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2019-20 Player Preview: Jaxson Hayes possesses special blend of talent that could one day pair incredibly well with Zion Williamson

He’s got to get stronger first, but there’s a foreseeable future alongside Zion.

2019-20 New Orleans Pelicans Media Day Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

When the eighth pick was announced by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, I’ll admit there were a few of us sitting together inside the Pelicans media draft room who were not ready to jump to our feet and start dancing.

Although the selection was made on behalf of Atlanta, everyone knew Jaxson Hayes was bound for New Orleans, thanks to the agreed upon trade hours earlier which flipped the Lakers 4th overall pick in a Pelicans package (including Solomon Hill, the 57th pick, and a future second rounder) to the Hawks for their 8th, 17th (via Brooklyn Nets) and 35th picks in the 2019 NBA Draft (as well as the Cavaliers protected 2020 first rounder).

Not being as versed as the common scouting expert on most college prospects about to enter the league, basic verbiage began to flood my mind: a highlight worthy shot-blocker and finisher, a poor rebounder whose slight frame lends to getting bullied in the paint, and oft in foul trouble. The stroke from the free throw line shows promise, but he never displayed it from the field during his short stay at Texas. And as for finding open teammates, assists seemed a completely foreign concept.

After watching Darius Garland, Jarrett Culver and Coby White go in succession off the board, processing the Pelicans selection of a center inside the top 10 felt like a solid gut punch. While everyone else around the league was placing a priority on perimeter shooters and playmakers, the Pelicans elected to grab a big man, one who didn’t appear capable of spreading the floor around Zion Williamson and was a long-term project to boot.

In hindsight, my hot take amounted to uneducated trash.

Prior to watching him display that immense god-given talent in Las Vegas, digging deep into Hayes’s statistics helped reduce the anxiety in the immediate aftermath of the draft. Although he was never confused with being an even decent scoring option, it was interesting that the competition couldn’t remotely stop him when he did seek buckets — this mind you after playing basketball competitively during just his senior season at Moeller High School in Cincinnati one year earlier.

When you add up those excellent ratings on Synergy, no one was more efficient at putting the ball through the hoop in college. Hayes earned a perfect 100th percentile rating overall for his offensive exploits. For more proof, Hayes posted a stellar 75.1 true shooting percentage, beating out Zion Williamon’s 71.1 TS% as well as the shooting percentages of all other 2019 draft picks.

Combine that excellence with a monumental shot-blocking prowess — he established a conference freshman record of 71 blocks — the Big 12 Conference Freshman of the Year honors soon became a reality.

However, what makes Hayes collegiate stats really interesting is that they point to a much higher ceiling than I ever anticipated of finding. Over last 10 years, five freshman from NCAA power conferences, who appeared in a minimum of 500 minutes, have posted an 8.0+ BLK%, 70.0+ FT% and 25.0+ PER.

  • Anthony Davis
  • Karl-Anthony Towns
  • Myles Turner
  • Jaren Jackson Jr.
  • Jaxson Hayes

For what it’s worth, Zach Collins accomplished the feat for Gonzaga, a mid-major school, in 2016-17, while Joel Embiid and Mohamed Bamba narrowly missed inclusion on the list due to falling a hair short of the FT% requirement. Can Hayes follow in the footsteps of these athletic, floor-stretching bigs?

An impressive set of names to be sure, but Hayes confirmed the tantalizing skillset during the 2019 Summer League. Over a stretch of four games, where he saw a little over 24 minutes a contest, Hayes’ averages of 16.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and a 63 FG% jumped off the page...and off the court.

No lie, that dunk had to have been the most impressive ever witnessed in summer league history as I can still vividly recall the goosebumps that stood on the back of my neck. Hayes routinely put his high-flying theatrics on display in Las Vegas, but one couldn’t help but marvel at his body control and hand-eye coordination perhaps more so.

I’ve been watching NBA basketball for over 30 years now, but I’ve never seen someone with Hayes’ length exhibit the unique ability to rise up and seamlessly catch the ball in traffic with such soft hands or make the most contorted of finishes just look plain easy. JaVale McGee was supposed to be that guy until we saw enough of him and observed the questionable IQ, motor and other deficiencies.

Believe it or not, Hayes reminds me probably too much of Randy Moss, a pro football hall of fame wide receiver who routinely used to make catches ranging from easy to unbelievably difficult all look the same.

“I don’t know what stands out to people more: the overall verticality that he gets or how quickly and explosively he gets off the floor,” said Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations David Griffin to Rich Eisen back in July. “His second jump is mind-numbing. The only thing I can equate it to is Shawn Marion. Shawn averaged 20 and 10 for three straight years and I think should get far more talk of hall of fame type credentials. What Shawn did over a period of time with the Suns was mind-numbing and he did it in large part because he was so quick off the floor. He could play the four at 6’7”/230 pounds at a time when that’s not what the league was. Jaxson is that kind of quick off the floor, but he’s seven feet tall and has maybe the best hands I’ve ever seen on a big man beside Amare Stoudemire maybe.”

Now imagine having a center with those tools running alongside a passer like Lonzo Ball in a system designed to operate at breakneck speed. Griffin and Alvin Gentry have been there, done that, as they witnessed their ah-ha moment regarding the pace and effectiveness with which this young Pelicans core could play at after noticing Hayes and Zion move up and down the floor simply at half-speed while in a Vegas practice.

But here’s the kicker, Hayes could one day add an important element to his dynamic athleticism, which should already make him an elite finisher and above average defender from most spots on the floor in his career.

The feathery jumper in the lane was nice, but the made three-pointer took us all in attendance by surprise. Hayes didn’t hesitate and there was evidence of enough good form on that shot to make one believe he’ll ultimately be able to incorporate a jump shot into his bag of tricks.

“I’ve been working on it a lot,” said Hayes after that particular game. “I used to shoot them in high school.”

Before he puts the finishing touches on an outside jumper though, he’s first got to get stronger. Much stronger. Coming out of Texas, 8.6 rebounds per 40 minutes was a frightening stat to comprehend, but video footage confirmed the extreme difficultly he had in keeping his ground or creating necessary space. We’ve gone on to witness the same positioning issues in summer league and this preseason. Thus, it’s no surprise Derrick Favors and Jahlil Okafor currently populate the roster and why Griffin has inferred that the upcoming season will be a redshirt year of sorts for Hayes.

Can Jaxson Hayes eventually pair nicely along Zion Williamson? Yes, undoubtedly. The upside is enormous, given the rapid development already seen in two short years and the glimpses of rare talent that ooze so much potential.

Uhh, that was two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert!

As is often the case, raw athletes can suddenly appear on the scene and immediately capture imaginations, but they go on to completely fail to live up to the hype. Jaxson Hayes feels different. He’s been blessed with all the tools but also seems to possess the intelligence, work ethic and humility to pave a successful career — just remember to hold off on assigning a final grade for at least several years.

2019-20 Player Previews:

Jrue Holiday

Didi Louzada

E’Twaun Moore

Derrick Favors

Nickeil Alexander-Walker

Frank Jackson

Kenrich Williams

Brandon Ingram

Lonzo Ball