• Matt Esposito

Is Jaxson Hayes Worth the Gamble?


USA Today

Perhaps the greatest difference between this year’s and last year’s draft class can be seen when comparing center prospects. This year’s crop of centers is considerably less talented and the prospects seem to have a lower ceiling. Still, there are a couple of big men that general managers will roll the dice on. Jaxson Hayes is one of them.

Standing at nearly 7 feet tall with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Hayes has measurables that intrigue NBA scouts. Additionally, the Longhorn freshman impresses with his fluidity in the open court and quick-twitch jumping ability. Hayes was a late bloomer in high school, and it seems like that helped him retain an athletic profile more commonly found in guards and wings.

Hayes started over 20 games at Texas and averaged 10 points per game on an absurdly high (72.8) field goal percentage. He also grabbed 5 boards per game and swatted 2.2 shots all while doing so in less than 25 minutes a night. Upon first glance it isn’t difficult to understand why scouts are following Hayes closely. He could very well fit the mold of an efficient, defensive-minded rim-runner.

But any Hayes scouting report would be incomplete if his question marks were not addressed. A deeper dive into the film reaffirms his potential but also makes apparent why he is not considered a safe pick. Considering the lack of top tier center talents in this draft, Hayes has a great chance of being selected in the lottery. Picking Hayes in that range only amplifies his status as a boom or bust prospect. So, which one will he be?

An entire game of Hayes playing versus Kansas State is available on YouTube. If you watched the first ten minutes you may think that Hayes was only worth a second-round flier. First, you will see Hayes demonstrate his reluctance to use his left hand around the rim. Less than a minute later Hayes displays just how easily his slight frame gets shoved during boxouts. His defensive focus, or lack thereof, comes into view about a minute after that.

These are major issues that scouts will take note of. Although I may be nitpicking, there are other aspects of his game that irk me as well. Not only does Hayes set weak screens, he habitually abandons the screen before the play fully develops. This is understandable when you consider that Hayes has only been playing center for a couple of years. Regardless, he has to master this skill to maximize his roll gravity at the next level.

Perplexingly, there are times when the stretchy big man does not roll to the hoop at all. His start-stop-start motion on this roll essentially shouts to scouts that Hayes is nowhere near comfortable playing the role of an NBA rim diver. Every time he does this he is doing the defense a big favor.

What makes this habit particularly frustrating is the gravity Hayes could theoretically have in the half court. Versus Texas Tech, Hayes hammered home a pick and roll lob that only a small percentage of the league could complete. Performing this play with consistency could do wonders for a team’s pick and roll efficiency while opening up various spots of the floor.

Hayes must put on weight to compete on the next level but, the majority of his weaknesses are mental ones. It is imperative he learns the role of an NBA rim-runner on both ends of the court. There are reasons to take a chance on Hayes, however.

He has the lateral quickness to switch on some pick and rolls and recover for blown coverages on defense. Ask Rudy Gobert how valuable of a physical attribute this is. On this play, Hayes sticks with a more agile player, tags a ball handler on a hedge and then moves back across the court to contest a triple.

His length is also something to fall in love with. When he isn’t biting on pump fakes, Hayes uses his verticality to his advantage. You cannot teach a 7-foot-4 wingspan. The combination of quick feet and long arms is becoming more common in the NBA but, it is still coveted in big men. This could be enough to get Hayes drafted in the top 10 this year.

The latest in a long line of Longhorn centers, Hayes also has solid timing when protecting the paint. This exacerbates his physical gifts. In this instance, he contests a lob pass and still has the nimble feet to recover just in time to block a layup attempt.

He also shows a willingness to make opponents pay on the block. Although he won’t always bully his way to the hoop, Hayes can hang in the air and contort his body before softly putting in a shot off the glass. This skill should improve over time, especially as Hayes puts on some serious weight. Furthermore, his free throw percentage (74.0) is impressive for someone of his size and position.

Will Hayes ever become a stretch five? Despite what the role of free throw percentages in 3-point shooting analytics tell us, Hayes does not project as a floor spacing big. But that is perfectly okay. Guys like Clint Capela, Gobert and Steven Adams have flourished in the League despite a lack of shooting ability. Can Hayes morph into a similar player?

Maybe. But I’m not overly confident. Hayes’ development could depend on the team he is drafted to. A decent comparison for Hayes would be fellow Texas alum Jarrett Allen. Allen has surprised in Brooklyn so far, which could be due to his team’s focus on player development. If Hayes lands in an organization that gives him both the proper tools and time to improve, he could blossom too. If not, he could end up being another frustrating, springy big like Nerlens Noel.

Will Hayes overcome the steep learning curve he now faces? Are his physical gifts worth the risk? Is the game evolving to a point where a non-shooting big is worth taking in the lottery? As draft day approaches, GMs should be asking themselves these questions and you should be too.

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