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Sizing up Nigel Hayes’s future in the NBA

Should an NBA team be looking at Hayes as a second-round option on Thursday?

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Wisconsin vs Florida Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re a diehard college basketball stan who shuns the NBA, you’re not alone. Yet it’s worth rethinking your strict stance because the Association has more to offer than just pettiness, feuds, martyrs, Jeff Van Gundy, pettiness, and the unstoppable force that is NBA Twitter. The basketball is really good to watch, and if you consider it to be unruly, sloppy, or not as refined and fundamental as college, Big Ten, or, especially, Badger basketball, have you watched the Spurs play? Complain all you want—that’s your prerogative—but the NBA at least offers you the chance to keep watching your favorite college basketball players hoop it up at the next level while being financially compensated.

The Wisconsin Badgers’ recent graduating class is one of the most successful in the school’s history, but its seniors lack the top-tier NBA talent previously found in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, both first-round picks in 2015. Two players stand out from the 2017 graduating class, and unlike the much-discussed one-and-dones parading from the NCAA to the first round (’s projected top 10 picks all fulfilled the one-year minimum post-high school requirement and NBA commissioner Adam Silver is rethinking the rule itself) the Badgers’ top pro prospects each played out their four allotted seasons in college to the fullest. We’ll take a look at their skill sets, deficiencies, what they could bring to an NBA team, and what their futures may hold.

Nigel Hayes, the Toledo, Ohio native, was under-recruited despite being a four-star player who ranked No. 83 among ESPN’s top 100 recruits. Even with a late offer from his home-state school in Ohio State, Hayes picked Wisconsin and came in with Bronson Koenig and fellow Ohio native Vitto Brown.

For a Badger under Bo Ryan, Hayes had an impressive freshman season on a Final Four team, playing 43.5 percent of the team’s minutes with a 26.8 usage percentage. He flashed serious talent and his physical tools garnered some draft buzz early on his in career.

Hayes excelled as a role player in his first two seasons. As a freshman, he was lower on the scouting report and that kept him free on the outside to knock down his deadly mid-range jumper (43 percent on 102 field-goal attempts) while never even attempting a three-pointer. He also dominated inside that season, notching an absurd 85.4 free-throw rate but shooting only 58 percent, a nagging issue that would plague his senior season as well.

Hayes’s minutes nearly doubled on the national championship-bound team his sophomore year when he put up the highest individual offensive rating, 123.8, of his career while extending his range to beyond the three-point line, where he shot nearly 40 percent on 101 attempts.

Hayes came into his junior year with the weight of the team on his and Koenig’s shoulders and serious individual expectations on himself. He played very well while the team was in a state of tumult for parts of the year as Ryan departed. His game needed some serious work if he wanted to make it to the NBA, so his ball handling greatly improved (although it’s still not elite for a wing player) and he became much more of a playmaker on the court, increasing his assist percentage from 11.9 to 18.2 per The crippling loss to Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament did feature an untimely turnover by Hayes in the closing seconds, sending Hayes into the offseason questioning his future.

With the changing rules of the NBA Draft process, Hayes decided to test the waters by attending the draft combine and working out for a handful of teams without hiring an agent. When he announced he would come back for his senior season, expectations were sky high for the Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year and the only unanimous All-Big Ten Team selection. Yet Hayes, who played very well throughout the season, didn’t play up to many people’s standards despite averaging 14 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.7 assists per game.

Hayes has remained on NBA teams’ radars thanks to his incredible body and potential. Standing nearly 6’8 with an intriguing 7’3 wingspan, he has the physical tools to be a deadly wing player at the pro-level and he flashed some of those skills over his four years at Wisconsin. However, Hayes has dropped off many scouts’ draft boards after a senior season that, although he showed an impressive array of technique and intelligence on the court, was marred by questionable shooting at the free-throw line and behind the arc.

Hayes’s shot had to improve for him to be considered a top NBA prospect, but in changing his shooting form between seasons the percentages regressed from 40 percent his sophomore year to 29 percent as a junior and finally 31 percent as a senior. The mechanics of his shot don’t look all that bad, but there’s a hitch at the top of his release that looks awkward. It makes his overall shot less smooth and fluid.

He also lived at the free throw line throughout his career, a primary reason the expansion of his game drew the ire of fans. After percentages in the mid-70s as a sophomore and a junior, Hayes dropped back down to 58 percent as a senior. That made him susceptible to late-game hacking. The numbers aren’t favorable for him, but if he can show NBA teams that his shot is fixed, he could find a spot at the end of a bench because he’s shown the ability to shoot off the dribble after spotting up.

Hayes’s improved ball handling made him more of a threat from the wing as both a playmaker and as a one-on-one threat. He isn’t an exceptional athlete, lacking an explosive first step to get around defenders, but his fundamentals and intelligence work in tandem to exploit defenders. He can quickly attack an out-of-control closeout, especially when his shot is in sync, or utilize a powerful jab step to keep defenders on their toes. From that jab step he can either pull up for a jumper, with his length making his shot nearly unblockable, or attack the lane where he’s most effective. He shot 62 percent on his shots at the rim this past season.

A very deliberate and calculated player, Hayes is always looking for a glitch in the defensive system, which is why he’s a dangerous post player when his speed is on display. He used a handful of simple but effective spins and pivots in the post to catch defenders off guard or pump-fake them into compromised positions he could exploit. The most effective move was his quick baseline drop step for an easy layup or reverse as his defender stood flabbergasted, a move so quick in fact it drew a few unwarranted travel calls. Will that speed and simplicity work at the NBA level, though? Inside defenders will be larger, so his 254-pound frame won’t be as imposing and the post-speed disparity will be diminished. He’ll need to diversify his game inside to be as effective as he was in college and if his free-throw shooting remains underwhelming, teams won’t be afraid to send him to the line if he gets around them.

As Hayes took up more ball-handling and playmaking duties he started running more pick-and-roll, a deadly move on the wing with Ethan Happ coming to his side while three shooters spotted up on the other side of the floor. If he’s able to get around the defender, Hayes is a threat to attack the rim or use his impressive court vision to find an open shooter on the outside. With Happ rolling to the rim, Hayes could maneuver himself inside with ease, understanding the spacing and tendencies down low to find Happ in a tight space. Although he won’t see it much in the NBA, Hayes excelled against a zone defense throughout the season by catching the ball at the elbow and working a deadly two-man game with Happ to cripple the defense.

Hayes understands offense and he’ll anticipate defenders’ next move by tossing a fast-twitch, one-touch pass with ease, giving his teammates the extra second they need to get off a clean shot.

Hayes has always been a solid rebounder thanks to his size and reach, and if he’s inside he’ll give a solid box-out. If he’s stretching the floor, he’s less effective on the offensive glass, but if he sees an errant shot he’s not afraid to sky in for a massive put-back, of which he had 26 this season via Thanks to his larger body, Hayes should be able to grab rebounds at the pro level—he’ll be expected to when teams slide him down to the power forward position, as he’ll be expected to do in the shrinking NBA. At Wisconsin, he even spent some time at center when Happ needed a rest.

Defensively, Hayes can be a great lockdown defender when he’s asked to. His length was a weapon on the pack-line defense and he projects to be a good team defender, but he won’t make highlight plays. He’s got the size to body up with larger power forwards or centers, and he’s got enough speed to stick with quicker forwards. There were games through last season when someone would be destroying the Badgers individually, and Hayes would switch onto them and shut them down. He’s a smart defender who can avoid fouling his opponent well and he won’t gamble too much to put himself in a compromised position.

Hayes is capable of being a good defender at the NBA with legitimate potential to be a versatile, switchy defender, but it remains to be seen if he could shut down top-tier NBA wings like Paul George or even above-average ones like Khris Middleton.

Hayes was blessed with the physical tools to compete for a spot in the NBA, and he’s matured greatly after four years at UW-Madison spent becoming a vocal political activist for more than just the rights of NCAA athletes. His growth from joking and stenographic flirtations to elite basketball player and outspoken leader shows the benefits of going to school for four years. Unfortunately, those extra years noticeably cripple a player's draft stock. It’s up to Hayes to show NBA teams his intense work ethic and dedication to the game if he wants to make a team while also improving on the aspects of his game chronicled above. He was thought to be a late-second round prospect after his junior year and he’s dropped below that projection now, but it only takes one team. Hayes should also benefit even more greatly than Koenig from a summer league invite and a two-way contract based solely on his body and potential.

Almost every team is looking for possible “3-and-D” wing players at this point in the NBA, but projecting to the draft Thursday night and beyond, Hayes could be a good fit on the Toronto Raptors, who face the possible departure of mid-season acquisitions P.J. Tucker and Serge Ibaka. The two wing players were bulldog defenders, especially Tucker, and three-point shooting threats. The ideal version of Hayes would plug in there as a solid backup at that position who can offer some playmaking alongside their two ball-dominant guards.

The Memphis Grizzlies have a team that may lose tough-nosed players like Tony Allen and Zach Randolph in the near future, and Hayes would offer a dose of the post-play that Randolph brought and a touch of the defensive versatility that Allen had. Hayes has also shown the ability to play alongside a skilled big man, which he would be doing with Marc Gasol.

The Denver Nuggets are constantly flirting with Kenneth Faried leaving, and Hayes could fit at the end of their roster quite well. Hayes’s penchant for working the baseline and sneaking in for back-door cuts could spark some steamy chemistry with one of the most exciting young big men in the game, Nikola Jokic, while also offering some playmaking and shooting.