One year ago, Killian Hayes wasn’t projected as the top international prospect in the 2020 draft, let alone the top international guard. And even now, which of those tenets are true are largely subjective. The best international prospect? To many around the NBA, that’s Israeli forward Deni Avdija. Whether or not you can call Hayes the top international guard depends on whether you classify LaMelo Ball, who spent the past season in Australia, as international (for what it’s worth, you probably shouldn’t). Hayes was actually born in Florida, but raised in France, where his American father played professionally, and where he himself received his basketball education up until last summer, when he transferred from Cholet to German club Ulm. Safe to say, things intensified from there.
Now coming in at No. 5 on SI’s most recent Big Board, Hayes is now viewed by NBA personnel as a surefire lottery pick, having slowly but surely eclipsed French counterpart Theo Maledon, who had been the more highly-regarded player for the past couple of years. While Hayes’ range therein comes with some variance, there should be several teams in need of guard help that will look in his direction as the draft itself nears (there’s little belief around the league that it actually takes place in June, but drafting in August or September appears most feasible). In a draft class largely devoid of accomplished decision-making guards, Hayes was a breath of fresh air this season, averaging 11.5 points and 5.3 assists in 24.8 minutes as Ulm’s full-time starting point guard and answering questions about his ability to successfully run a team in a usage-heavy role.
The luxury that comes fielding multiple, net-positive playmakers on the floor at any time has become a tenet of success for a vast majority of successful NBA teams. It’s essentially a base condition for teams that want to play uptempo, move the ball, and manufacture the most efficient looks—corner threes and layups. For that style of play to translate into wins, first and foremost, you have to be able to curb the turnovers than often come as a byproduct of tempo. You could argue having one “true” point guard matters less than having two or three playmakers share the ball and share the floor. And that’s where the appeal begins with Hayes, who is arguably the most capable, mature decision-maker among the top guards in the draft, a group that includes Ball, Georgia’s Anthony Edwards, and Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton. Hayes lacks Ball’s flair, Edwards’ strength and Haliburton’s versatility, but he handles the ball with poise, creativity and pace, and his footwork at 18 years old is exceptional.
This is not an out-of-nowhere story, as Hayes has been squarely on the radar for a few years. I watched him in Basketball Without Borders’ Global Camps in 2018 and 2019 and felt he was the best guard in attendance both years. Hayes told me two years ago that he patterns his game after Manu Ginobili, which makes sense the more you watch him and understand his level of craft. Hayes has already figured out how to maximize his size and stride length at 6’5”, getting extension and covering ground effectively on drives to compensate for an inability to play at the rim. Those types of finishes were a Ginobili hallmark. Ginobili, of course, was a dynamic shot-maker, and Hayes’ jump shot and lack of explosiveness are still the big questionmarks for scouts. There’s optimism that the former will improve and that the latter can be mitigated by his technique, and it helps that Hayes has always seemed to genuinely like playing defense, even if he may not be great guarding on the ball. His size should allow him to hide away from it if necessary.
As far as the shooting is concerned, for what it’s worth, Hayes shot north of 82% from the free throw line each of the last three seasons, and his struggles from three-point range can be reasonably construed as a need for added lower-body and core strength (common in lanky guards at his age) and likely also stem from a lack of confidence. Thankfully, it’s not like Hayes is launching bad shots with no conscience, and there’s enough there to think his game expands. He’s shown a capacity to hit tough shots and create space for himself off the dribble, and scores effectively in the paint using his strong hand in a variety of situations. Shooting touch isn’t going to be the problem, and if Hayes can be even an average threat from outside, he should be able to add enough value in other areas to make a difference.
Ironically, at earlier stages of development, the Hayes was viewed by many NBA scouts as more of an American-style guard than a European one, as he could be over-reliant on breaking players down off the dribble, and played with a appealing sort of competitive wildness that also led to some inconsistency. But he’s always seen angles well and been able to find teammates and make things happen off the dribble, despite being notably strong-hand dominant. Hayes can certainly succeed as a left-hand heavy player, but it’s going to cap some of the plays he can make if he doesn’t develop some degree of comfort throwing the ball around and finishing with his right. But his season at Ulm came as an all-around step in the right direction, effectively showcasing a new level of polish against decent competition and doing a lot of damage using ball screens. It’s become very hard for opponents to speed him up, and his turnovers tend to be aggressive rather than careless.
Hayes has a unique type of cadence to his dribble that makes him difficult to guard, and it’s not totally crazy to think that if everything breaks right, he could handle a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander or Jamal Murray-type offensive role as a playmaking combo guard. The long-term potential has always been fairly obvious, and he doesn’t turn 19 until July, leaving plenty of room for optimism as far as his development runway is concerned. Where he actually lands in the lottery will depend strongly on team fit, but a team like the Knicks or Bulls in need of a true playmaker could make sense as a landing spot. It’ll take some patience for Hayes to work out the kinks, and if he doesn’t shoot, taking him in the Top 10 may not look like a good decision in hindsight. But there’s plenty of reason to be comfortable betting on him, and for many players in this draft class, that’s not quite the case.