This is what potential looks like.
In a late-November game between North Carolina and Texas played in Las Vegas, the Tar Heels senior forward Luke Maye, on the dead run just outside the free-throw line, split two Longhorn defenders and grabbed a perfect pass from freshman point guard Coby White. He seemed bound for an easy layup.
But before Maye could complete the play, Jaxson Hayes, Texas’ 6-foot-11 freshman center with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, made up about six feet of separation with one stride, left the floor outside the restricted area arc and pinned Mayes’ shot against the backboard with two hands.
"Just the ferociousness and violence with which he blocked the shot,” says Texas coach Shaka Smart, his voice trailing off as his mind pulled up the image of Maye wondering how the hell a sure basket had been snuffed out. “It was just one block. Just one play. But you were like, ‘Yeah, he’s gonna play in the NBA for a long time. It’s just a matter of when.’ ”
Michigan State associate head coach Dwayne Stephens, who had been scouting the game because Texas was the Spartans’ opponent the next day, seemed much more certain about Hayes’ timetable when he ran into his good friend, former Texas associate head coach Darrin Horn.
“The first words out of his mouth,” says Horn, now the head coach at Northern Kentucky, “were ‘Yeah, ya’ll won’t be able to keep him.’ There were like 35 NBA scouts there. No question that was an ah-ha moment for everybody.”
Sure enough, there was more to come from Hayes. Texas under Smart has gotten the reputation of producing one-and-done big men -- Jarrett Allen was the 22nd pick in the 2017 draft and Mo Bama was the No. 6 a year ago -- and Hayes is going to join them after a season in which he averaged 10 points and five rebounds, was voted Big 12 Freshman of the Year, second-team All-Big 12 and chosen to the league’s All-Freshman, All-Newcomer and All-Defensive teams. Hayes announced early last month after helping Texas win the NIT he was entering the NBA Draft, where, if the various mock drafts are any indication, he’ll be a lottery pick.
“He just kept getting better and better,” Smart says. “There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to do that.”
NBA scouts and general managers make their bones by judging potential. For every Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, or, in the 2019 Draft, Zion Williamson -- can’t miss prospects -- there are countless others whose NBA futures have to be projected. Though Hayes earned all those accolades, he’s not in Williamson’s class -- even though Hayes blocked one of Williamson’s shots in an AAU game -- and didn’t leave behind a ton of gaudy statistics.
“Clearly the NBA guys see the potential,” Smart says. “This guy didn’t have a double-double [in points and rebounds] all year. You can do the research, but I challenge you to find a 6-11 kid who’s going to be a top-10 pick that never had a double-double. I’m not saying that negatively. Some guys are picked for what they can do in a shorter term. The bigger they are, the longer they are, it’s more about potential.”
He just kept getting better and better. There’s no reason to think he won’t continue to do that.”
Hayes did put up some impressive numbers. He finished third in the Big 12 in blocked shots. He shot 82.3 from the free-throw line (51-for-62) in league games. And he obliterated the Texas single-season record for field-goal percentage (72.8). Dexter Pittman shot 65.4 in 2009-10. Allen’s success ratio from the floor was 72.9.
Of course, Allen dunked a lot. Smart and Horn, who coached the Texas big men, kept things relatively simple for Hayes, in part because they thought they would have him longer and didn’t want to overload him as a rookie. Hayes took only one jump shot all season. But the Texas coaches also knew they had a weapon in Hayes’ athleticism.
“Of the three big kids we had the last three years, Jaxson is the best mover of the bunch,” Horn says. “Jarrett’s a terrific sprinter, but Jaxson is right there. Mo’s skilled, he can shoot, and he’s a really good passer. But in terms of being a basketball mover -- quickness, sprinting, moving in space … being able to catch the ball on the roll and contort his body because a help defender has slid in front of him, stuff like that, he’s the best mover of the bunch. The most athletically gifted.”
Texas teaches all its bigs to play on balance, to compete and to get in position to explode to the rim. Hayes didn’t need much coaching on the latter point.
“We had no idea how good he would be offensively from the standpoint of when he was rolling to the rim or on the move in transition,” Horn says. “He could take the ball, and in one fluid motion flush it. Where most guys, even if they have good hands and can catch it, they have to gather themselves. Jaxson can catch that thing and get off the floor so quickly in stride before anyone knows what happened and be dunking on you.”
Besides the obvious, it’s easy to see why NBA scouts have been intrigued by Hayes’ potential. His father Jonathan played 12 seasons in the NFL as a 6-foot-5, 250-pound tight end. His mother Kristi played college basketball at Drake and in her senior season of high school in Iowa averaged 52 points.
Hayes didn’t follow in his mother’s footsteps, at least not right away. He played football at famed Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati until he grew so tall that, as a wide receiver, he was too big a target for opposing defensive backs.
Switching to basketball seemed a more natural fit, but he wasn’t instantly successful. Hayes didn’t start as a junior and averaged about six minutes and two points a game. But his size and athleticism nevertheless attracted attention.
The first school to offer a scholarship was Middle Tennessee State. Before he became the 2018-19 Southeastern Conference coach of the year at Ole Miss, Kermit Davis spent 16 years at Middle Tennessee, where he put together some great teams by having a keen eye for hidden talent. Davis remembers the first time he saw Hayes on film after getting tipped off by a friend in Ohio. Hayes had just completed his junior season.
“I watched two minutes of video, picked up the phone and called his high school coach and offered a scholarship,” Davis says.
Hayes and his father visited Middle Tennessee, and Davis and assistant coach Ronnie Hamilton had high hopes of nabbing Hayes before anyone else could. Then came summer AAU ball.
“We were there for his first AAU game that spring when he played against Zion Williamson,” says Hamilton, who’s now on Davis' staff at Ole Miss. “He didn’t score a lot but battled against Zion, ran the floor like a deer, rebounded the ball. Coach Davis and I said he was going to soar past the Conference USA level.”
Soar past it Hayes did. By the end of the summer, Hayes, who had barely played as a junior, had more than 40 scholarship offers, many from power conference schools. One of them was Texas.
“It took me like 12 seconds,” Horn says. “I watched him run the floor, and then back down the floor on the other end, where he grabbed a ball that came off the rim kind of sideways -- just launched up and grabbed one that nobody else on the floor could even come close to. I called Shaka and said ‘Coach, just how this dude moves alone, yes, he’s good enough.’ ”
Hayes and his family liked Smart and his coaches and were impressed by Texas’ development of big men. Little did anyone realize how fast Hayes would develop and be gone for the NBA. But the signs were all around, even early in the season.
“After watching him a ton the spring and summer before his senior year of high school, I thought he would definitely be an NBA guy, but that it might take two or three years,” Hamilton says. “So, I was a little surprised how quickly he adapted to the college game. I remember when I was scouting Georgia -- Texas had played them -- and watching film. I said to myself, ‘Jaxson’s a lottery guy now.’”
So how far can Hayes progress in the NBA? Smart thinks a long way.
“It’s a very safe bet that he’s going to have a ridiculous body [Hayes played at about 220 pounds this season] in the next three to five years,” Smart says. “His dad is a mountain of a man. Obviously, the NBA people see that.
“As far as his game, he’s going to be able to make jumpers. He’s going to put the ball on the floor. The way the NBA’s going, he’ll probably eventually shoot 3s. The kid’s just a puppy. Who knows what he’s capable of doing?”
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