The Pistons laid an Easter egg, falling behind 14-0 and their starters pulled before scoring a basket, but the night was less notable for the season’s 35th loss than for the first appearance of rookie Killian Hayes in nearly three months.
That Hayes came out of it looking healthy and flashing the passing ability that helped convince the Pistons to make him their pick at No. 7 in the 2020 draft counts as a win. He played 20 minutes, moving without any hint of the hip injury that sidelined him in Milwaukee on Jan. 4, and now he has 23 more games over the next six weeks to get a foothold on his future as the quarterback of the Pistons offense.
“It felt good,” Hayes said of his return, which he said had been the targeted date for a while. “Been a long time since I’ve been on the court with my teammates. It just felt good to be back.”
There’s no question at this point that Hayes’ carrying tool is his passing skills with the vision and size to weaponize it. He wound up with three assists, but set up no less than a half-dozen open threes that were among the 19 misses on a night the Pistons shot just 32 from the 3-point line and 35 percent overall. The Knicks hit as many threes in the first quarter – nine – as the Pistons made for the game.
“That’s his gift right now,” Dwane Casey said after the 125-81 loss, the worst Pistons margin of defeat of the season by a wide margin, the 44-point gap beating the 118-91 loss to Golden State. “He competed. Nobody associated with the game can say very much about their performance. He’s not going to come out and be 100 percent right off the bat. He’s got to get his conditioning. A good first step.”
Hayes also finished with five rebounds – only centers Mason Plumlee (10) and Isaiah Stewart (seven) had more – and committed just one turnover, a pass that went out of bounds on a miscommunication issue, late in his appearance.
All in all, a satisfying return for the 19-year-old from France even if he went scoreless on two shots, one a 3-pointer.
“It was a lot of excitement, a lot of adrenaline,” Hayes said of his emotions in the days leading to Saturday’s return. “Also a little bit nervous because it’s been a while. Overall, I was just happy to be back there.”
Hayes wasn’t the only young backcourt player returning from injury for the Pistons – Dennis Smith Jr. also came back after being sidelined by lower-back soreness the past five games – and that means Casey is going to be challenged to find enough minutes to go around in a crowded backcourt.
Casey said before the game he’d look to play Hayes off of the ball – he was exclusively at point guard to start the season before the Jan. 4 hip subluxation suffered in Milwaukee – in large measure to take some playmaking responsibility off of the rookie’s shoulders. That eases the logjam at point guard some, but creates the same situation at the other backcourt spot.
Casey still used three other point guards – Lee made his fifth straight start, veteran Cory Joseph backed him up and Smith started the second half – while using Hayes, Josh Jackson and Wayne Ellington in lineups where Hamidou Diallo was the putative power forward. None of the perimeter players played more than Diallo’s 24 minutes with six of them – Saddiq Bey, Lee, Joseph, Ellington, Smith and Jackson – playing fewer than 20 minutes.
“You play well, you earn time,” Casey said. “We will get them in there and see how they do. But to stay on the floor, just because they are available doesn’t mean they are going to stay out there, make mistakes and not play hard. If you are available, you earn your time.”