On the right wing outside the 3-point line, Killian Hayes reaches his arms across his body to dribble two balls, keeping them alive through a rapid, complicated combination of between-the-legs and crossovers.
A few feet away, Hayes’ trainer, Shawn Faust, looks on in approval. They’re in a nearly empty gym in late June in Orlando, Florida — an hour away from Lakeland, where Hayes was born. After Hayes smoothly completes the dribbling combination, he takes two more for good measure and glides for a lefty windmill dunk.
Since returning from Germany in March, Hayes has spent just about every day in Orlando. Two-hour 9 a.m. workouts with Faust precede 90-minute weight-training sessions, then cryogenic and infrared therapy in the afternoon for recovery. Hayes said he’s gained at least 15 pounds since his season ended abruptly in the spring.
“I've improved a lot physically in almost eight months,” Hayes told Yahoo Sports. “More explosive. Can fight through contact way better. I just feel way better in my body. I feel more powerful, and it'll really help me on the court."
Faust thinks Hayes is the most skilled player in the 2020 NBA draft class. Growing up and playing professionally in France, Hayes learned to blend elements from the European and American games. Like putting a Ford engine in a Mercedes, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound lefty point guard has all the flair and fundamentals of Europe and the 1-on-1, break-you-down moves of the U.S.
“I told him the other day, I don't see why Rookie of the Year isn't a possibility for him,” Faust told Yahoo Sports in late June.
With his trainers and Charlotte Hornets forward Dwayne Bacon, Hayes has worked to hone his skills to the point where he can unleash them at the NBA level. Even with the recent physical improvement, Hayes is not the most explosive athlete, so adding craft to his repertoire is crucial, Faust said.
Before the pandemic halted the sports world in March, Hayes was nearing the end of his first season with Ratiopharm Ulm in the German Bundesliga. Assistant coach Tyron McCoy said Hayes became a leader of teammates a decade older than him, even as his dad, DeRon, drove him to and from practice; the 19-year-old didn’t yet have his driver’s license.
Hayes has played professionally since he was 15 when he joined France’s U-21 team. Last year as Ratiopharm Ulm’s focal point, he averaged 11.6 points and 5.4 assists on 29% shooting beyond the arc, though that number jumped to 39% in EuroCup play as he got more comfortable with the higher level of competition. Hayes’ performance shot him up draft boards from the back end of the first round, as one Western Conference executive told Yahoo Sports he’s “for sure” a top-10 or late lottery pick.
Hayes doesn’t have the name recognition like projected first overall pick LaMelo Ball, but he’s drawn comparisons to D’Angelo Russell, Manu Ginobili and James Harden. He’s already proven elite playmaking ability, using his court vision to make every pass out of the pick-and-roll. He’s shown flashes of dynamic isolation scoring, but still needs to further develop a more efficient shot — both off the dribble and off the catch — to become the type of lead playmaker every NBA team covets.
“He’s got the hard parts down,” the executive said. “Those parts usually get better with practice, age and experience. So it's just how much better he can make those, and whether he can put the whole package together."
What your NBA team will get in Hayes
Hayes looked dead in the water on a play in the second quarter of a mid-November EuroCup game against Morabanc Andorra. Andorra’s center hedged out on the pick-and-roll, pinning Hayes inches from the sideline right in front of his bench. But Hayes drifted away from the pressure and whipped a cross-court, 50-foot pass to a wide-open shooter in the opposite corner for a three.
It’s exactly the type of pass the best NBA playmakers throw. McCoy, who’s coached in Germany for half a decade, said the only other 18-year-old he’s seen capable of making the passes Hayes routinely dishes was Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dennis Schröder.
Later in that game, with his team trailing 75-73, Hayes found himself in the same left-hand extended corner. This time, an Andorra big helped briefly but retreated back into the paint. Before Hayes’ primary defender could get back in front of him, Hayes side-stepped to his left and fired a triple. “I was just feeling it,” he told ESPN draft analyst Mike Schmitz.
As soon as Hayes arrived in Germany, Ratiopharm Ulm handed him the keys. He decided most of his team’s possessions by operating the high pick-and-roll, a familiar style for NBA fans. Those two plays indicate Hayes’ dynamic ability in that action; he can see over the defense to make lobs and skip passes or break down defenders for step-back threes when his teammates aren't open.
"Him going from France to Germany, I think that was a big step,” DeRon said. “A lot of these kids that are coming out of college, they don't have the opportunity to do these things. Not knocking their journey, the way they had to do it, but with Killian, he doesn't have to adapt to being a pro or being in charge of the situation or a team, because he just did it."
The most valuable commodity in basketball is a player who can generate offense for himself and his teammates from the perimeter like Hayes did with Ulm. One NBA executive said Hayes has a chance to become that type of lead guard at the next level.
To get there, Hayes will have to prove three things: a stronger right hand, a more consistent jumper, and the ability to play off the ball. Enter Faust.
The tennis-ball drills and two-ball combinations are designed to tighten his handle. If Hayes can become more ambidextrous, his offensive game will open up even more, as a passer and finisher.
Hayes said he added arc to his jump shot during the 2019-20 season because it got flat as he grew fatigued, so repetition is key to maintaining that. McCoy said there isn’t anything mechanically wrong with Hayes’ form, but sometimes his feet drift and land unsoundly, hurting his balance. He improved as the season progressed, including one 5-for-7 performance in mid-December, even while taking difficult shots off the dribble. Hayes’ 80% free-throw percentage also suggests he’ll become more consistent from beyond the arc.
Hayes doesn’t consider playing without the ball a concern, given he played shooting guard with Cholet before Ratiopharm Ulm. Still, he and Faust simulate in-game actions — catching passes off ball-screens, coming off dribble hand-offs, relocating after a pass for jumpers — to prepare him for a possible off-ball role.
When he first arrived in Germany, Hayes struggled. It was a completely foreign country for him, he didn’t know anyone on the team, and he was tasked with a bigger role than ever before. He was tentative and quiet. Opponents pressured him, trying to exploit his inexperience. It worked, and Hayes committed too many turnovers early on.
But Ulm stuck by Hayes, and he eventually settled in. The game slowed down like it always has. Hayes scored in double digits in 11 of his last 12 games, spearheading the fourth-highest scoring offense in the German BBL.
“Really in Germany, I learned how to be a leader,” Hayes said. “How to lead a group of grown men, which wasn't given to anybody because of my age. It just started in practice, trying to gain everybody's trust so they can have confidence in me.”
During a pre-draft Zoom interview, a team asked Hayes if he’s a dog on the court. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a dog,” he replied. Then, the team official asked what type of dog. Hayes was caught off guard. “I don’t know dogs like that,” he said.
He still doesn’t know exactly what breed he’d compare himself to. But if there’s anything his year in Germany taught him, it’s that he can be the leader of a pack.
"So when he goes to his team, he's ready,” DeRon said. “He's battle-ready. There's no adjustment. He's already ready. I'm not saying physically, I'm saying mentally."
The anti-LaMelo Ball
Teams at the top of the lottery in need of a point guard have their choice of Hayes, Ball, and Tyrese Haliburton, who’s risen in recent weeks leading up to next week’s draft. It’s possible Ball and Hayes, two of the top point guards in the class, will be linked for their careers.
"Honestly, I think [Hayes is] the best point guard in the draft,” Faust said. “I think he's better than LaMelo Ball. Nothing against LaMelo Ball, I just think Killian's a more pure point guard. I think he shoots it better, I think he's got a better IQ, and I think the upside's higher.”
But it’s not that clear-cut. Almost every draft expert grades Ball slightly higher than Hayes. Still, the thin gap separating them as prospects juxtaposes with a gulf of differences in their games, personalities and experiences.
Hayes grew up in Cholet, France (pop. 53,800), a quiet, family-oriented city. “Basketball town,” DeRon said. The globetrotting Ball, on the other hand, starred in his family’s reality television show, had a signature shoe and almost bought the Australian team he just played for.
Hayes, though flashy at times, is known to make the “right” play as a steady, traditional point guard even facing pressure. “You can’t really speed him up,” Faust said. The scouting report on Ball features questionable decision-making, shot selection and effort. Poise versus flamboyance.
He’s a good, not great athlete, but Hayes mitigates that with craft around the rim and defensive instincts. Ball projects as a physical outlier, a 6-foot-8 supersized playmaker.
Ball has played in Australia and Lithuania, both generally considered worse competition than the German BBL and even France, where Hayes began.
DeRon sat courtside at his son’s games, but never criticized the coaches, Ratiopharm Ulm assistant Tyron McCoy said. DeRon kept Killian in Europe to avoid the politics and nonsense in the AAU and prep school worlds. LaVar is ... LaVar.
“You know how the Balls are,” Faust said. “Their motto is there's no negative attention. Any attention is good attention, whether it's good or bad to them. But yeah, I think that's what's going to help Killian. I think he's got a little more professionalism and maturity to him, even though he's younger, because of the way he's been brought up.”
DeRon would never knock how LaVar raised LaMelo and his other sons. “It’s different,” DeRon said. “[LaMelo’s] been in the spotlight forever.” LaVar has compared his son to Michael Jordan and wants him either in New York or Detroit. DeRon would be happy with his son playing anywhere he gets a chance.
It’s easy to measure up the two presumed most talented point guards of a draft, but the Ball-Hayes character foil might not be perfect. They have some similarities, too.
They both see the game at an advanced level, and make passes with rare creativity. They were both born in the U.S. but spent their formative playing years overseas.
And while some perceive Ball to be pretentious or arrogant — which would contrast Hayes’ humble, reserved nature — it’s possible much of that is the aura around the Ball family, not LaMelo himself, who’s probably more misunderstood than anything.
When asked to compare or contrast Hayes and Ball, Jermaine Jackson, Ball’s manager, said “We don't get into controversy, man.”
Whichever team circles Killian Hayes’ name on Nov. 18 knows it’s not getting LaMelo Ball. It’s possible they’re getting someone safer. A quiet, strong, composed bulldog ready to produce as a rookie.
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