Detroit Pistons: Could Saben Lee and Killian Hayes be backcourt of future?

Killian Hayes #7 of the Detroit Pistons dribbles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)
Killian Hayes #7 of the Detroit Pistons dribbles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers (Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images) /

Killian Hayes has suddenly started looking to score. Being paired with fellow rookie point guard Saben Lee against Chicago, the two clicked. Could this be the Detroit Pistons backcourt of the future?

The exact time the light bulb went on for Killian Hayes might be pinpointed to the fourth quarter of the Detroit Pistons game at the Philadelphia 76ers.

The Sixers are one of the top defensive players in the NBA, and (outside of Deividas Sirvydis) the Pistons had struggled offensively, with more than a few shots ending up as airballs.

Finally, Hayes changed his role from pure playmaker to ballhandler who looked for a chance to score. One can imagine his thought process being:

‘I pass the ball and the guys I am passing to aren’t scoring. I might as well shoot it myself. Couldn’t do worse.’

Hayes poured in 10 points in the fourth quarter, not enough to change the result, but the Pistons did score 31 points in the fourth, their highest total in a quarter of the game.

Hayes and Saben Lee vs. Bulls a dangerous pair for Detroit Pistons

Fast forward 24 hours, and Killian Hayes was in the same situation.

The Pistons were trailing the Chicago Bulls and the offense was again stuck in neutral. Detroit’s ability to score had suffered a major blow when starting shooting guard Frank Jackson had to leave the game in the second quarter with a sprained ankle.

Because, basically, there were no other guards left (the vets who played against Philly were sitting this one out), in the fourth quarter coach Dwane Casey threw in rookie guard Saben Lee to play with Hayes.

Lee and Hayes are both point guards. So how did two ball-centric players do being on the court at the same time? To quote noted basketball expert Tony the Tiger: Gr-e-a-t!

Hayes scored 12 of his career-high 21 points in the fourth quarter. When Lee came in, Hayes basically become the two-guard, and hunted his own shot even more.

Lee scored five of his own points in the final seven minutes, 19 seconds of the game. During that span of the Lee-Hayes backcourt, the Pistons were +5 against the Bulls (Detroit still lost the game, which is OK).

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What was interesting was the reaction after the game. What seemed like an odd pairing was enthusiastically embraced by both players.

The 76ers and Bulls games can be seen as the turning point in Hayes development.

Remember, when Hayes hurt his hip in January and was out for three months, at the time he was shooting 25-percent from the field. The Pistons had been basically playing  4 on 5 on offense, with Hayes at the point.

Now, Hayes is scoring in a variety of ways. His step-back ‘3’ shot, which never went in at the start of the season, is now connecting. He also is not afraid to take the shot when driving to the basket, if he has an opening.

Previously, opponents knew to play Hayes on the drive for the kick-out pass. Hayes has learned that his passes are easier to make to his shooters when he is a scoring threat himself.

This is all part of the development process for the No. 7 overall draft pick. It is nice to want to first look for your teammates, but Hayes is adding to his basketball IQ that, sometimes, the one with the best chance of scoring is himself, and he should not hesitate to shoot.

What is the future of a Saben Lee-Killian Hayes backcourt?

Could Saben Lee and Killian Hayes end up as the starting backcourt for the Pistons next year? It is a possibility.

Detroit’s salary cap situation is not optimal this off-season (thanks to the Blake Griffin contract lingering) so no big-money free agent is likely coming. The Pistons could very well select in the draft center Evan Mobley or forward Jonathan Kuminga so little guard help might be found in the draft.

Detroit has a lot invested in Hayes. You can pencil him in as a starter next year. But who will start in the backcourt with him?

Coach Casey began the season pairing Hayes with another point guard, Delon Wright. If Casey wants to do that again, Lee would be the obvious choice.

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Lee is only 6-2, 180-pounds but super athletic. He dropped to the second round due to the lack of a consistent jump shot at Vanderbilt. He only made 32.8% of his three-point attempts with the Commodores.

But Lee has shown improvement in the pros. He is hitting 36.4% on threes this season. Maybe not Steph Curry-level but a vast improvement from a year ago in college.

Lee was selected 31 spots after Hayes in the 2020 draft, so Detroit is not quite as invested in him, but with a second-rounder’s salary, it certainly would help them with the salary cap if he became a rotation player.

Lee and Hayes will undoubtedly see more time together in the final games of the Pistons season. Casey is not adverse to having two point guards in the game.

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Hayes is becoming more comfortable on the offensive end. Having Lee in the game relieves him of having to bring up the ball and make the right pass. With Lee there, he can truly look for his shot and make his presence felt on offense.

If Saben Lee and Killian Hayes continue to click as a backcourt, do not be surprised if they get a return performance next year.