If you’re looking for a silver lining in Killian Hayes’ injury-derailed rookie season, here’s a good place to start: Just listen to what he had to say after the Pistons’ final game Sunday night.
“Man, it feels like for me, personally, I thought it was a short season,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like it’s over.”
And that’s important, because as the Pistons’ 19-year-old point guard seems to understand, this is only the beginning. Of both the process and the pressure, the growth and the expectations.
Ask Hayes, last year’s No. 7 overall pick out of France, what he learned from his abbreviated rookie season — one that saw him play in just 26 games after missing three months with a torn hip labrum — and he’ll answer quickly.
“That I got a lot of work (to do),” Hayes said. “This is a big offseason awaiting all of us, to just get it right.”
And right or wrong, much of the focus will be on last year’s lottery pick, who remains very much a work in progress after an introduction that certainly didn’t go as planned. First came a pandemic that wiped out last summer’s NBA orientation for Hayes, and then came an injury that paused his on-the-job training.
“Hey, it’s part of it,” general manager Troy Weaver said, as the Pistons wrapped up a 20-52 season that gives them the second-best odds in next month’s NBA draft lottery. “It’s tough sledding for a point guard, always for a rookie point guard, at 19 years old. But it’s what he signed up for, it’s what we signed him up for. There’s gonna be growing pains and he’s definitely had them, but we’re happy with the person, the work ethic and where he’s headed.”
And to that point, he’s headed nowhere this summer, really. The plan for Hayes and the rest of the Pistons’ young roster is to stick around Detroit for much of the offseason. They’ll take part in a strength and conditioning program the first few weeks in June and work with the Pistons’ coaches and development staff before some of them — including Hayes — take part in the NBA’s Summer League in August.
“What does the summer look like for the rookies? What the summer looks like for the entire Detroit Pistons,” Weaver said Monday. “This offseason is gonna be a lot of blood, sweat and tears.”
But no regrets. Not from Weaver when it comes to his initial draft pick in Detroit, selecting the 6-foot-5 Hayes from among a handful of prospects last November, including Sacramento’s Tyrese Haliburton, another point guard who’s a lock to earn NBA All-Rookie honors.
“All of them aren’t gonna come in and knock it out of the park, and this one is taking a little longer,” Weaver said. “But I’m still extremely confident in this player, no doubt about it. I think he has tremendous potential, and I’m excited to see his growth.”
Hayes’ upside is undeniable, but the key to unlocking much of it is shooting, and head coach Dwane Casey says that’ll be a focal point for him this summer, improving his balance and his release.
But there’s plenty of room for improvement elsewhere in his game as well. Because while Casey notes Hayes already has an “elite” skill as a passer, there’s a time-and-place element to it that still needs to mature.
“He has a great feel for passing and he sees the floor,” Casey said. “But now the decision is when that pass isn’t there, ‘Do I shoot the runner? Do I take another dribble and get to the rim?’ … All those things take time. But those are the areas that he has to work on this summer.”
And when he does, Casey wants to make sure Hayes, who shot just 35% from the field and 28% from three-point range, does it with an understanding all rookies learn, one way or another. The NBA doesn’t wait around long for you to make a decision, on the court or off it.
So now that the Pistons’ “Core Four” — as Weaver calls the rookie class of Hayes, Saddiq Bey, Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee — have seen how fast the game moves at this level, and how long the defenders’ arms are and how strong the bodies are that they’re fighting for position with, they need to pick up their own development pace.
In Hayes’ case, that means making sure “he does everything at a high speed, whether it’s his shooting drills, his workout drills, whatever it is … to get used to the speed of the NBA game,” Casey said. That’ll help him with his shot and his release, but also his conditioning level, which clearly was an issue late in the season as Hayes reclaimed a starting role, averaging nearly 32 minutes a night over the final two weeks.
“I think as his minutes started to increase, he took a little step back defensively,” Casey said. “He has the strength, the body and the physicality to be an elite defender. That’s the area I thought was way ahead before he got hurt. He’s gotta get back to that and I know he can and he will.”
If he does, and if Hayes can take a big step as a scorer next season, so will this Pistons team, which will add another cornerstone piece with a likely top-five pick in this summer’s draft.
But for now, though, the message from the top is clear “This 20 wins is not happening again,” Weaver said and so is this summer’s soundtrack, if you will.
“The NBA is tough,” Weaver said. “You’ve gotta be ready every night to compete and fight. And understand that there’s no easy way out. If you want to be successful in this league and be a good player, you gotta fight for it. I mean, one of the best songs ever made — people laugh about and joke about it — but ‘You gotta fight for your right to party.’ If you want to be a really good player, you gotta fight for it. So the Beastie Boys were on point.”
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