Jaxson Hayes Q&A with Brian Davis

To gain more insight into one of the newest members of the New Orleans Pelicans – No. 8 overall NBA draft choice Jaxson Hayes – we caught up with Brian Davis, who covers the Texas Longhorns in football and men’s basketball for the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.

Davis provided his unique perspective on Hayes’ background off the court, as well as the center’s rapid rise from high-school afterthought to lottery pick:

Pelicans.com: It was reported that as a high school junior in Cincinnati, Hayes was not always even part of his team’s rotation, but he obviously has made immense strides since then in only two years. How would you describe the progress he’s made to turn into an NBA player so rapidly?

Davis: As a junior, he wasn’t really good enough to get extended time on the varsity. We’re talking about an athlete who did not start a varsity high school basketball game until his senior year. Hayes really burst onto the recruiting scene in the summer before his senior year. He had tremendous body growth and quickly drew interest from college coaches. That’s when Texas coach Shaka Smart and his assistants picked up the scent. Hayes wound up committing to UT before his senior year in high school. On the surface, it sounds almost unbelievable. But Hayes continued an upward trajectory as a high school senior and kept going during his one year in Austin. I do believe his background playing some high school football helped him with the physical nature of playing collegiate basketball. But he does need to get much stronger to last 82 games with grown men. To borrow an old airline pilot’s analogy, Hayes is someone who simply needs to log his 10,000 hours in the gym. He’s going to accumulate those hours much faster as a pro.

Pelicans.com: As the NBA draft approached, it seemed evident that he would be picked in the lottery, but there was disagreement for many players this year on exactly where they would land. What was your reaction and that of Texas fans to him being picked eighth? Davis: Frankly, I was stunned he went eighth overall. Most projections I saw had him just outside the top 10. But when you look at the landscape of who all was available, it helped that there wasn’t a plethora of 6-foot-11 athletes or 7-footers available. Just from a body frame standpoint, Hayes is unique, which made him attractive. Big body, soft hands, great leaping ability and a keen sense for blocks? I mean, who wouldn’t want that person on their team? Or, better phrased, who wouldn’t want to take a chance on that athlete?

Pelicans.com: What were some of the areas basketball-wise he improved from the start of his freshman season at Texas until the end? What do you think were the biggest factors behind why he was able to make so much progress?

Davis: Hayes’ school-record .728 shooting percentage was the result of mostly dunks and layups. Some nights, he was terrific – 5-for-5 vs. North Carolina, 6-for-6 vs. Purdue, 6-for-6 vs. Providence, 6-for-8 vs. Texas Tech, etc. If anything, one could make the argument that Texas’ guards didn’t get him enough chances. I’m not convinced he made dramatic strides as a freshman as much as he just got more comfortable as the season progressed.

Pelicans.com: What areas do you think he has the most room to make strides, or aspects of his game he may need to improve or adjust as he transitions to NBA competition?

Davis: The NBA loves stats and analytics. Here’s an odd stat on Hayes: the Big 12 freshman of the year never produced a single double-double. How does that happen? Well, Hayes needs to work on his rebounding technique. A lot of the rebounds he did get were ones that fell in his lap or he simply had the right positioning. Any 6-foot-11 leaper should be able to get 6-9 rebounds per night in college averaging 23 minutes.

Two years ago, Texas had Jarrett Allen, another eventual one-and-done big man drafted by the Nets. Through November and December, I truly felt this home-grown product was simply overrated. He looked lost on the court, wasn’t overly aggressive and coaches were somewhat protective of him. But January came, and Allen turned it on. He had 17 points and 10 rebounds at Baylor. Then, he went wild at Allen Fieldhouse, getting 22 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks against Kansas. Even savvy KU fans applauded his effort. “Still think he’s overrated?” Smart pointedly asked me in the hallway afterward. No, I didn’t. Allen dominated that game, even though Kansas won because… well, it was Kansas.

I’m reminded of this story, because Hayes never flat-out dominated anyone while at Texas. Now, was this because he was overmatched? No. Was he in over his head? No. It goes back to needing gym time. I have full confidence that if Hayes had stayed at UT a second year, he would have those dominating nights. Now that he’s in the NBA, there will be some nights he looks lost. I’d almost consider his first year a possible redshirt season. I also covered DeAndre Jordan in his one season at Texas A&M. Same issues with him. He wasn’t totally, 100-percent ready as an NBA rookie. But time and seasoning worked wonders.

“I have high expectations, so I feel like I can come in and make big-time plays,” Hayes told me in early May. “I’m not saying I’m going to come in and start, obviously. But I feel like I can contribute to a team.”

Pelicans.com: Immediately after the draft, many people wrote about his projected fit with Zion Williamson in the same New Orleans frontcourt. Based on what you saw in college basketball last season, how could Hayes’ strengths potentially complement Williamson on the court?

Davis: Just on the surface, I would think that Williamson and Hayes together make for the most intriguing frontcourt combo in the NBA. Why? Two talented rookies who can grow, fail, get up, thrive and learn together would be appealing. Both are dunk-happy players, though. Hayes must — all caps seem appropriate here, MUST — develop a mid-range shot. A good-enough 3-point shot would help as well. Both of these big men must be able to draw their defender away from the basket in various ways or there won’t be enough space for offensive flow.

Pelicans.com: Based on his draft-night interviews and interaction with the New Orleans media, he seems to be a very mature and poised individual, despite only being 19. How would you describe his personality off the court?

Davis: I’ll tell you this, Hayes is easily one of the best individuals I’ve covered in college athletics. His father, Jonathan, was an All-American at Iowa and had a long career in the NFL both as a player and assistant coach. His mother, Kristi, was one of the best women’s basketball players in Iowa history. Jaxson has grown up around athletes and athletics his entire life. One story he told me was particularly telling. He would go to NFL training camp with the Bengals, where he father was a tight ends coach, and watch “what not to do” as a pro athlete. He’s savvy and doesn’t suffer fools. Williamson will get the lion’s share of attention in NOLA, and rightfully so as the No. 1 overall pick. But Hayes will gather plenty of fans as time goes on.

Pelicans.com: What’s one thing even diehard Texas basketball fans may not know about Hayes? Davis: Mostly that he always wants to do right by those around him. Hayes suffered a knee injury at the Big 12 tournament when he knocked knees with another player. He was out six weeks and missed the Longhorns’ entire NIT championship run. The media was told it would not require surgery. So during this time off in mid-March, Hayes had plenty of time to think about his future. Obviously, it probably didn’t take him long to realize he was going pro. Now, most athletes would immediately pull out of school and start working toward the draft. But Hayes stayed in school to finish out the semester so UT wouldn’t be hurt on the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate scale. “I also want to come back and get my degree,” Hayes said in May. “The only way I can do that is finish in good standing this semester.”