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Pistons' Killian Hayes finding 'confidence' and 'swagger' in sophomore season

Rod Beard
The Detroit News

Killian Hayes’ path with the Pistons has been anything but a straight line.

Sometimes, taking a step forward means going in different directions before finding the ultimate destination.

After an injury-riddled rookie season, Hayes has had more injury issues this year, and with his move to the second unit recently, he’s starting to find some traction and showing some more of the promise that led the Pistons to select him No. 7 overall in the 2020 draft.

Pistons guard Killian Hayes (7) goes to the basket past Timberwolves center Naz Reid (11) in the fourth quarter.

It hit another milestone in Sunday’s loss at Minnesota, where Hayes had 10 points and eight assists in 24 minutes. Those are somewhat pedestrian numbers, but with a closer look, seeing all 10 points coming in the fourth quarter should raise some eyebrows.

Hayes had four baskets in the paint and a long jumper that was just inside the 3-point line. He finished 5-of-7 from the field. After a dismal first half, he was able to turn things around, which is another encouraging sign.

“I think coming off the bench has really helped him. It's helped his confidence and helped the swagger,” coach Dwane Casey said. “He started off a little rough (Sunday) with two straight turnovers, but that is a sign of growth too. He bounced back, got his swagger back, got into the paint and made plays.

“He played with confidence and I just think you see his confidence growing, coming off the bench and going against more second-line players right now. That could change as we go along, but right now, I like the way he's growing, getting his confidence and playing with swagger.”

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The ultimate sign of trust is that Casey is using Hayes to finish games, a situation where he can guard opposing wings. At 6-foot-5, he has the size and frame that allows him to move around to different spots defensively without giving up much.

Casey likes having a three-guard lineup to finish, for the benefit of having more ball-handlers, so ideally, a grouping with Cade Cunningham and Cory Joseph works just as well as having one of the small forwards.

Detroit Pistons' Killian Hayes, left, blocks the shot of Chicago Bulls' Derrick Jones Jr. during the first half.

The recent spurt for Hayes is encouraging, with the way he’s adapted to his role on the second unit. Not all first-round picks would take to that change easily, but Hayes sees it as a positive.

“Coming off the bench is coming in with energy,” Hayes said. “Whatever the score is, it’s bringing energy and pace for the second unit.”

Hayes wasn’t projected as a big-time scorer after playing as a teenager in Europe. The challenge with coming to the NBA was adjusting to the physicality of the game. On one of the fourth-quarter plays, Hayes improvised on a play call from Casey, drove the lane and finished with a dunk.

That’s a splashy play for Hayes, who is regarded as more of a finesse player. It’s another step in getting him to play the way he’s capable of reaching.

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“I'm really happy with his growth these last couple of weeks on both ends of the floor. Physically, he's getting into guys, being physical on defense, moving his feet and having active defensive hands,” Casey said. “He's really done an excellent job of growing up. Believe me, I've been on him as hard as anybody just because I know the growth is there, and just to kind of make sure we keep nudging him into being the best player he can possibly be.

“That's something I'm really, really proud of right now. He's not a finished product, and we're going to keep on pushing him and pushing him until he gets to where he needs to be.”

Cunningham still day-to-day

Cunningham missed his third straight game because of a hip-pointer issue, and as he returns to his hometown in the Dallas area for Tuesday’s game, he’s still listed as questionable. That was the same designation Cunningham had for the two previous games, but the Pistons are being very cautious with the rookie.

Casey said Cunningham is still day-to-day, and although he did some shooting at practice, they’ll wait to make a determination on his status for Tuesday.

“Every day, it's getting better. It's improving and it's one of those things that he wants to play here at home and this one he probably had circled on this calendar, but we're not going to risk his health just to get one game in,” Casey said. “We've got 28 more games, so we've got to make sure we keep his health as long as we can and let's finish out the season and continue to grow.”

More: Pistons' Cunningham named NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month

Pistons at Mavericks

► Tipoff: 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, American Airlines Center, Dallas

► TV/radio: BSN/97.1

► Outlook: The Mavs (31-23) have been steady, winning four of their last six and putting themselves in the thick of the playoff race in the West. Luka Doncic is having another banner season, posting 26 points, 8.9 rebounds and 9.1 assists.

Rod.Beard@detroitnews.com

Twitter.com/detnewsRodBeard