Killian Hayes: Patience & Comfort
On first steps, transitioning to a connector piece, defensive versatility and more
“Patience is a bitter plant, but its fruit is sweet.”
Thanks to a few rookies who have come in a made instant impacts, the NBA has become a cruel breeding ground for impatience with young players. In particular, that impatience exists for rookies who are thrown into larger roles on rebuilding teams. They’re given a longer leash early in their careers and expected, at the very least, to put up numbers while they iron out the kinks in their game and figure out how to win.
In Detroit, Killian Hayes was believed to be a guy they’d hand the keys to as general manager Troy Weaver embarked on a bit of a rebuilding project. Hayes, drafted in 2020 out of France, came in hyped as a left-handed wunderkind. He was great in ball screens and transition, a fantastic passer and could finish at the hoop from all he showed with Ulm.
At 6’5” with a 6’8” wingspan, Hayes was one of those big guards that become incredibly fascinating. Natural playmaking feel while seeing over the top of the defense means multiple types of passes can be delivered. Bodying smaller defenders as a finisher is a great trait for guys who can drive to the basket.
Hayes didn’t shoot the ball well pre-draft and there were many worries about his off-ball prowess. He was better off the bounce, indicative of his reliance on rhythm and a disconnect between his lower body and upper body mechanics. As a result, many draft pundits (myself included) saw Hayes as someone who would make his money through on-ball reps.
The passing was Hayes’ best trait, but his isolation scoring wasn’t far behind. He looked great off of step-backs and had excellent footwork into his shot. His mid-range pull-up appeared solid, and the floater was a dependable counter for him.
Only a few months into Hayes’ time with the Detroit Pistons, it was clear we missed on one major area with his evaluation: the quickness. Killian is limited by a subpar first step, and it’s a major flaw for someone with dreams as a primary creator. If Hayes can’t get past his primary defender, the passing is limited: he won’t draw help defenders, giving him fewer open teammates to hit.
Similarly stunted is his finishing, an area he already wasn’t elite at. Hayes is fairly left-hand dominant, but he would rely on the floaters going to his left instead of getting all the way to the rim. Floaters are a great counter for smaller guards who can’t take contact on the interior or need teardrops over bigs. For Killian, it became a crutch and a bailout because he couldn’t get to the rim. We saw that manifest itself in Hayes’ rookie season with fewer than one free throw attempt per game and, in the 26 games he played, more runners (44) than attempts at the rim (36).
The runners weren’t very successful, though. He’d get pushed wide on his drives or blocked from behind. Space simply wasn’t there for him to take his time:
When you aren’t a great shooter, teams play farther off you. If you don’t have the quickness to create separation from them even when they play off, there’s no way to gain an advantage.
Hayes also was so worried about trying to use his right hand at the rim that he smoked almost every finish opportunity going right. He’d default to his left hand and try to flick shots across his body, leaving points on the board as a result:
Put those together in this possession against the Portland Trail Blazers. A lack of burst plus a wrong-hand finish that’s floater-reliant and this sums up Hayes’ first season in Detroit:
An early injury derailed his development, but he frankly didn’t look great at any point. Scoring was hard to come by, both in terms of conversion and presentation. Clean looks never found Hayes, as he didn’t separate from guys on drives and passed up open catch-and-shoot looks thanks to his obvious need for mechanical tweaks. He shot only 32.6% on catch-and-shoot jumpers, including a dreadful 4-20 when he was closely guarded.
For many prospects, there’s a major learning curve in coming to the NBA. For Hayes, this was different. All the facets of his game he used to be able to rely on — strength, length, athleticism and overall playmaking — were hindered in a league where his athleticism was simply not going to cut it. For most players, their flaws can be broken through repetition, teaching and time. Hayes’ naturally slow first step wasn’t going to be broken.
If there was a positive takeaway from the 2020-21 year, it was that Hayes was a pretty good passer. He involved players and didn’t often miss open guys. He was very willing, processed the game quickly and made the right play. That might seem small when stacked up to all that he did poorly, but it’s an important foundation to start rebuilding Hayes confidence and knowing where to start in placing him in positions to succeed.
As the ping pong balls helped the Pistons out, Cade Cunningham came to Motown as the top pick in the 2021 NBA Draft. The sudden arrival of an alpha creator with the ball in his hands relieved Killian of those responsibilities. Clarity was coming to his role, as it was for the best to abandon a primary creator emphasis and move Hayes into a more unique offensive offering.
Reinventing Hayes role meant altering his game to fit within it. In a short period of time, we’ve seen Killian begin to turn himself into a connector piece, someone who isn’t the fulcrum of an attack but the glue that brings all the pieces together. With his IQ and natural passing instincts, he’s a natural at understanding how to play, even off-ball.
Of course, the biggest key to getting Hayes to be respected with fewer touches (and make the pairing of he and Cade work long-term) lies within his shooting development. If Hayes knocks down shots from the perimeter in spot-up situations, the finishing issues are less of an issue (note: they’re still an issue, just less of one).
Early in year #2, Hayes’ jumper looks a lot more fluid. It’s going in more, and his confidence is growing quickly. Just look at the development in less than two years in his jump shot. He’s made great strides in preparing himself pre-catch and getting his footwork consistent, which gives the rest of his body dependability on which his release can depend upon:
Again, by no means is Hayes good as an off-ball threat. But he’s growing, and improvements, even if they’re slight, are worth celebrating.
The reason improvements to his offensive game are so important: Hayes has legitimately proven to be a terrific defender. He’s not just good for a second-year pro, he’s good on the whole. The defense alone earns him minutes, now it’s up to the offense to catch up.
Killian was good as a rookie. He was active, used his size and length well and was stronger than many rookie guards. This year, we’re seeing his confidence on that end come out every night. Hayes is a sparkplug, pressing opponents and getting into their grill. He uses his active hands well, has some spry demonstrations of lateral quickness and takes pride in the role of being a lockdown, multi-positional defender.
He was great in many facets against the Cleveland Cavaliers last week, guarding nearly every position and having success.
The Cavaliers game isn’t the only example of such strong defense from Hayes. He locked down fellow lefty Goran Dragic when they faced the Toronto Raptors, rode Lonzo Ball all the way out of scoring zone in an isolation and successfully funneled Zach LaVine to the corner of the basket and towards his rim protecting teammate.
Hayes simply looks more comfortable this year, even if the layups aren’t going in and the numbers strongly echo his rookie season. He’s loving playing hard on defense and thriving as an excellent on-ball defender.
We’re seeing Hayes embrace and thrive within this role right before our eyes. Instead of letting the offensive challenges sour how we view Killian, we’re encouraged by the growth and impact on defense that allows him to still get minutes, to still be counted upon and play through the rough patches on offense. At the very least, now the Pistons know what to expect out of Hayes as they restock their roster.
Being a young player in the NBA is about finding your comfort zone quickly. Playing against the greatest collection of basketball talent in the world on a nightly basis can be humbling, turning guys who were stars at every stop of their lives into minuscule role players or guys who don’t even make it off the bench. The best of the best rise to the top quickly. For everyone else, surviving is equal parts about how they conform and how they perform.
The ones who make it in this league find out what their optimal role will be early on and embrace it. That’s why a second-year guy like Deni Avdija is thriving with the Wizards: he’s embracing his role as a do-it-all defender. Hayes is quickly conforming to what the Pistons need from him and what he’ll need to last in this league: play great defense, move the ball, knock down open shots and play his ass off.
At his peak, Hayes is likely to be more like a Lonzo Ball than a LaMelo Ball. He’d be the great connector piece who thrives on his help defense as much as his individual lockdowns, his extra passes as much as his pick-and-roll dimes, scoring without the dribble instead of with it. For a Pistons fanbase that expected the world out of Killian ahead of the draft, that might sound like a disappointment. But the entire scouting process is about finding talented players who help your team win. We’re confident that Hayes is learning how to do that, even if it’s different than what many expected thirteen months ago.