games showed previously unseen upside in that area, as he knocked down 14 of his combined 15 attempts. He previously only had one game in his career with at least seven free throw attempts. Then he did it in consecutive games to finish the season.

What led to that late outburst?

“Just from watching other guys get to the line with ease,” Hayes said afterwards. “Just picking things from their game that I can add to my game, especially seeing where their hands are, trying to promote contact that way and getting to the free throw line.

“(Alec Burks) is a great example of getting to the line, especially on screens and all that. He’s able to get free throws off of that. I’ve just been watching him all season, so I’m trying to.”

Several Pistons have referenced Burks’ knack for drawing fouls on jumpers, and Hayes did his best impersonation by subtly contorting his body and taking shots when he knew defenders were likely to make contact with him. Two games, especially at the end of a long season with key players resting, is far too small a sample size to draw conclusions, but it’s something he can build on this offseason.

Hayes will enter 2024 as a restricted free agent if no extension is agreed upon before the fall deadline. The Pistons, with Cunningham and Jaden Ivey, have incentive to let the extension deadline pass and allow the market to set Hayes’ value a year from now.

If that happens, it’ll give Hayes extra incentive to make sure his fourth season has a stronger beginning, middle and end.

Listen to “The Pistons Pulse” every Tuesday morning and on demand on freep.com or wherever you listen to podcasts. Catch all of our podcasts and daily voice briefing at freep.com/podcasts.

Contact Omari Sankofa II at osankofa@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @omarisankofa.

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