Stay Or Go? Wisconsin junior Nigel Hayes
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Thanks to an NCAA rule change this season, underclassmen are allowed to declare early for the NBA draft, go through the evaluation process and then choose to go pro or return to school (if they haven’t signed with an agent). From now until May 25, which is decision day, SI will periodically weigh in on the most interesting decisions left to be made. Up next is Providence sophomore forward Ben Bentil.
Season review: The 6’8” forward led Wisconsin in scoring (15.7 points per game) and assists (3.0) and finished second on the team in rebounding (5.8), helping guide the Badgers through the tumult of the Bo Ryan-to-Greg Gard coaching transition and into the Sweet 16.
The Case for College: With the departures of multiple core players who helped fuel Wisconsin’s back-to-back Final Four runs—most notably first-round picks Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker—Hayes was expected to seize the reins and become the next Badgers’ star. But he finished his junior season with the lowest Offensive Rating (103.6) among Wisconsin players who used at least 20% of their squad’s possessions, according to Kenpom.com. There’s no denying that Hayes has the potential to be a versatile cog that can produce or create on multiple levels offensively. But the reality is that his 36.8% shooting, including a middling 40% on two-point attempts, was not the stuff of a dominant lead dog. He regressed, too, as a three-point shooter, going from 39.6% as a sophomore to 29.3% as a junior. When the lights shone brightest, Hayes shot a confounding 20.4% (11 of 54) in four postseason games.
There’s an argument that the longer a player stays in college, the more every one of his nits gets picked over by NBA scouts. Hayes may have already reached that point. So, he should press the reset button, hit the gym and attempt to put together an ascendant senior season offensively—for a team that will have the stability of Gard in place as the permanent head coach and enough returning talent elsewhere to challenge for a Big Ten title. If Hayes demonstrates a high level of offensive efficiency in his final college campaign, he may re-secure a first round spot in the 2017 draft.
The Case for the NBA: Kaminsky averaged 18.8 points per game during a senior season that resulted in multiple national player of the year honors. That is clearly good. Yet it is not an astounding figure, and it’s just 3.1 points more than Hayes averaged as a junior. Thus the question: Can Hayes improve significantly enough in Madison to change people’s minds, anyway? He’s not suddenly going to be an explosive scorer, not with the way the Badgers will play under Gard. It was an overreliance on isolation early in the 2015-16 season that bogged things down almost to the point of no return for Wisconsin. If the NBA is looking for Hayes to demonstrate that he can be an assertive option to take over games, you wonder how many opportunities he’ll have to do that as a senior.
Hayes gets full marks for attempting zero three-pointers as a freshman and subsequently doing enough self-improvement work to become at least a threat from long range. But now he’s caught in the middle: He doesn’t project to have a future as a back-to-the-basket scorer in the pros, and hoisting a bunch of three-pointers probably won’t be the way to help Wisconsin win next winter. So if his best path to an extended pro career is tirelessly honing his three-point stroke, then Hayes can be substantially more focused on that goal as a pro than as a student-athlete.
Mock Draft rankings: SI (first round only): Unranked; DraftExpress: Unranked
Verdict: Stay. He doesn’t project as a first-round pick right now, but one efficient offensive season in Madison can change that.