By this point, some of my not-so-subtle opinions about the draft and prospects in general are coming to the surface.
I'm a huge advocate for off-the-dribble shooting for ball handlers, and shooting in general being the most important offensive skill. I'd rather swing on a franchise-carrying scorer than a high-IQ playmaker or facilitator, or a role playing defender. Guards and wings are worth targeting earlier than bigs as a result. Speed isn't as important as change of pace, length is the great separator and nothing gets under my skin like lazy defensive effort.
Killian Hayes is one of those strange prospect who absolutely checks some of those boxes but is completely absent from others. In trying to figure out how high to value what he offers and come to a conclusion on where he fits on a big board, Hayes tends to reveal something important about how to reconcile and sift through those differing attributes.
Standing 6'5" with a 6'9" wingspan, Hayes has elite natural size for his position. Athletically speaking, Hayes is more like Luka Doncic or Lonzo Ball than he is Russell Westbrook, not reliant on his overwhelming speed or vertical hops but his size. Hayes has solid burst and isn't slow by any means.
He's a big-time playmaker and a basketball savant. Few teenagers get handed the keys in a way Hayes was with ULM this year, and even fewer enjoy the efficiency and success he had. His passing is nothing short of eye-popping, with frequent great reads, cross-court zips (with his left hand) and great anticipatory throws. He uses the same IQ on defense to be a disruptor and solid helper, foiling opponent sets and relying on his strong instincts. Often, those traits mask and make up for a lack of elite-level athleticism.
Add onto that a great ability that Hayes possesses to create his own shot. He's got a deep bag of tricks, including a reliable step-back and some crafty finishing packages, to create his own shot. He's seen a ton of growth in the off-the-dribble jumper and in the mid-range over the last year. Those are both worth monitoring and giving credence to.
In order to unlock his two biggest strengths - passing and one-on-one scoring - Hayes will need the ball in his hands. I've been vocal over the last few months about what skills are required to demand the ball on high enough volume to be deemed a primary option. I'd say you probably need at least two of the following three traits:
Hayes is certainly a good enough passer, and the results of his self-creation are evident from this season. But Hayes doesn't check off the first box, arguably the most important in my book.
Hayes doesn't seem to provide much value in an off-ball role, mainly due to that three-point worry. He shot a putrid 22.2% on spot-up treys this year. Only two NBA players shot worse on at least one attempt per game this past year. He's a smart cutter, but he's not an elite defender and doesn't do enough to make up for that putrid lack of shooting.
So what we have is, essentially, a median-level defender who doesn't shoot well in an off-ball role. His only function of a positive, then, would be to be given the keys of an offense.
Without forsaking the need for improvements of his catch-and-shoot arsenal, there's a very real path to Hayes providing the value teams seek in this ball dominant role as he currently performs. Despite the worries about the shot, Hayes scores at a high level and creates so much offense for others. If we buy into the notion that those guys are who you look for in the early parts of the draft (which I do), then Hayes' shooting worries are nothing other than an area for improvement, not a skill so disastrous it should completely scare a team away from giving top-ten consideration.
How he'll be guarded is easy to see based on the warts his game currently sports, and those are conversations worth having about whether the drafting franchise can still win against those coverages.
He's very inconsistent as a shooter, with varying mechanics and a few misses that could shatter the backboard. He's also as left-hand dominant a player as we have seen in recent years, and for someone looking to command a high quantity of his team's offense, that's necessary.
Put those together and we'll see many teams go underneath ball screens, daring Hayes to shoot and taking away the renowned playmaking prowess he possesses as a passer. Others will force him right aggressively, playing what's known as "weak" coverage and trying to dismantle his effectiveness by shutting off his strong hand, on which he's heavily reliant.
It's incumbent on Hayes to overcome those handicaps and not just prepare for those types of coverage but penalize teams who deploy them.
The shooting is pretty much a numbers-based approach. Hayes has to shoot a high enough percentage on pull-up jumpers from 3-point range (likely above 35 percent) to force defenses to come out on him. If he's below that number, the expected points per possession (PPP) yielded is lower than an average play, and therefore advantageous for the defense to keep going under. There's an analysis of his mechanics and the faith one has in his jumper continuing to improve inherent in whether he'll reach that goal, but at the end of the day, it's all about his work and the math.
As for overcoming "weak" coverage, that is much more nuanced. After watching a bunch of games of his from earlier in the season and comparing them to his late-season approach, Hayes has already made great strides in combatting such exaggerated defense.
Early on, Hayes would use broad dribble moves away from his body in constant efforts to try and go to his left. When he'd meet resistance, a pre-planned move (for him, a double crossover) was in play, where Hayes would hope the defender would take the bait and jump back so far that he could go freely to his left:
Yes, Hayes scores here, but he's aided by great offensive spacing and some pretty poor help defense. Most NBA defenders won't be hugging the pick-and-pop screener to that extend, either, especially with such forceful on-ball defense in play.
But Hayes is so violent with all his movements here, from handle to footwork, trying to hope the defender abandons hope. Hayes' defender did his job, and there is supposed to be some help at the rim to contest a shot like this – a left-handed floater while driving with his right hand.
That game was in November. Fast forward a few months to February and check out the pace adjustment Hayes plays with, the patience and the savvy. Think of his ball handling like that of a painter. Instead of broad sweeping brush strokes, he tightened it up and used small movements to get the job done.
Hayes can still get back to his left hand, just with more patience and less of a forceful nature:
Small improvements like that give me confidence in Hayes as a top-five pick. He's not a sure thing as a shooter and has a long road ahead towards consistency, but he's matured his game already to the point that he can overcome the ways some defenses play him.
The other big part of Hayes' stock is how much to buy into or doubt his speed and athleticism. Hayes is great in the open floor, but he's not an elite athlete. Other dynamic passers and strong scorers have struggled to see their game translate to the NBA because other elite athletes can guard them one-on-one, rendering their powers inert.
Plenty of non-elite athletes have been masterful guards, even in the modern game. Trae Young and Steph Curry are exceptions to the rule with their absurd shooting, but guys like Doncic, D'Angelo Russell, Manu Ginobili and Malcolm Brogdon are still able to get the job done. The reason is two-fold: a great, controlled ball handling ability and how they change pace.
A lot is made about top-end speed in the NBA. We love guys who are terrific end-to-end, and who can just blow past someone without notice. But that's not all there is to getting open.
To borrow another analogy, think about guards the way you think about cars. When buying a car, few people ask about their top speed, rather their acceleration and how quickly they go from zero to sixty.
Why? Most functionality of a car isn't done at top speed, with most roads traveled far below those top speeds. Instead, being able to quickly accelerate while merging onto a highway or avoiding a hazardous situation helps save lives -- it's one of the most functional aspects of inspecting a car's engine.
I view guards in the same way. Top speed deals a lot with transition play, but I want to dive into how they accelerate. Hayes has all the traits that allow him to be great in this area without Ferrari horsepower. He's great at hitting holes as they open, has tremendous control over the ball to get open, and he's long enough and good enough with angles to capitalize on the smallest openings. That's where his size really helps him.
There's another portion of his game that creates more space for him to accelerate into: his shot-making off the dribble. Hayes makes tough shots, with step-backs and strong self creation. Individual defenders will press up on him, giving him more room to take advantage of if the defender makes a mistake.
At the end of the day, it'll all come back to shooting. But Hayes is, despite the risks and current shortcomings of his game, the type of high-volume playmaker who ought to be given a top-five selection. If he works out, he fills the biggest need and hardest skill to replicate with how he can carry an offense.
The question is just if he will work out. Nobody knows, but based on what we've seen, it's hard to imagine him not being highly functional in that role.