It’s not easy for a 7-foot-tall man to be invisible, but Bradley Hayes pulled it off. Day after day, the Georgetown center would work hard at practice, only to find himself stuck on the Hoyas’ bench during games. Like Dr. Seuss’s Horton the Elephant, he sat and he sat and he sat, waiting his turn and biding his time for three ... long ... years.
Then Poof! Hayes seemed to appear from out of nowhere on Dec. 5 during the Hoyas’ signature win of the season, a 79–72 triumph over former Big East rival Syracuse. In 28 minutes of play, the 275-pound senior had a career-high 21 points and eight rebounds. That performance was no anomaly. Through the first 10 games of the season, Hayes has been the Hoyas’ third-leading scorer at 10.4 points per game. He has already played more minutes (219), attempted more shots (75) and scored more points (104) than he did during his first three years combined. Not only is he arguably the nation’s most improved player, but he is also the most unlikely improved player. And he’s still getting better.
Yet, to his coach, Hayes is no fluke. He is reaping the benefits of many long, lonely hours in the practice gym. “It’s going to sound crazy, but I’m not surprised,” John Thompson III says. “In four years, he has never whined about minutes. He has been trying to absorb information and get better. He meticulously, methodically, consistently worked and worked. I’m really glad that he’s producing now, because he is totally selfless. All he cares about is Georgetown and Georgetown basketball.”
Hayes’s story cuts against college basketball’s strongest trend, whereby upwards of 600 players transfer schools each spring in search of more playing time. As he sat on the bench those first few seasons, Hayes heard from plenty of friends in his hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., who encouraged him to think about leaving Georgetown. He ignored them. In Hayes’s mind, he had committed to being a Hoya. “Not for a minute did I think of transferring. Not for a minute did I think I was going to leave,” he says. “Loyalty plays a major part in my life. Coach Thompson took a chance on a guy nobody heard of. From the point he called and offered me a scholarship, I was hooked.”
The truth is, Thompson didn’t know what he was getting when he invited Hayes into the program. As a freshman at Sandalwood High School in 2008-09, Hayes did not play basketball because of poor academics. Then he missed his sophomore and junior seasons because of a horrific leg injury in which he broke his tibia and dislocated his kneecap. He finally joined the varsity as a senior. Midway through the season, Thompson got word there was an uncommitted big man in Jacksonville he might want to check out, so he flew to Florida and watched Hayes play. Thompson was skeptical until he sat and talked with Hayes for a while. “He just seemed to have a willingness,” Thompson says. “You make mistakes in this business. Recruiting is an inexact science. He was big and he was mobile, but you could tell he had a long way to go. After talking to him, I realized it was someone you could take a chance on.”
To that point, Hayes had only drawn interest from a few mid-major schools. When word got out that Georgetown had made an offer, and as Hayes continued to play well (he averaged 13.3 points and 12.2 rebounds), other high-major programs like Connecticut, Georgia, Memphis and Virginia Tech came calling. Hayes, however, never forgot that Thompson was the first to show faith. He signed with Georgetown in the spring of 2012.
Their bond was strengthened through tragedy a few months later. Right before the start of Hayes’s freshman season, his older brother, Michael, called and told him their father had died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Brad Hayes was only 46 years old. When Thompson heard the news, he rushed to Hayes’s dorm room and sat with him through the night. His teammates filtered in and out for much of the evening. Thompson later flew to Florida with Hayes for the funeral. “From that point on, I knew this was where I was going to be the next four years of my life,” Hayes says.
That commitment was tested often. As a freshman, Hayes played 14 minutes the entire season and did not score a point. As a sophomore, he played 51 minutes and scored 14 points. Last season, he played 69 minutes and scored 16 points. Along the way he felt frustrated and discouraged, but never defeated. For that, he credits the inner resolve instilled by his parents. His father had put in long hours as an auto mechanic and detailer. When Bradley first took up basketball at age eight, his dad insisted that he either commit to the sport fully or not play at all. “My father always taught me that when something isn’t working your way, you don’t quit. You make it work,” Bradley said.
Bradley likewise recalls watching his mother, Mary, work multiple jobs while he was younger and the family lived in Rochester, N.Y., where they lived before moving to Florida when Bradley was in the eighth grade. “She would come back at night freezing and hungry, but no matter how tired or sick she was, she went to work the next day.”
That’s why Hayes never heeded his buddies who encouraged him to transfer. It’s also why he never resented the coach who refused to put him in the games. “At the end of the day, this is his job. If the coach thought not playing me was what’s best for the program, I can’t hold that against him,” Hayes says. “Most kids who were nationally ranked coming out of high school expect everything to be given to them so quickly, but I didn’t come from that type of environment. I wasn’t praised in everything I did. I had to work for everything I had.”
Hayes finally got his big break on the biggest stage. During the first round of the NCAA tournament last March, the Hoyas, the No. 4 seed in the South Regional, were trailing No. 13 Eastern Washington by five points midway through the first half. Hayes could see the panic on his teammates’ faces, who were rattled by the program’s recent history of early exits from the Big Dance. When a couple of Georgetown’s frontcourt players got into foul trouble, Hayes quietly hoped that Thompson would put him in the game.
Thompson summoned Hayes to the scorer’s table. With his heart racing, Hayes checked into the game. All that waiting, all those practice hours came pouring out in 10 glorious minutes, during which Hayes had eight points, six rebounds and one assist. Eastern Washington’s lead evaporated and the Hoyas went into the half leading by 10 points. Though Hayes didn't play in the second half as Georgetown maintained control, he had done enough to spark his team to an 84–74 win. “The clouds opened up for him at that point,” Thompson says, “and they’ve stayed open.”
Hayes went scoreless in eight minutes in the Hoyas' loss to Utah in the round of 32. After the game, Thompson told Hayes he was depending on him to be part of the rotation in 2015–16. He also told Hayes he needed him to be a team leader, so he made him a captain. Once again, Hayes put in his work during the off-season, developing his offensive moves and improving his conditioning. He also became a diligent student of the game. “He said to me about two weeks ago, ‘Coach, I was watching a video compilation of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s hook shot,” Thompson says with a laugh. “Now what kid today does that?”
Hayes began his senior season by scoring a career-high 19 points in a double-overtime loss to Radford, and he's now averaging 10.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in 22.6 minutes for the 6-5 Hoyas. As Hayes has developed into a polished offensive player—he sometimes uses a baby hook, but the Kareem-style sky hook is still a work in progress—Thompson has felt compelled to remind him of what got him here in the first place: hustling, scrapping and out-working the competition. Hayes took the advice as seriously as everything else his coach has said. “He’s got an old soul,” Thompson says. “He’s settled. He’s comfortable with who he is. I think he has a realistic view of himself and how he relates to the world. A lot of high school and college basketball players don’t have that.”
That does not mean, however, that Hayes is setting his sights any lower than his teammates. He may not carry the profile of a future professional, but insists that is his goal. Realistic? Perhaps not. But for Hayes, it is a prize worth waiting for. “I hear friends back home saying, ‘You don’t really think you’re going to the NBA, do you?’ I say, ‘Yeah. Why not?’” he says. “I know I’m going to have to work for everything I get in life, but that’s something that I’m used to. So I’m willing to accept that challenge. The more people tell me I can’t do something, the more I want to prove them wrong.”