For the third time in as many years, a Texas Longhorns freshman big man is NBA bound after only one season, with Jaxson Hayes becoming the latest example, following in the footsteps of Mohamed Bamba and Jarrett Allen. However, his path to this point didn’t exactly align with his predecessors. In mid-April, when Hayes announced his decision to depart for the NBA and hire an agent, it marked the pre-draft pinnacle of a rise that can be described as nothing short of meteoric throughout the past eight-plus months, because though expectations catapulted as Hayes emerged, he didn’t exactly arrive in Austin as the projected lottery pick he’s since become.
When Hayes first stepped foot on the Forty Acres last summer, he did so as an unpolished, under-the-radar recruit ranked outside of the top-100 nationally and outside of the top-20 at the power forward position, according to the 247Sports Composite.
As is the case with numerous aspects of his game, Hayes has grown and developed physically throughout the previous two years. Beyond five-inch growth spurt Hayes experienced during the summer between his junior and senior seasons at Cincinnati (Oh.) Archbishop Moeller, which also served as Hayes’ first significant on-court experience after averaging only 1.1 points and two rebounds per contest in limited minutes in 2016-17, the one-time 6’10, 195-pounder’s development has been sudden and substantial.
After adding another inch and nearly 25 pounds to his frame, the former power forward prospect is now a 6’11, 219-pound center, and in the eyes of NBA scouts and analysts such as ESPN’s Jonathan Givony, a borderline top-10 prospect overall and the top talent at his position.
The latter ranking is even more remarkable when bearing in mind that Hayes wasn’t even considered to be the best center on the Longhorns roster at the front end of his freshman campaign, serving as the backup to sophomore Jericho Sims. That quickly changed, though, as Hayes leapfrogged Sims and snatched starting role before the non-conference slate concluded. More so, with performances such as his 15-point, nine-rebound, three-block effort in a win over North Carolina, and getting the best of Purdue’s 7’3 sophomore center Matt Haarms with a 14-point, three-block evening, Hayes wasted little time demanding space on opposing scouting reports.
“He’s at the front of the scouting report now and, you know, at the beginning of the year he wasn’t,” Texas head coach Shaka Smart said of Hayes in mid-February. “There’s a lot expected of him now, both internally and externally. At the beginning of the year, there wasn’t.”
Beyond finding himself front and center on scouting reports, Hayes’ name began to appear at the front end of various 2019 NBA mock drafts, and as was the case with both Allen and Bamba, who went on to become the 22nd and 6th picks in the 2017 and 2018 NBA Drafts, respectively, it became quite clear as the 2018-19 campaign progressed that Hayes’ first season in Austin would be his last.
Now the Longhorns’ latest one-and-done big man and the program’s fourth in five years, Hayes is widely projected to hear his name called earlier than all but Bamba courtesy of his seemingly untapped upside as a low-usage, tremendously efficient two-way talent.
At this considerably early stage in his development, Hayes leaves plenty to be desired offensively, but he should at least prove semi-serviceable to start his professional career.
Hayes was seldom a go-to option offensively in Austin, but he consistently found points as a rim-runner and courtesy his 7’3.5 wingspan, 9’2.5 standing reach, and notable knack for contorting his body mid-air to adjust to passes, he provided the Longhorns with an excellent lob target coming out of pick and roll sets.
This, in turn, often allowed Hayes to showcase his explosive leaping ability.
With impressive hands — credit his background as a wide receiver in high school — Hayes catches and finishes nearly opportunity around the rim, as evident with his 86.7 percent field goal success rate at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com. The issue as far as Hayes’ NBA upside in this capacity is concerned, though, is that the NBA has drifted away from traditional pick-and-roll sets, as only the Indiana Pacers (10.1%) finished sets with the roll man making a play more than 7.7 percent of the time, per stats.nba.com. That said, there will still be points to be had coming out of pick-and-roll sets, and when those opportunities arise, Hayes makes the most of them, as he averaged 1.429 points per possession on 70 attempts last season and converted at an 80 percent clip (40-of-50).
While that ideal efficiency and ability to thrive in those situations is notable, it’s also worth noting that the NBA has trended towards pace and space and in what’s become a perimeter-oriented league, increased value is placed on big men that can stretch the floor and shoot from the perimeter.
To that end, Hayes hit just three jump shots last season, and even each of those came within the paint, per Synergy Sports Technology. However, Texas head coach Shaka Smart is confident that Hayes can ultimately develop a consistent jump shot.
“As far as his game, he’s going to be able to make jumpers,” Smart told NBA.com. “He’s going to put the ball on the floor. The way the NBA’s going, he’ll probably eventually shoot threes. The kid’s just a puppy. Who knows what he’s capable of doing?”
There is some evidence to support Smart’s expectations. Hayes displays a fluid free throw form and converts accordingly, as he made 74 percent of his free throw attempts as a freshman, including 82.3 percent (51-62) throughout conference play. Realistically speaking, though, the fact that Hayes connected on just three jump shots as a freshman suggests that it would be premature to expect that aspect of his game to be consistently serviceable, at least throughout his first few seasons among the NBA ranks.
Rather, Hayes’ offensive bread and butter will be, as noted, his efficiency on the receiving end of pick-and-rolls, and to fill in the gaps, he’ll find a few points here and there in the post. Again, Hayes was seldom a go-to option offensively in Austin and he’ll be relied upon even less often early on in the NBA, as his back-to-the-basket game isn’t much to write home about, but he did grow fond of a few moves such as a right hook over his left shoulder that should serve as a solid foundation for his future franchise to build upon. And furthermore, he was tremendously efficient in that aspect, as well, as his 1.051 points per possession on post-ups ranked in the 90th percentile nationally.
When Hayes’ entire offensive contributions are collectively considered, he boasted a Big 12-best 73.9 percent true shooting percentage, and his 133.7 offensive rating ranked seventh nationally.
Courtesy of such efficiency, despite being a low-usage interior presence, Hayes’ presence alone often made the difference offensively, as Texas scored 1.11 points per possession with Hayes on the floor, as opposed to just 1.01 while he sat.
Beyond what Hayes brings to the table from a simple scoring standpoint, he doesn’t offer much in terms of orchestrating for others offensively. Last season, Hayes dished out only nine assists in 747 minutes, though there is a bit of a case to be made that Hayes’ lack of passing productivity may be a reflection of Smart’s system and the role big men play in it. For example, Bamba totaled just 15 assists in 906 minutes, and Allen produced 27 assists in 1,061 minutes of action.
In short, Hayes is quite obviously raw offensively, which is to be expected from a big man who’s essentially spent just two seasons as a key contributor at any level, but he’s well aware of what he does bring to the table entering the NBA.
“I’m a tall, athletic big who can run the floor really well, defend the rim,” Hayes said when asked about his pitch to NBA teams. “Score around the rim and in the pick-and-roll.”
As is the case with Hayes on the offensive end, his impact defensively provides much to like and some to loathe. Much like his predecessors in Allen and Bamba, much of the pre-draft praise pointed in Hayes’ direction comes courtesy of his upside and impact as a shot blocker.
Despite playing just 23.3 minutes per contest, Hayes blocked 2.2 shots each time out, which was good for third-best in the Big 12, and that effort increases to 3.8 rejections per 40 minutes. Of course, it certainly helps when protecting the paint when one boasts a 7’3.5 wingspan and 9’2.5 standing reach, but Hayes displays impressive timing and instincts around the rim, which helped paved the way for a nationally elite 10.6-percent block percentage.
However, there is a downside to Hayes taking those risks to protect the rim.
Despite playing just 747 minutes and missing the final five games of Texas’ season with a knee injury, Hayes, who could be caught out of position at times, committed 107 fouls last season, which was the second-most in the Big 12. More notably, his 0.66 blocks-to-fouls ratio ranked as the worst of anyone among the top-30 in blocks per game during the regular season.
That said, given that Hayes is still tremendously raw simply due to sheer inexperience, the foul issue should prove fixable as he spends more and more time on the hardwood.
On the other hand, bearing that inexperience in mind makes the fact that Hayes is already so adept and comfortable defending all five positions on the floor and bouncing out onto the ball handler coming off of pick-and-rolls, there’s reason to believe that he boasts elite upside defensively, as he was last season en route to Big 12 All-Defensive Team honors.
“I feel like I’ll be able to fit into the NBA right now really well just because I can switch one-through-five, run the floor really well,” Hayes said at the NBA Combine. “The game’s at a really fast pace right now.”
Hayes can block shots — albeit by committing fouls as a byproduct — and he can defend all five positions on the floor, though that will be easier said than done to do the same against NBA-level guards, but can he snag rebounds?
Well, the numbers say not very well. Hayes’ strength, or the lack thereof at just 219 pounds, likely played into his defensive rebounding struggles, but nevertheless, he never emerged as a force on the glass. Hayes surprisingly didn’t record a double-double at Texas and snagged at least 10 rebounds just once, doing so against Kansas State with 11 boards.
NBCSports’ Mark Strotman provided some further perspective on Hayes’ struggles on the defensive glass.
“Hayes had a defensive rebound percentage of 16.2% last season. Compare that to freshmen seasons from players like Deandre Ayton (28.2%), Mo Bamba (28.2%), Joel Embiid (27.3%), Myles Turner (24.9%), Zach Collins (23.2%), Wendell Carter (23.1%) and Karl-Anthony Towns (22.2%), and you really see just how unimpressive he was on the glass. It’s a real concern for someone who also didn’t test all that well at the Combine in the strength and agility testing.”
In a draft in which the consensus seems to be that the talent level becomes fairly even throughout projected picks 4-14, Hayes owns as much of the ever-valued upside and potential as any other prospect, and arguably more given that he’s still so new to the game. Simply put, the potential for tremendous long-term growth is apparent and it’s largely why Hayes has blossomed into a lottery prospect.
He’ll agree to that end.
“When I look in the mirror, I see a young guy who still has a lot of potential,” Hayes said, per Yahoo! Sports. “Right now, I can just bring my athleticism and length to the team.”