Despite its popularity and allure, a rebuild in the NBA is no sure thing. A team that tears itself down, like the Detroit Pistons, often has to hope for smart free-agent signings, proper scouting, successful prospect development, and the good fortune of fortuitous ping-pong ball bounces.
Tanking can work: the Philadelphia 76ers and Minnesota Timberwolves wouldn’t have Joel Embiid and Anthony Edwards, respectively, if they hadn’t tanked. For others, like the Houston Rockets and the Washington Wizards, the tank hasn’t borne fruit quite yet.
That’s why it’s no small wonder that the Detroit Pistons look like they’re on their way back to the playoffs with one of the best young cores in the NBA, even with some of their veteran contributors on the trade block.
2021 #1 overall pick Cade Cunningham looked like a star in his rookie year, 2022 #5 pick Jaden Ivey has shown flashes of high-level guard play, and the team looks like a lottery lock this year, which gives them a shot at another prize.
Up until this season, there looked to have been only one glaring black mark in the Pistons’ rebuild: Killian Hayes.
What’s been the problem with Hayes in Detroit?
A tall, athletic guard raised in Cholet, France, Hayes rocketed up the draft boards in 2020 with flashy passing and a projectible frame. Many draft pundits started to rain praises on him and after some successful workouts, he ended up going #7 overall to Detroit.
In his first two seasons, Hayes was a nightmare on the floor, and not in a good way. He ranked 533rd out of 540 and 586th out of 605 in Value over Replacement Player (VORP) in his past two seasons, which put him at the very bottom of impactful NBA players.
After two horrid campaigns, it’s understandable that the jury appeared to be out on Hayes’ career, especially with the presences of Cunningham and Ivey. After Cunningham’s season-ending surgery, however, Hayes has pulled off a shock of shocks and resuscitated his career.
What has Hayes done well for the Pistons?
Since Cunningham exited the lineup on November 9th, Hayes has stepped into the starting role and taken off. Over his past 30 games, Hayes has averaged 12.2 points, 6.7 assists, and 1.4 steals on 42/34/82 shooting splits.
Hayes had kept himself in the rotation in the past with his good defense, something he’s kept up as a starter. Even though the Pistons are 29th in defensive rating this season, it’s not Hayes’ fault:
With increased minutes, Hayes has finally gotten a chance to show off his prodigious passing, opening up the offense with a number of different stellar assists from both hands:
He’s also improved in the place he needed to most to stay on an NBA floor: scoring. Although he is still far from a threat that defenses game plan around, Hayes has become a better mid-range and three-point shooter, which forces defenses to respect him and thus opens up driving lanes to get downhill:
Where does Hayes fit in Detroit’s future?
The presence of Cunningham and Ivey raises a natural question, even with Hayes’ improved play, of how he fits in with the future on the team. As things stand now, it’s unlikely that Hayes will have the opportunity or talent to unseat either of his fellow Pistons.
Instead, it appears that with Hayes’ ascension, Detroit has found its guard rotation of the future. The flexibility of each player means all three of the Pistons’ young guards can play with each other and also insulates the team from an injury to any of them.
With the addition of a likely lottery prospect alongside Saddiq Bey, Jalen Duren, Isaiah Stewart, and Bojan Bogdanovic, to name a few, Hayes won’t be expected to even be a leading bench scorer.
He’ll be tasked with doing just what he’s doing right now, which before the season seemed impossible to project: running the offense, making flash plays on both ends, and most importantly, making a winning impact when on the floor for the Detroit Pistons.