The version of the Pistons in evidence since mid-February, one that’s gone 8-8 over 16 games despite an assortment of injuries to key players, is the baseline for what Troy Weaver and Dwane Casey expect of the 2022-23 version.
They’ll add another lottery pick and at least one key veteran with the bounty of cap space they’ll possess, but the biggest jump they anticipate will come from the collective improvement of the 10 players 23 or younger under team control for next season.
The fact that collective improvement is inexorably coming puts the onus on the individuals who make up the collective to take as many strides as possible – or risk falling behind in a race for playing time that will be measured by different means next season.
“These games are important,” Dwane Casey said of the final few handfuls of games remaining on this year’s schedule and their evaluation value for the future. “Guys are growing. This is the time to do that with a lack of repercussions. Next year, it could cost you a game.”
The question was directly about Killian Hayes and losing recent games with a hip injury. Hayes just this week played his 82nd career game – a full NBA season – after missing three months of his rookie season with a more serious hip injury and various stretches of this season to a variety of reasons.
Casey the next day softened that characterization, making clear he wasn’t singling out Hayes so much as signaling a shift in direction for the franchise. Where the past two seasons have been foremost about player development, the Pistons expect to compete on more conventional terms next season.
“That was a little flippant,” Casey said, “but it is important that he comes out and this is part of him growing. All the rookies, all the second-year (players) – that’s what we’re made up of. So for us to make a big step next year, they’ve got to show progress and improvement this year and this summer. The games are for them – all of them, not just him.”
On Wednesday in a 122-101 win over Atlanta, Hayes put together exactly the type of outing that if achieved consistently will cement his spot in the franchise’s future: 13 points, eight rebounds, five assists and a steal on 5 of 9 shooting, 1 of 2 from the 3-point arc and 2 of 3 free throws in 33 rock-solid minutes.
If it was one of his better games of his second season, it was also more in line with what Hayes has shown during the post All-Star surge that extrapolated over a full season would have the Pistons in line for the play-in tournament.
Stand next to Hayes and you’re surprised by his thick frame and his length. Look at his face and you’re reminded how painfully young he still is at 20, two months older than Cade Cunningham and the second-youngest player on one of the NBA’s youngest teams. Hayes was the seventh pick of the 2020 draft, taken at a spot where the expectations are heavy that impact will be instant and most likely be reflected in the scoring column.
But scoring is the least of what Hayes currently offers. He’s a plus defender, passer and rebounder for his position. He’s gotten markedly better over the course of the season at getting to the rim and has begun to demonstrate improved touch when he does. The swing factor for him now is the development of his perimeter shot, the thing that will determine whether at 22 he’s settled in as more a solid backup or a plus starter. Casey’s talked about a plan to get up 1,000 shots a day this summer.
“Coming in, it’s hard not to focus on those things,” Hayes said after Wednesday’s outing, talking about the expectations for lottery picks to be scorers first and foremost. “The more you go, you learn you can affect the game in different ways. Sometimes, your shot’s not going to hit. That’s not my only role.”
Hayes’ road to the NBA was filled with more potholes than a Michigan freeway after a mid-winter thaw-freeze cycle. The COVID-19 pandemic eliminated the typical rookie orientation, there were two weeks between the draft and training camp to compound the transition from Europe to the NBA and then came the hip injury in his eighth career game. A world going 100 miles an hour suddenly felt like it was spinning at double that rate.
But it’s slowing down for him now. Another solid few weeks to carry into the summer will go a long way. That’s why Casey was so hopeful Hayes could stay healthy and finish the season with a flourish.
“These games are for Killian,” Casey said. “The young man missed most of last year. These are development days and come this time next year, it’s not going to be about that.”
If 20-year-old Killian Hayes would have advice for the 18-year-old who two years ago contemplated the jump across the Atlantic, it would be to appreciate the demands of the everyday nature of the NBA schedule and not get overwhelmed by its turbulence.
“I’ll say that maybe the mental aspect of it – of playing every day – sometimes it can get into your head,” he said. “But you try to stay positive every day. Sometimes, like, it’s frustrating because you lose games, you win games. But it’s always staying level-headed. I think that’s the tough part.”
If staying level-headed engenders the type of even performances that have made up Hayes’ play more recently, then this version of Killian Hayes will be at the heart of the 2022-23 version of the Pistons that intends to be playing beyond the regular season’s conclusion.