Why Killian Hayes could fit in Bulls’ backcourt

/ by Rob Schaefer
Presented By BlueCross BlueShield of Illinois

Between now and the 2020 NBA Draft’s currently-scheduled date of Nov. 18, NBC Sports Chicago will be making the case for the Bulls to select some of the consensus top prospects with their No. 4 overall pick. We’ve broken down LaMelo BallAnthony Edwards, Deni Avdija and the case for trading down. Next up, Killian Hayes.

Watching Killian Hayes play basketball is a calming exercise.

Patience. Precision. Fluidity. All define the gangly, 6-foot-5 lead guard’s game and permeate the tape from his age-18 season with Ratiopharm Ulm, a campaign in which he posted averages of 11.6 points, 5.4 assists and 1.5 steals with 48.2-29.4-87.6 shooting splits across all competition in a predominately on-ball role.

Should he be available when the Bulls select No. 4 overall in this year’s draft, the case for plucking him is robust. Let’s dive into the strengths and improvement areas in Hayes’ game, and his potential fit with the Bulls:


Hayes enters the draft ready to engine an NBA offense, having used nearly two-thirds of his possessions in pick-and-roll and isolation situations last season, per Synergy. He checks every box as a passer: Anticipatory, instinctive, with feathery touch, and capable of generating pace and direction off a live dribble (primarily with his left hand).


Pair his court vision and facilitating with plus positional size, and he’s the picture of the brand of big playmaker that has taken the NBA by storm in recent years. Solid handling and court awareness allows him to get to his spots frequently, and seemingly with ease.

As for his scoring? There persist some questions, which we’ll get to. But many of them are at least partly offset by a silky pull-up shooting game. Hayes’ sublime footwork helps him generate oceans of space on stepbacks and sidesteps, which translated to canning 40% of his top-of-the-key triples and generating 0.99 points per half court off-the-dribble jumper (77th percentile) in the 2019-20 season — also per Synergy. 

Perhaps this goes without saying, but the threat of the pull-up jumper is an essential tool for lead playmakers in the modern NBA, especially in screen-and-roll. Forcing on-ball defenders over screens and roller defenders toward the perimeter to bother ball handlers can open cracks in a defense that a player of Hayes’ savvy should be able to routinely exploit.

Now, Hayes’ 29.4% 3-point field goal percentage across competitions (102 total attempts, 33 games) last season isn’t lethal. But gaudy free-throw figures (he shot 87.6% from the line in 2019-20) and year-over-year improvement (he shot 18.2% on 77 3-point attempts for Cholet in 2018-19) inspire optimism that he can grow into an above-average long-range marksman at the next level, especially off the bounce. He’s effective in the mid and floater range too.

Defensively, Hayes’ length, mobility and activity make him a truly disruptive guard and (certain) wing defender both on and off the ball. He said at the combine he expects to be able to guard 1 - 3 at the NBA level, and there’s reason to believe that could bear out. He’s a bit overzealous at times, but has the size, smarts and perpetual attentiveness to make a consistent two-way impact.

Improvement areas

At his combine media availability, Hayes also acknowledged he needs to improve his off-ball utility at the NBA level. And he’s right; wherever Hayes goes in the draft, he’ll likely find himself in a more egalitarian NBA offense in which he’ll need to find ways to affect the game offensively without the rock in his hands. Though his off-the-dribble shooting was impressive in Ulm, a mark of 0.67 points generated per half court catch-and-shoot jumper (12th percentile), per Synergy, lagged behind.

“I wasn't always the point guard on my team,” Hayes said at the combine. “But last season, that's what I really was, a point guard. So that's why I'm just trying to get back into it and playing the shooting guard position… I can play the 1 or the 2, it doesn't really matter. I feel like I can be effective at both positions.”

He also called out his propensity for turnovers as a facet he needs to work on, having committed 106 total coughups against 178 assists (good for a meh 1.68 assist-to-turnover ratio) last season. This is an improvement area you’ll see for most any young player tasked with heavy on-ball responsibilities, and one that Hayes insists improved over the course of his age-18 campaign (there’s evidence to support that month-over-month before an uptick in February/March). 


And of course, the most-parroted critiques as it pertains to Hayes’ game: his left-hand dominance and lack of elite burst. These are fair trees up which to bark; Hayes doesn’t do much driving or finishing to his right, the majority of his most impressive one-handed dimes come from the left-hand side and he’s not particularly explosive with his first step or finishing. 

The hope is that some level of ambidexterity can be developed and that he’ll compensate as a finisher with his touch and craft (he finished 61% of his rim attempts last season) — the fact that he was still able to break down defenses and leverage advantages in a professional league with those perceived deficiencies last season is encouraging, at least.

Bulls fit

Yes, the Bulls’ starting backcourt is currently staffed with Zach LaVine and Coby White, the latter of whom was drafted with a top-10 pick last season and believes he deserves a shot to run the offense next season. But the Hayes fit can still be a snug one if the Bulls’ front office believes he’s the best talent available at No. 4 and that this team is still in need of a playmaker that simultaneously threatens defenses with his scoring and facilitating on a possession by possession basis.

How? Hayes’ positional size, pass-first mentality and defensive aptitude lend reason to believe he can augment LaVine and White — two prolific scorers with effective catch-and-shoot games — rather than impede them. And though we don’t know exactly what stylistic tenets will make up the Bulls’ offense this year, it’s a safe bet that a player of Hayes' pick-and-roll prowess would massively benefit Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr., each of whom were assisted on more than 70 percent of their made field goals last season. The Bulls boasted seventh-highest pick-and-roll frequency in the NBA last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder — Billy Donovan’s old team — fifth.

“I'm a real big playmaker, I love making the right play, finding my teammates open and trying to make the game easier for them,” Hayes said at the virtual combine in September. “I think I could fit great with a guy like Coby White that can really score the ball, a guy like Zach LaVine. Lauri Markkanen, [who] can pop out and shoot the 3 also, he's kind of big and athletic, throwing lobs to him. Yeah, I can really fit in that group.”


Is he perfect? Of course not. No prospect is, especially in a class without a clear-cut star tier. But lead initiators with Hayes’ array of skills don’t come around often and the Bulls' offense needs a boost. He’s well worth a long look.

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