It's official. Nigel Hayes will be back in Madison for his senior year, leading a loaded Wisconsin men's basketball team in Greg Gard's first full season as head coach. The B5Q staff share their thoughts on what impact Hayes' decision will have on the Badgers next season and his own pro prospects down the road.
What does Hayes' return mean to the expectations and potential of next year's Badger team?
Owen Riese: It means everything. To a team this young, not having to mold another scoring threat is huge. Hayes will return, improving morale that Wisconsin is the place to be for all four years, and the expectations will be through the roof. They won't be quite as high as the 2014-2015 season, but they have no excuse to not be a legitimate title contender in 2016-2017.
Neal Olson: Clearly the expectations will be sky high. Hayes’ tenure at Wisconsin coincides with the golden age of Badger basketball: back-to-back Final Fours teams, national runners-up and most recently a Sweet Sixteen. And now the Badgers return the top 9 players in terms of minutes, points, rebounds, etc. from last season. Nigel has a very real chance to play on a third Final Four team and can cement his status as one of the most successful Badgers players in program history.
Jon Arens: This has officially turned into an "Elite Eight or Bust" type of year. Without Hayes, the Badgers were going to be a very good team with two big pieces becoming available in Brevin Pritzl and the huge, blonde Andy Van Vliet. Combined with Happ's continued emergence as an alpha in the Big Ten, and improvement from at least one of Brown or Thomas, you can easily make the argument that the Badgers have one of the deepest front courts in America. I was on record at season's end as predicting that Thomas will be making the leap in 2016-17, and I am sticking with that prediction. I am not expecting Happ or Hayes to get to Naismith Trophy level, but having both, with what is hopefully an improved Bronson Koenig, should elevate this team to elite levels.
Luke Mueller: With Nigel Hayes returning to the Badgers, Wisconsin now places firmly in the top two - maybe three - teams of the conference next year and a preseason Top 10 team. If he rights the ship with his shooting, decides to develop his interior game more, and evolves as a leader, the Badgers will be one tough team to beat.
Now that he's back, what can Hayes do to raise his NBA stock as a senior?
Owen: Truthfully, Nigel can do a lot of things, but he's not a specialist at many of them. He can post, but he's not a back-to-the-basket force. He can shoot, but he's not a shooter. He can handle the ball, but he's not a ball handler. He can defend, but he's not a lock down defender. So it will be vital that he's able to further hone some of those skills. He's too big to be small but he's too small to be big at the next level, so he's going to have to find his niche to stick.
Neal: Obviously the answer here is shooting. The much discussed offseason shooting form tweak entering last season went from slightly obnoxious, in-game announcer talking point to wildly confusing and frustrating as the season unfolded. Somehow the quicker release that was intended to make his game more NBA ready, turned Nigel into a streaky and lower percentage three point shooter. Whether he sticks with quick release or reverts back to his 2014-15 form remains to be seen. Either way Nigel will need to shoot well over 30 percent from long distance to improve his NBA stock.
Jon: Hayes needs to play angry. Happ plays angry, and he demands the ball in crunch time and attacks the rim. Nigel might not have the post moves Happ does, but he absolutely has the athleticism to get to the rim and draw fouls. Nigel needs to regain his confidence outside the paint and in transition. Passing into the post was not a strong suit of his in the latter parts of the season, either. NBA teams can live with bad passers, but you can't get anywhere if you cannot shoot and you are less than seven feet tall. Hayes' best comparison is still Draymond Green, who got straight up paid this past year, so teams know the skill set can work in a smaller, faster NBA. But Green was a dead eye mid-range shooter his last year at MSU. If Hayes can make those shots, and the occasional three, the rest will take care of itself. I mean his wingspan is 7'3". That is just stupid.
Luke: Nigel needs to do two things in my mind. He must develop a consistent outside shot. His sophomore year, he surprised teams by shooting the three after not attempting a single one his freshman year. Being the leader and number one target last year, he struggled to find open looks and knock them down. He was played much differently by opposing defenses and his struggles showed up in key moments. Projected to be a 2/3 position player in the NBA, he will need to learn to deal with tougher defense and develop a better outside shot.
The second thing he needs to do to raise his NBA stock is be more assertive. Hayes is in a tough situation honestly. He knows that in order to develop for the NBA he must develop the aforementioned outside shot, but at the college level he is better suited to go to work on teams down low. To show scouts that he can be a scorer both inside and outside, Hayes should look to take over more games early and often, unlike last year where he periodically would force shots to get in rhythm.
A year from now, do you think Hayes will be a 1st round draft pick, a 2nd round choice, or go undrafted?
Owen: In the 2017 NBA Draft, Nigel probably ends up in the early 20s. Another year of physical development will do him good, and just improving his all-around game will help him adapt to the NBA. After all of the young kids go early in the lottery, Hayes is the type of player the Spurs, or Thunder could look for. He's versatile, something that teams that play those styles value.
Neal: By telling the Boston Celtics he would ‘shoot 5000 shots a day’ if they draft him, Nigel understands the work he has left to do. As such I predict Buddy Hield-like monster senior season. Perhaps not quite National Player of the Year levels, but certainly into NBA lottery pick discussion. Hayes has been one of the more entertaining Badgers in program history, I cannot imagine him going out with anything other than a bang.
Jon: This is a tough one. I am going to say late first round to a team like San Antonio that understands the changing NBA. But every year, 5-8 random 18-year-olds come out of nowhere to become first round picks, so the odds are definitely against Nigel as a 22-year-old.
Luke: I think Hayes has all of the makings of a 1st round pick ... but most likely a 2nd rounder. He's a bit of a 'tweener. Big and physical like a low post man with very refined skills, yet he needs to show more guard capabilities in order to be attractive to NBA teams. Because of this, he will be viewed as a "project" by other teams, but with his potential and work ethic it's hard for me to see him going undrafted.
In your opinion, who should be the focal point of Wisconsin's offense: Hayes or someone else?
Owen: The thing about the Swing offense, is that it allows a player to take over, but it also caters to having everyone contribute. Most of the time, the offense does run better through Hayes, but that shouldn't be the default. With Koenig now a senior, as well as Showalter proving to be an occasional offensive threat, there's not a ton of stress on any particular player, maybe with the exception of Happ needing to be a presence down low. If the game is on the line, it's gotta be Hayes or Koenig, but the beauty of this balanced and experienced team, along with the Swing, is that there doesn't need to be a "focal point" for the scheme to work.
Neal: This is a tricky question. There were times last year when the offense was stagnant from Hayes holding the ball and trying to take his defender one-on-one. Either due to thinking he was the best (only) scoring option or he was still trying to hone his NBA preparedness, isolation bogged the team down. It seems Greg Gard will adhere to the same key principles of ball and player movement. Nigel is such a gifted passer and scorer from most areas on the court, he will almost certainly be the focal point next season.
Jon: I am all aboard on Ethan Happ. Hayes will be the emotional leader of the team, but Happ is the workhorse and he knows it. If Happ gets his fouling under control, he is going to put up some ridiculous usage rate and efficiency statistics that will make NBA teams drool. Don't count out Happ getting some serious looks as a first-round pick next year if he lives up to his potential. If he added a few more vowels to his name and got a European passport, he would already have been in the lottery. Happ is a beast already, and Hayes will draw enough attention from him to make him even more of a beast.
Luke: I think the focal point should be the offense collectively. With Gard at the helm officially now, look for the old days of the Swing offense to be back. Let's not forget the old Wisconsin teams that had no business making a Sweet 16, but perplexed teams with their ball-moving, shot clock draining offense and tough-nosed defense. With the talent this team has, they could really take off if they play within the system and be one of the most efficient offenses to date. Maybe even 2014/2015-esque.