Officially, Killian Hayes is embarking on his second NBA season. Practically, he’s every bit the rookie that fellow lottery pick Cade Cunningham is.
Hayes and Cunningham went through their first Summer League together in August, Hayes robbed of that and every other typical rookie orientation tool by the upheaval the COVID-19 pandemic forced upon the NBA. The 26 games Hayes logged in the 2020-21 season? One fewer than Cunningham played in his lone college season at Oklahoma State. And Hayes is all of two months older than Cunningham, who turned 20 last weekend.
The addition of Cunningham as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 draft has shifted the spotlight’s glare away from Hayes, the No. 7 pick last December. But inside the walls of the Pistons Performance Center, they understand the need to exercise equal amounts of patience with both of their precocious playmakers.
While they’re growing up, Hayes and Cunningham will attempt to grow together.
Hayes doesn’t think the learning curve on that project – two guys accustomed to having the ball in their hands to orchestrate offense learning how to divide those responsibilities – will be very severe.
“We’re both really smart players,” Hayes said on Thursday. “He has a really high basketball IQ. I think it’s not a hard adjustment. You see a lot of teams having two ballhandlers, creators, on the floor at the same time. It’s harder to guard.”
Hayes got about six weeks of run in to end his rookie season after missing three months and 41 games with a hip injury. The good news? He doesn’t even think about that any more. There were a few days in January where it was feared the injury, first thought to be a torn labrum but later diagnosed as a subluxation, a partial dislocation, could even be career threatening. Those six weeks he logged to end the season at least allowed Hayes to bank some experience so he doesn’t have to start from scratch.
“Way different,” he said about the comfort level now compared to last December, when training camp opened two weeks after the draft and he was meeting teammates for the first time in formal practices. “Everything was rushed. A lot of guys were here all summer working, We’ve been at it (as a team) since Sept. 1. Everything is more clear. Playing with a clear mind.”
Dwane Casey opened camp by saying he’d seen a different Hayes in the voluntary team workouts the Pistons underwent starting after Labor Day and leading to camp. That’s continued through the opening days of practice.
“Killian has done a heck of a job. I think he’s leading the team in assists,” Casey said. “Today he was pushing the ball, making the right basketball plays. He allowed the Blue team to score easily. I love the way he’s pushing the pace. He’s had the ball more so far. We have some dynamic scorers in Jerami (Grant), Saddiq (Bey) – we have some scoring – but we’ve got to have the guys who push the ball in transition, which Cade and Killian can do.”
Casey isn’t committing to any lineup combinations just yet, but you can pretty much bet on Hayes and Cunningham being in the starting lineup when the Pistons open the season against Chicago on Oct. 20. In addition to playing them together for the obvious reason – two lottery picks taken a year apart figure to be vital to any franchise’s future – Casey pointed out another and, in the process, tipped his hand as to one element of the starting lineup.
“It’s going to be a learning curve. That’s the type of expectations you have for young players. You expect that. There’s going to be some nights they can’t get it across half court, some nights they look great. That’s why the thought process is playing Killian and Cade at the same time. If you put the ball in one of their hands, it’s going to be an issue because of the lack of experience playing guys like (Marcus) Smart and Patrick Beverly. It wouldn’t be fair.”
They can full-court pressure one, but they can’t do it to both. So Hayes and Cunningham will divvy up the playmaking and shot creation duties and let the process of who settles into what role play out organically.
Veteran Cory Joseph arrived from Sacramento last season just ahead of Hayes’ return from injury and Casey – based on their time together in Toronto – knew Joseph would be an ideal veteran mentor for Hayes. Joseph, the type who brightens the mood of every locker room he inhabits, sees the same differences in posture with Hayes that Casey observed.
“One hundred percent,” he said. “I think last season was weird – coming in as a rookie, everything going on with COVID, getting injured. He was feeling his way. Now I think the number one thing, he’s playing with a lot of confidence. He’s just hooping, playing free and being Killian. He had a great summer and he’s had a great start to training camp, as well.”
“He’s confident,” Bey agreed. “Been playing very confident, very aggressive. You can see the development and growth he’s had.”