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DETROIT, MI - OCTOBER 11: Cade Cunningham #2 of the Detroit Pistons and Killian Hayes #7 celebrate during a preseason game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on October 11, 2022 at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, Michigan. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2022 NBAE (Photo by Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images)

Pistons see clear signs of an improved, confident Killian Hayes

Everybody wanted to talk about Killian Hayes hitting 4 of 6 from the 3-point arc, understandably, after the Pistons lost to Oklahoma City. If Hayes can start knocking down triples at even an average clip after hitting on only 27 percent over his first two NBA seasons, he becomes a different player.

Less celebrated, but arguably just as critically, Hayes also hit 4 of 7 shots inside the arc, using his size and strength to create favorable shooting angles in and near the paint. And if Hayes can both up his 3-point average into the mid-30s while establishing himself as an effective scorer around the rim then he’s well on the way to validating his status as the No. 7 pick of the 2020 draft.

Through two seasons, Hayes has hung his hat on his vision, passing skills and high-level defensive ability. Now he has his coaches and teammates convinced he’s ready to further blossom. If he makes strides as a three-level scorer to go with his playmaking and defense, the door to a lot of possibilities opens.

“A lot of possibilities,” Dwane Casey said after Hayes scored 20 points in 27 minutes, leading the Pistons with seven assists against a single turnover. “Everybody was alarmed about his shooting. I knew it was going to come. It’s one game, but the confidence he played with is so important.”

If Hayes played with less than brimming confidence his first two NBA seasons, it’s not hard to understand why. The circumstances of his arrival – amid the pandemic, with nothing approaching a normal predraft process or rookie orientation – were compounded by a serious hip injury that carved three months out of an already abbreviated rookie season.

It’s also worth remembering Hayes turned 21 less than three months ago and has yet to play in 100 NBA games and that his experience as a point guard before Troy Weaver exercised his first draft pick as an NBA general manager on the French teen consisted of one season in the middling Bundesliga of Germany. Hayes wasn’t just thrown into the deep end, he was thrown in with his hands bound.

“That’s what I’ve been working on,” Hayes said after Tuesday’s game. “I’ve been really confident in it. Just seeing them go down, obviously it’s a good feeling. But it would’ve been better with a win at the end.”

Down the stretch of the 115-99 loss, Casey used a three-guard lineup that included lottery picks Hayes, Cade Cunningham and Jaden Ivey. Given their size and diverse skills, there are few limitations in how Casey could make use of them.

“We can all play on the ball, really aggressive, play for one another,” Hayes said. “It will definitely work. J.I. can shoot, Cade can shoot, I can shoot. We’re all aggressive, unselfish players, so it will definitely work.”

Hayes is coming off his first completely typical NBA off-season. He had marching orders from Weaver and Casey to engage in as much pickup, five-on-five hoops as possible to bank repetitions and expose himself to a spectrum of situations. He made Miami his home base for some of the summer, but also was a regular at the Pistons practice facility and participated in team activities in Los Angeles, including the ballyhooed Rico Hines runs on UCLA’s campus.

When he wasn’t playing pickup, he spent his most focused off-season in individual work, nothing more critical than the thousands of shots launched from a reworked form with the ball now starting from a point nearer his left ear rather than directly in front of his forehead.

His teammates, often without prompting, have sung Hayes’ praises since camp convened Sept. 26.

“He’s just being aggressive. He’s just playing with confidence,” Saddiq Bey said Tuesday. “Getting his teammates involved and looking for his shot. He’s a good scorer. He can shoot the ball. His passing ability makes teams look for him to pass and it opens up stuff for him. When he attacks and he’s aggressive, he’s a great player.”

Getting incrementally better at either end of Dwane Casey’s shot spectrum – 3-point shooting or near the rim – would inch Hayes closer to the player Weaver envisioned. And getting better at either end can only help Hayes improve at both.

“If you can score threes, guys are going to guard you closer and it opens up the lane way more for myself and everybody else,” he said. “Just keep working on it, keep shooting with confidence.”