Before the 2019 NBA Draft arrives, Peachtree Hoops will break down more than 75 available prospects with an eye toward what the Atlanta Hawks may look to do in late June.
This installment hones in on Texas center Jaxson Hayes.
Jaxson Hayes fits a relatively common and very useful archetype in the NBA. He’s a rim-running center who plays in the paint on both ends of the floor, skying for lobs in pick-and-roll and protecting the rim defensively. He has the physical profile of a player who will patrol the paint on defense and ensure that a team’s defense can’t fall past a certain mark simply based on his presence at the rim, which at the very least makes him a very valuable regular season defender. However, there are questions with respect to his basketball IQ, just how valuable Hayes’ archetype is when the NBA Playoffs arrive, and whether or not he can expand his game to offer more than just paint-to-paint play.
Hayes can jump out of the gym and will immediately be a very strong lob threat in pick-and-roll and in transition. The sort of gravity he brings to the pick-and-roll game will open up shooters without him ever needing to touch the ball. Paired with a high-level passer in a primary playmaker role, he’ll be an important part of his team’s offense on nearly every possession with his pick-and-roll prowess. He has excellent hands for a big man and a massive catch radius; a point guard doesn’t have to put it right on the rim for him to be able to catch and finish inside.
The issues with Hayes offensively don’t come in the things he tries and can’t do, they come in the things that he never tries at all. He’s purely a roll man in pick-and-roll at this point, with no real ability to hit shots outside of the immediate basket area. He’s not a passer from the elbows and can’t create anything for anybody, including himself, in the post, with a very basic package of post moves and clunky finishes on anything outside of a few feet of the rim. Interestingly, Hayes shot 74 percent from the free throw line in his lone year at Texas, which is a potential indicator that he could develop a jumper down the line. He flashes good touch every once in a while, but it’s not a strong part of his game right now. Even if he had the short hook/floater game Steven Adams has, it would drastically improve his ability to contribute offensively.
On the other end of the floor, Hayes is a long and athletic big man, with potential as a paint prowler at the highest levels. The same length, hands, and vertical athleticism that are the hallmarks of his offensive game can help him be one of the NBA’s best rim protectors. Center is the most impactful position defensively and if Hayes can anchor a high-level defense, that will go a long way toward making up for relative lack of offensive versatility.
One area in which a lot of rim-protecting centers lack is defensive versatility, but Hayes should be able to play out on the perimeter much better than many of the best rim protectors can in the league today. While players like Rudy Gobert don’t have the foot speed to do well on the perimeter, Hayes has good feet and plays with the requisite effort to be a multi-level defender, which will enable his team to play various defensive schemes and keep the offense guessing. If a center were to be one-dimensional, having that one dimension be rim protection is fantastic, which is part of why Gobert is one of the best defenders in the league, but we’ve seen his style of play become something of a slight liability in the playoffs, where Hayes’ lateral mobility may give him an advantage against quick-trigger guards.
Of course, your athleticism doesn’t matter if you’re not in the right position to use it, which is where Hayes falls considerably short at this point in his career. Fully capable of making plays when he’s in the correct spots, he has very little recognition and is absolutely a work-in-progress from a basketball IQ perspective. Outside of being large and very athletic, Hayes seems to have no real idea what he’s doing defensively. His defensive decision making isn’t nearly as bad as Bol Bol’s, but he’s going to be a negative on that end of the floor until he’s able to grasp the nuances of pick-and-roll defense as the big man. Of potential optimism is the fact that Hayes was a (very) late-bloomer, zooming on to the high-level prospect scene late in high school, and that could foreshadow more rapid growth.
Another area of his game that will have to improve is his overall strength. He gets pushed around constantly, a problem that will only deepen in the NBA. Plenty of centers come into the league underweight and put on muscle in their first two or three years in the league, so it’s not a huge worry for him. He has the frame to support the extra weight, but it is an area of concern at this point. Early in his career, his teams will have trouble on the defensive glass as a result of his skinny frame and will have to send extra men to the boards to dissuade easy putbacks for opposing centers.
Between his poor recognition and lack of strength, Hayes commits a ton of fouls. One of the dangerous aspects of being constantly out of position defensively is having to reach, which leads him to pick up a number of cheap fouls on drivers or other players in the paint. At the rim, he has issues staying vertical when he takes a hit to his chest from an incoming driver, a problem that will only be exacerbated against stronger and more athletic competition. As a result, he has to bring his hands down; he’ll get tagged for a lot of fouls in his first few years in the league.
One of the biggest issues with Hayes’ game is something that’s mostly out of his control – the league is just overrun with players who bring most of what he brings to the table, and those players are constantly available on the free agent market for very cheap. Unless he develops into a true giant defensively, something that’s going to take a lot of work on his body and mind, there’s a significant chance he’s not far enough above a replacement-level center to be worth the lottery investment he seems bound to get. His ceiling as a rim protector and lob threat is certainly enticing, particularly if he can add a short jumper to his repertoire, but the median outcome for a player of Hayes’ profile doesn’t necessarily stand out and the work it’s going to take for him to reach that ceiling is perhaps more than a team should be willing to invest to make him a top-tier pick without full buy-in toward his upside.