Stop me if you have heard this brief synopsis of an NBA draft prospect before?
A 6’11” true freshman lottery prospect who, while raw and lacking production, oozes upside due to his athleticism, energy, and defensive potential?
If that sounds familiar, it should. That description was applied to Jaren Jackson Jr. many times just one year ago leading up to the 2018 NBA draft. In 2019, this description applies very well to University of Texas center Jaxson Hayes. While Hayes may not have the ceiling of Jackson Jr., he still provides tremendous upside that makes him a likely lottery lock for the 2019 NBA draft.
The first thing that grabs your attention about Hayes is his pedigree, as Chris Dortch of NBA.com mentions in this insightful article about Hayes. Hayes is the son of Jonathan and Kristi Hayes. Jonathan Hayes was an NFL tight end for 12 years and currently is the tight ends coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. Kristi is a former women’s basketball player at Drake University. Both of Hayes’ parents come from exceptional athletic backgrounds, which offers promise that Jaxson Hayes will continue to mature both physically and mentally.
Beyond his genetics, Hayes is also the latest Longhorns big man grabbing the attention of NBA scouts. Following in the footsteps of Jarrett Allen in 2017 and Mo Bamba in 2018, Hayes comes from a program under Shaka Smart that is becoming a pipeline for post prospects. While Hayes may take a bit more time to develop, the fact he comes from a program known for developing bigs bodes well for his future.
This past season, Hayes averaged 10 points, 5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game. He was one of only eight freshman to produce more than 70 blocks, and the only one in the nation to do it in under 750 minutes played. Hayes earned several post-season honors, including Big 12 Rookie of the Year, All Big 12 Second team member, All Big-12 Newcomer team member, All Big 12 Defensive team member, and All Big 12 Freshman team member. The accolades certainly spotlight the difference Hayes can make on the court, and the many reasons why NBA scouts are so intrigued with his potential.
The biggest strength Jaxson Hayes offers is length and athleticism, highlighted by a 7’3’’ wingspan. Hayes uses his attributes at both ends of the court to both protect and attack the rim. He has been described as a “pogo stick” of an athlete, as his long arms and quick reactions allow for him to instantly create disruption on defense and find scoring opportunities on offense. He plays with good energy and emotion, and seems to be able to keep both in control.
When examining Hayes offensive game, it is pretty easy to see his roles and the impact he makes. He is very good at moving his feet as a big man, rather it be going to the basket, rolling off a screen, or positioning himself for a lob. While his offensive game is limited to catching lobs and low-post passes at the moment, he is very efficient. His large hands and length allow for him to have an amazing catch radius, as his reach can extend vertically and horizontally to points most players cannot.
I am not going to be able to get over this play. I don't care that Jaxson Hayes misses this layup, this is absolutely freakish for a guy who's 6'11"/7'0" to be moving like that pic.twitter.com/3DcBEnmwQQ— Jackson Hoy (@jacksonghoy) December 31, 2018
While Hayes does a lot of his damage as the roll guy or in the post, he does not embarrass himself with the ball in his hands. His defensive potential could make him a consistent creator of turnovers at the NBA level, and having the ability to move while putting the basketball on the floor is a big advantage for a man his size. While his ball control and dribbling may not be ideal, he can also run the court quickly and with ease. This will make him a good scoring option in transition and on fast breaks in the NBA.
Hayes also has a good feel for the game at a young age. His ability to take good routes to the rim for lobs off pick and rolls is advanced for his age. Furthermore, Hayes does a very good job of positioning himself in open spaces for lobs or passes when he is on the baseline or in the post. All of these traits led to a historic season of efficiency for Hayes in his freshman year. His 72.8% field goal percentage is the highest for any freshman that has taken at least 165 field goal attempts in a season over the past 25 years. Furthermore, Hayes is not a liability if he is fouled, as he shot 74% from the free throw line.
Similar to Jackson Jr., Hayes may have a higher ceiling on defense than offense, which is rare for a rookie. Just as it makes him highly efficient on offense, Hayes’ length, athleticism, and footwork all make him a disruptive defender. His main strength is his blocking ability, and its not just because he is a highlight creator. Hayes can establish his position and extend his hands straight up instantly with good posture and a strong base. He also has good body control to stay effective when jumping without causing fouls at an extremely high rate. He arguably is the best rim protector in the 2019 draft.
Beyond his ability at the rim, his quick and effective footwork can create havoc away from the post. If he extends away from the rim, he is not an instant liability, as he knows how to use his hands to disrupt passes. He also can move quickly to stay with his defender. Hayes created 19 steals his freshman year, many coming from intercepting passes to the post. Just as his length makes it hard to shoot over him, it also makes him effective at denying passes to the post.
AREAS OF IMPROVEMENT
The biggest flaw in Hayes’ current profile is expected. He is very raw simply because he is so young, and as a result could be limited as his NBA career begins until he becomes more refined. On offense, the big stat that jumps out was his lack of actual shooting. As Dortch’s article mentions, Hayes attempted one jump shot all season. It is certainly logical that the Texas coaching staff made things simple for Hayes as a freshman. However, an NBA team will be drafting Hayes with essentially no evidence of his in-game shooting ability. One area that suggests Hayes has the potential to develop a jumper is his success at the charity stripe (74%).
Currently, Hayes is not a strong source of rebounds . He was one of only 30 players in NCAA basketball to total more than 70 blocks in the 2018-2019 season. Of those 30 players, Hayes was one of only seven to register a total rebounding percentage of 12.5% or lower. There are a few logical reasons beyond Hayes that contributed to his low rebound rates. First, Smart’s Texas teams have never finished higher than sixth in a team rebounding category in his four years there. Secondly, Hayes is still naturally growing, and as his body matures, his fundamental strength should help with boxing out.
Other weaknesses in Hayes’ game are simply byproducts of his age and limited experience. His tendency to foul at times, limited success against stronger opponents, and lapses in focus and awareness occur with young post players. Furthermore, Hayes’ basketball experience likely is more limited than most. As Dortch mentions, Hayes primary focus was football until his junior year of high school. At that point, Hayes’ height and body composition just made basketball the better career choice. While his natural strengths offer immense potential that an NBA team should covet, it is very likely Hayes will not be an instant contributor. It could take multiple seasons for him to learn and mature into a significant presence in the NBA.
The link between Hayes and Jackson Jr. is more of a point of reference than a comparison. Hayes does not profile as having the same ceiling. However, Hayes does project in time to be a valuable starting center in the NBA, and one that can make a difference on both ends of the court. As we see every year, NBA teams in the lottery are always looking for long term solutions in the post. While it may take time, Hayes offers the potential to be a highly energetic, athletic, and productive post presence in the NBA for many years to come.