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Killian Hayes and the development dilema

Killian Hayes is an exceptionally young NBA player. He's just 20 years old, still in his second NBA season. From an age perspective, he wouldn't look out of place in this year's upcoming draft.


Also through those first two seasons the numbers Hayes has posted are, for the most part, exceptionally ugly.


Both of these things are true.


After missing most of last season due to injury, but still struggling mightily in the box score arena, it's begged the question: when do the Pistons move on?


National media and podcasters have scoffed off Hayes all season, while Pistons fans are more mixed. You can put me in the latter of that bunch, I think it'd be a shame to see the Pistons to part ways with Hayes prematurely.


It's always tough to determine when is actually premature and when it's just...time. To me, it's premature if it looks like there's still a NBA player there. Or, looking at it another way, if this player was a draft prospect, when would I take him?


By comparison, Sekou Doumbouya has never looked to me like a guy who I'd one day want in my team's rotation. There's a best case scenario where, sure. He has great size, he's athletic, could shoot it at times. That's the makings of an ideal power forward in today's game.


But I've never really seen an indication that all of that could come together. Most of that seemed with his intangibles - Dwane Casey regularly noted that Sekou didn't really seem to enjoy the basketball world. And watching him on the court, something just seemed to be missing. He's still very young and talented, and I hope it works out for him. But I'm glad it's not the Pistons investing in him.


Another comparison seems closer to Killian Hayes though: Stanley Johnson. He was a guy who always seemed to have a NBA player inside him to me, but after getting opportunity after opportunity, it was entirely reasonable for the Pistons to move on during his fourth season. He was still young at 22. Still had a great NBA build. Still competitive, solid defensively. But also hard to imagine what success looked like for him in a Pistons uniform - probably for both sides.


Looking back at the draft for when the Pistons dumped Johnson in 2019, it's hard to see Johnson going before the second round. Even then, it might have been late second.


I was always a fan of Johnson. A game I covered in Denver stands out to me where a couple hours before the game he was running drills at a level of intensity way higher than anyone else out there. He was dripping sweat and clearly putting in the work. But that work was centered on a lot of midrange jumpers, three pointers off the bounce, and other stuff that I questioned "Is that really what he should be focusing on?"


With Johnson, there always seemed to be a disconnect between the type of player he wanted to be and the type of player where he'd be successful.


But finally this year, we're finally seeing the player Johnson had in him all along. Only now, it's for the Lakers. His usage is much lower than his days with the Pistons, he's keeping it simple, making some shots and playing solid defense. His shot attempts are coming off passes rather than trying to create his own. More corner threes. Fewer long twos.


He's perhaps the only success story in the Lakers world this year, but hopefully his homecoming has finally set him up to be a valuable player in the league. Even if it took until his seventh season to get there.


***


There's a lot to like about Hayes. He seems to be a smart guy, sometimes to the fault of overthinking out on the court. He's a good ball-handler, an excellent passer, has nice court vision. Extremely unselfish - also sometimes to a fault. But he seems to have benefited from watching Cory Joseph and has flashed more of that downhill play that benefits CoJo so much. He has great poise for his age. His defense is terrific and he has outstanding size for his position.


I've heard lots of national folks talk about Hayes not fitting next to Cade Cunningham and, frankly, they're crazy. I'm not sure you could design a backcourt partner for Cade better than that. You know, except for that one thing.


He can't score. My goodness, he can't score. It's amazing how he can't score.


Hayes is boasting a shooting line of 38/26/78 for the year, which is ominously similar to his line last year of 35/27/82. And he's not really shooting well anywhere. He's been poor on catch-and-shoot opportunities (31 percent), he's been poor on pullups (25 percent). Whether he's taken 0 dribbles, 7+ dribbles, or anything in between, he's below 40 percent from the field on all of them. He's been ok at the rim (55 percent in the restricted area), but even that number isn't great and he struggles to get all the way to the rim, usually settling for a floater or short jumper.


It's certainly concerning. Particularly because he doesn't really seem to be doing anything wrong. Johnson always struggled with his shooting efficiency, but more of a result of trying to do too much and taking bad shots. Hayes is taking shots he should and probably could stand to be even more aggressive. They just aren't going in.


And there doesn't seem to be anything mechanical. Johnson changed up his three point shot every year and it was always ugly. Hayes' shot looks good. It looks clean. It just doesn't go in.


There are a few clear weaknesses with him, like his over-reliance on his left hand and his lack of physicality leading to a lack of free throws. But the rest of it is just a bit baffling.


I have trouble believing that Hayes isn't a NBA player and that this is the type of scorer he's destined to be for his career. I don't think he's ever going to be a microwave scorer and that's ok. A reliable shooter who can occasionally attack the defense is all he really needs to be, especially next to Cade Cunningham, Saddiq Bey, and the Pistons upcoming lottery player. But he does need to provide that - and next year.


The Pistons have been patient with Hayes so far, but the sand in the hourglass is moving. It's reasonable to expect they'll stick with him through the 2022-23 season, but after that? If he's still a sub-50 percent true shooting player, that hourglass sand will start running low.


Which is tough, because like with Stanley Johnson before him, the Pistons will have invested significant minutes into his development. That'd make it just to see that investment finally pay off for some future team.


***


Does it really matter though? Let's say Killian eventually pans out to achieve a realistic expectation for his potential. That he's the same solid defensive and passing player as ever, a nice steady presence, and one who can score at an average efficiency. Is that really enough upside to keep investing in him?


That's questionable, for sure. My vote is yes though, particularly given this team's construction.


This roster has a number of guys who look for their own shot, especially if they bring back Marvin Bagley, and are more than happy to benefit from Hayes' unselfishness. A really good glue guy can be a valuable player, especially next to a star player. And if it all works out with Hayes, he's probably not looking at an exorbitantly expensive second contract. Locking in a guy who can be a long term fit next to Cade could be beneficial for stability and a player who could exceed his contract number.


I also like the flexibility he can provide for continued roster construction. Given his size and style of play, it opens up a number of options. For instance, Collin Sexton seems destined for a change of uniforms from the Cavs, given that he's due for a new contract, coming off a torn meniscus, and his non-ideal fit next to Darius Garland. He was talking about a $100 million deal prior to his injury, but could be had for a much lower number this summer. He's too small to work for most teams, but absolutely could for the Pistons with their other backcourt size.


Maybe he doesn't wind up wearing a Pistons jersey, but it's Killian's presence that makes Sexton a realistic possibility. And a 23 year old who posted 24.9 points per game on 57.3 percent true shooting percentage could be quite a nice addition for the Pistons.


He's similar to Isaiah Stewart in that way. Not a perfect player by any means, a guy that you say you "don't want as a starter," but gives a ton of fungibility. You can play them next to nearly anyone and they help guys who have more extreme strengths/weaknesses work better.


***


Surplus value of a player exceeding his contract or creating roster flexibility to add dynamic players at other spots isn't the sexiest value. But it's value nonetheless.


Ultimately, it'll be Hayes' performance that determines his long-term future with the Pistons. Either the shots eventually go in or they don't.


In the meantime, it's worthwhile for the Pistons to continue to be patient and give Hayes his shot. And it's worthwhile for fans to be patient as well. For a while, at least.

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