2020-21 Rewind: Under tough circumstances, Hayes gave Pistons reasons to bank on his future

Killian Hayes
Killian Hayes came back from a three-month injury absence to finish the season strong after the Pistons made him the No. 7 pick in the 2020 NBA draft
Chris Schwegler (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Dizzying doesn’t quite begin to cover the disorientation Killian Hayes must have felt late last fall and into the winter. An ocean away from his native France, embarking on a professional career at 19, dropped into a setting with people who were complete strangers mere days earlier and put in position to lead them – and expected to compete in a zero-sum game against the world’s elite in his chosen field.

There wasn’t much mystery why Hayes, the player the Pistons chose with the No. 7 pick in the November 2020 draft, didn’t set the world on fire immediately. There’s no way to spin the early January hip injury that cost him three months of his rookie season as a positive, but hitting the pause button might at least have had the effect of letting the world stop spinning at a million miles an hour for the French product.

Through it all, Hayes gave nightly glimpses of why the Pistons were so enthusiastic about his future – the elite vision, the zip on his passes, the size at his position. Here’s a look at Hayes’ 2020-21 season:

PROFILE: 6-foot-5 point guard, 19 years old, 1 NBA season
2020-21 STATS: 6.8 points, 5.3 assists in 26 minutes per game
STATUS: Hayes still has three years remaining on the rookie contract he signed in November 2020

A LOOK BACK: Hayes was born in Lakeland, Fla., but grew up in France where his father, ex-Penn State great DeRon Hayes (12.9 career scoring average in 122 games), was playing professionally. DeRon Hayes played in Sweden, Ukraine and Russia before settling in France in 1998 with Cholet, the pro club Killian debuted with as a 16-year-old. Killian spent two seasons with Cholet, averaging 7.2 points and 3.1 assists in 20 minutes a game as a 17-year-old, before playing in Germany in 2019-20 for the opportunity to play as a full-time point guard after playing both backcourt spots with Cholet. In 10 EuroCup games as an 18-year-old for Ratiopharm Ulm, Hayes averaged 12.8 points and 6.2 assists in 27 minutes a game and showed marked improvement in game management and taking care of the basketball as his season progressed. Hayes also shot 39 percent from the 3-point line and 91 percent from the foul line in EuroCup play. He declared for the 2020 draft with the wide expectation he would be a lottery pick. Despite not having the opportunity to attend the NBA draft combine or work out with and against other draft prospects for NBA teams amid pandemic protocols, Hayes stayed in the draft and wound up being picked No. 7 by the Pistons.

THE SEASON THAT WAS: Hayes was the opening night starter at point guard, five weeks after the Nov. 18 draft, despite having no conventional rookie off-season – no Summer League, no skills or conditioning programs devised by his team, no chance to imbed himself with a coaching staff as a rookie typically would. He struggled through the first seven games, shooting 28 percent, before a Jan. 4 hip injury suffered in a loss at Milwaukee appeared to threaten his season. Initially thought to be a torn labrum, Hayes’ diagnosis was altered to reflect a right hip subluxation or partial dislocation. With surgery off the table, Hayes went on a regimen of rest and rehabilitation and was able to return three months and 41 games later. He played 19 games, making 11 starts, after his return and improved his scoring (4.6 to 7.8), rebounding (1.1 to 3.2) and assist (3.6 to 5.9) numbers while shooting 38 percent. When the Pistons created more opportunity for their rookies and other young players late in the season, Hayes appeared comfortable playing alongside fellow rookie point guard Saben Lee and expressed his enthusiasm for playing off of the ball at times. At 6-foot-5 with a solid frame and a 6-foot-8 wingspan, Hayes arrived with a reputation for being an advanced defender for a teenager and lived up to his billing with the Pistons.

A LOOK AHEAD: The Pistons fully expect a significant step forward for Hayes in his second season after a concentrated summer of both skills development and a strength and conditioning regimen. As he matures physically, Hayes’ size and strength should become a major advantage for him when paired with his above-average vision and feel for manipulating pick-and-roll scenarios. Hayes showed marked progress after his early-April return in picking his spots in penetration and as a finisher, though his rate of 0.9 free throws per 36 minutes reflects the need for him to become better at drawing and playing through contact at the rim. Given his size and frame plus Dwane Casey’s preference for playing with multiple ballhandlers and playmakers, the likelihood is that Hayes will spend a good chunk of his future minutes playing alongside another point guard. But there’s no confusion about how the Pistons see Hayes: He’s a point guard who has the ability to play off the ball. Improving his 3-point shooting is a must, but also a reasonable expectation given his elite free-throw ability, a reliable predictor of a successful 3-point evolution.

MONEY QUOTE: “We’ve got a great future. We have a fun team. We love playing with each other. We love sharing the ball. We love seeing each other succeed. I love my teammates. We’ve got a bright future.” – Killian Hayes after a May 9 loss to Chicago in which he and his three fellow 2020 draft classmates Isaiah Stewart, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee combined to score 73 points, grab 22 rebounds and dish out 19 assists.

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