Killian Hayes
(David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Killian Hayes gives a glimpse of his game in a big 4th quarter

He missed half of a rookie season that already was nothing like a typical rookie experience, gave his first-round draft mates a big head start and then got further pushed from public consciousness by the deserved hubbub that accompanied Cade Cunningham’s Detroit arrival.

But, word to the wise: Don’t write off Killian Hayes just yet.

Sunday’s fourth quarter encapsulated what a fully realized version of the French import could become when Hayes – at 20, just two months older than Cunningham – scored 10 points, hitting all five of his shots, and added the final two of his eight assists with pinpoint passing that could have easily elevated him to double-double status with a smidgen of fortune.

“I’ve got shoes older than him,” Dwane Casey said after the 118-105 loss to Minnesota – a game the Pistons trailed by just five points with three minutes to play. “Patience is paying off. I was really proud of him. I’m as hard on him as anyone. Every film session. He’s so tired of me getting on his behind that he’s picking it up and growing.”

Hayes has struggled to be effective in the paint, but that’s where he did almost all of his fourth-quarter work save for one deep 2-pointer. One play especially brought Casey satisfaction.

“He’s picking it up and growing and making those decisions,” Casey said. “I called one play, the whole lane opened up and he broke it off and got a dunk. Those are the kind of basketball instincts he’s playing with right now. A month ago he probably wouldn’t have done that.”

“Just taking what the defense gives me,” Hayes said. “I’m not going to force anything. I see an opening, I see a gap, I’m going to take it.”

With Cunningham missing his third straight game with the right hip pointer suffered in Tuesday’s loss to New Orleans – he tested it pregame but the Pistons chose to be cautious – Hayes and his fellow sophomores took center stage.

Saddiq Bey missed his first four shots and was scoreless for the first 22 minutes, then finished with 24 points and hit 6 of 11 3-pointers to go with eight boards, three assists and no turnovers in 34 minutes. Isaiah Stewart had his fifth straight double-digits rebounding game with 12, blocked four shots and defended the wondrously talented Karl-Anthony Towns better than Towns’ 24 and 12 line would have you believe.

“I thought he did a good job,” Casey said. “Isaiah held his own. Really happy with his growth, his screening, his recognition of situations. The game has slowed down for him.”

The Pistons turned it over just 11 times against the team that leads the NBA in forced turnovers and kept an offense that ranks No. 1 in the NBA since Jan. 1 in check despite 47 percent 3-point shooting (17 of 36). The game’s first double-digits lead didn’t come until four minutes into the fourth quarter and when the Timberwolves pushed it to 13 on consecutive triples from Jaden McDaniels, Hayes and Bey showed their mettle by bouncing back from rough starts to combine for the final 19 Pistons points and make Minnesota sweat it out.

“We’ve got to get more stops down the stretch,” said Bey, who got himself going with seven points in the last 90 seconds of the first half. “They had a couple of stretches where we would score but they scored every time, as well. We needed to get three, four stops in a row and convert to either push out the lead or stay closer at the end of the game.”

Hayes hit some nice early passes but also committed three turnovers in a condensed space spanning the first and second quarters and missed his only two first-half shots. But, wow, his fourth quarter was something, especially in the context of the rare defensive chops Hayes displays for a second-year player with all of 67 career games under his belt. In addition to the 10 points and eight assists in 24 minutes, Hayes added a steal and a block.

Progress is almost never an uninterrupted march for young players, so Sunday wasn’t necessarily a breakthrough so much as an indication of what’s ahead for Hayes once he processes a few dozen or a few hundred more possessions and gets a more complete sense of how and when openings can be exploited. But his size, strength and vision give him the tools to be every bit what the Pistons envisioned when they picked Hayes at No. 7 in 2020.

“I’m at my best when I can go into the paint and either finish or kick out,” he said. “My goal is to get in the paint. Watching film with coach Jerome (Allen) to figure out which plays, which part of the game I can go in and do that, it’s a learning curve. You work on it every day in practice. It’s also physical, but a lot of mental, as well.”

“Great player. Great point guard for us,” Bey said. “He uses his size to his ability and (creates) some mismatches for a lot of guards at 6-5 – and he’s strong. It’s good to see him be aggressive down the stretch.”

Once their 20-year-old backcourt pair melds the physical and mental sides of the game, Killian Hayes and Cade Cunningham figure to give the Pistons a backcourt that vexes the NBA for the life span of a pair of Dwane Casey’s shoes.