DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 1: Killian Hayes #7 of the Detroit Pistons celebrates a three point basket during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on December 1, 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 Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images)(Chris Schwegler)

Pistons start cashing dividend checks from a blue-chip Hayes

Just as blue-chip stocks aren’t necessarily of that hue the day they’re introduced, neither are blue-chip prospects always – or even commonly – ready to yield big returns on day one.

Troy Weaver is to the latter what Warren Buffet is to the former. And the Pistons general manager knew Killian Hayes was a long play when he used his first draft pick upon being tapped by owner Tom Gores to helm the ship on Hayes, then a 19-year-old French prospect with one year as a point guard in the middling German pro league on his resume.

The dividend checks might be appearing in the Pistons bank account with a little more frequency, it appears. If Hayes’ signature moment in Thursday’s overtime conquest of Dallas had the effect of opening eyes across the NBA, in his locker room it spurred more knowing nods.

“All summer,” Isaiah Stewart said of witnessing previous examples of Hayes’ eye-catching aplomb. “All summer. Seen that all summer. Had a strong start to the preseason. So it’s just great to see.”

On a stage dominated by the NBA’s front-runner for MVP, Luka Doncic, on a night the Slovenian wunderkind lived up to the hype, it was Hayes who strung together the dazzling plays at winning time. Three straight mid-range jump shots, then the threat of a fourth to find Marvin Bagley III for a layup down the stretch of regulation. Two enormous wing 3-pointers in overtime. After re-entering the game with 7:24 left in the fourth quarter, Hayes hit 6 of 7 shots, both of his triples and assisted on two other baskets without committing a turnover.

For the game, 22 points on 10 of 13 shooting with eight assists against only two turnovers as the primary ballhandler across 33 minutes.

“The guy I’m proud of is Killian Hayes,” Dwane Casey said after the 131-125 win. “He made some big shots, big plays, big passes. Defensively, he was active in our blitz. Really proud of the way he played and bounced back. Can’t say enough good things about him.”

Weaver and Casey always believed this day was coming. They thought it preposterous outsiders were ready to write off a 21-year-old whose rookie season – already begun under the dual challenges of transitioning to not only a new league but a new country on top of the COVID-19 pandemic that obliterated the typical rookie orientation process – was mangled by a traumatic hip injury.

Weaver thought it would take Hayes longer than other young point guards because, he said, he needed to become “Americanized.” He loved Hayes’ size, his vision, his size, his anticipation and his defensive bent. But European point guards are taught to go by the book and Weaver understood that NBA length and athleticism would require Hayes to get to a place where instinct would override the textbook instructions imprinted on his brain.

That process doesn’t happen overnight and, even after Thursday’s breakthrough, it remains just that: a process. But Weaver and Casey had seen enough and believed in Hayes enough to not be dismayed even as year three got off to a rocky start. Through his first 13 games, Hayes averaged 4.5 points and shot 27 percent overall and 19 percent from three. Since Cade Cunningham was sidelined by injury and Hayes moved to the starting lineup, those numbers are 11.8, 44 and 40.

Over his last four games, it’s 16.5, 53 and 35.

“It feels good to finally go on the side where things start working for you,” Hayes said after his star turn. “You’ve just got to keep working. I put in a lot of work. I’ve got the trust of my coaches, all my teammates. It feels good, yeah.”

Hayes pushes back on suggestions he’d lost confidence even if it became commonly accepted by observers that he wasn’t playing as if he expected success. There was at least a degree of indecisiveness about him as he’d probe a defense and choose whether to pull up to shoot, keep his dribble alive to the rim or get off the ball. The instances of contested shots in the paint or getting caught in mid-air without a parachute are greatly diminished of late.

“He’s more settled,” Stewart said. “When I see a difference between then and now, it’s just obvious. He believes he’s that kind of player.”

Stewart, Hayes, Saddiq Bey and Saben Lee came in together – Weaver’s “Core Four” – amid that chaotic 2020 pandemic draft and they formed a tight bond to help weather the headwinds they faced. That chemistry remains intact even with Lee included in the trade that brought Bojan Bogdanovic to Detroit.

“I’m sure he probably got tired of us talking to him,” Stewart grinned. “But even on nights like this, we still talk to him. Just keep encouraging him.”

Casey’s tack with Hayes during the rough moments was to get him to focus on defense and playmaking and forget about scoring. True enough, Hayes can be a valuable piece even without putting up a lot of points. But it’s hard to ignore expectations and lottery picks come with expectations greater than being a caretaker.

“He hears the noise,” Casey said. “It’s unfortunate we have the internet for that reason. I wish he had my mentality. I don’t even look at it. He probably feels he has to score. And he doesn’t. He’s our best playmaker. He’s our best point guard. That’s what he does best.

“Everybody worried about the wrong things with the kid. Everybody worried about his shooting. We need the point guard play, a quarterback.”

Hayes knows there probably won’t be a lot of nights where he’s the one taking the biggest shots on a roster that includes Cunningham, Bey and Jaden Ivey, not to mention veterans like Bogdanovic and Alec Burks. But he’s got Thursday in his back pocket now. There’s no need for manufactured confidence any longer. His Americanization is fully under way.

“Every game, if I shoot the ball bad, I would be like, ‘Next game is the one, this game is the one, this game is the one,’ ” Hayes said. “We play so many games, you don’t have time to dwell on one game. You just have to move on and keep trusting your work.”

The Pistons have so many young players at similar stages. Stewart is going through his own process, playing all of his minutes in Thursday’s win at power forward after knowing nothing but center until very recently. Bey spent his rookie season launching 3-pointers almost exclusively and now is attempting to be a master of many arts. Cunningham’s progress is on pause as he rehabilitates. Ivey and Jalen Duren are rookies for whom sometimes the world still spins too fast.

But even now, there are times all those arcs intersect and the future comes into brief focus. What might it be like one day when the Pistons have all three of their lottery guards – Hayes, Cunningham, Ivey – firing on all cylinders with Stewart, Duren, Marvin Bagley III, Bey and friends doing what they do?

“It’s going to be great,” Stewart says, nodding. “You have three guards like that, can’t go wrong.”