Nigel Hayes & Bronson Koenig: A Tale of Two Freshmen

Mike McGinnis

How have the two crown jewels of Wisconsin's 2013 recruiting class impacted the team as Big Ten play picks up?

The Wisconsin Badgers pulled a 5-member recruiting class for the 2013 season, but there were no disputes as to who the stars were: power forward Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig. Both players entered Madison in positions of need, and were expected to contribute immediately. But as Badger fans know, Hayes has wowed while Koenig hasn't become a major factor. Now that we've reached February, we can to fully assess their contributions to the team and how they fit for the rest of the 2013 season and for the future.

It's only fitting that Hayes, a native Ohioan who comes from a Buckeye family, had another impressive game in the Badgers' loss to OSU on Saturday. He was lights-out from the field, shooting 6-7 for a total of 17 points. That's been the most impressive aspect of Hayes' game: his shooting. His ability to knock down an 18-foot jump shot with relative consistency proves that he is miles ahead of where people thought he would be as a freshman.

Physically, he's up there with the roughest and most physical in the Big Ten. Often, guys like that don't have the ability to step out and bury a jumper because they rarely need to - they can just body their way through defenders and make a layup. But Hayes' confidence in his jumper for a freshman is a very inspiring sign for his development during his tenure in Madison. Something to watch for is if he will ever add a three-pointer. If you watch him in warmups, he practically has his heels on the three point line, and buries long twos. There's certainly a mental gap in taking the extra step back behind the arc for three, but the Wisconsin coaching staff knows how to groom shooters.

Another impressive part of Hayes' game is his intelligence with the ball and without the ball. Because he's always in the right place at the right time, a lot of Wisconsin's possessions run through him when he's on the court. He leads the team in Percentage of Possessions Used (%Poss) at 25.2, and doesn't even start. That proves the coaches trust him to make a smart decision with the ball, even though he's just a freshman. His smarts are on display in this clip from the Wisconsin victory over Northwestern in January.

You see Hayes start the ball-movement with a smart pass to Dekker down low, who then kicks it out for a Gasser three. Although Hayes can't pull down the rebound, he's able to swat the ball back to the top of the key, keeping possession alive. Then, he stays calm and knifes his way through the unorganized Wildcat defense, and puts himself in perfect position for an easy slam. That type of maturity will go miles for the young freshman.

He also is one of the nation's leaders in Fouls Drawn per 40 Minutes, as his 7.5 FD/40 is 16th in the nation. That's an inspiring sign, because it proves he uses his big body efficiently, and gets to the line frequently. Herein lies Hayes' downfall: foul shooting. He's shooting 57% from the charity stripe this season, which isn't a death sentence for a freshman power forward, but it's not good. We know he can shoot, because his mid-range game is money, but his 5-11 performance from the line dampened his great performance against Ohio State. Wisconsin big men have struggled recently with foul shooting, and while Hayes has time to fix it, that's his fatal flaw.

Hayes' freshman campaign is very similar to Dekker's freshman season, mostly in the way that the players are perceived. Last season, everyone knew Dekker was talented, but he remained the 6th man for most of the season. In his small doses of minutes, he kept the offense alive and made the fans happy. This season, Hayes remains the 6th man, and makes everyone feel warm and fuzzy inside when he comes off the bench and has another great game. It's imperative for Hayes to not mirror Dekker's sophomore campaign. This season, Dekker has not taken the leap than fans expected, and has contributed to the recent losses. If Hayes can add more to his game for next year, the Badger frontcourt will be in good hands for years to come.

Depending on what source you use, Bronson Koenig may have been the biggest prize of the 2013 recruiting class. The La Crosse, WI product fielded offers from Duke, Kansas, and North Carolina. While one may think that would mean Koenig would take on a large role as a freshman, he's yet to do so. In Big Ten play, he hasn't seen more than 23 minutes of action, and even in those extended roles, he's not impacting the game the way his fellow freshman Hayes has done.

My biggest fear with Koenig is the fact that he's not seeing legitimate minutes while Traevon Jackson continues his tough season. The Northwestern loss at home is exhibit A. Jackson, like the rest of the team, had a bad game. He shot 2-12 from the field, and made some questionable decisions with the ball late. But he played 35 minutes that game, while Koenig played only 4. When Jackson has a game like that, you would think Bo Ryan would look to his backup to give him a rest and restart the offense. But, clearly Ryan does not trust Koenig with that responsibility just yet. If Koenig was ready for the big stage, he would be seeing way more minutes than he currently does. Interestingly enough, Hayes had 24 minutes in the Northwestern loss. Ryan trusts him to perform well in big games, and gives him minutes accordingly.

That's not to say that Koenig is a failure. Quite the opposite. He has the potential to become Wisconsin's next great point guard, and from what it sounds like, he's learning how to adjust into his smaller role.

"Coming from high school, you played almost the whole game," Koenig said. "To be here and not playing all that much, coming in and out, it's kind of hard to find your rhythm sometimes and not shooting very much. It's just something I've got to deal with as a freshman. It is still kind of an ongoing process for me. Kind of picking times when I should be more aggressive and look for my own shot."

I would be surprised if Koenig comes out of nowhere and contributes with consistency this season. But depending on how Jackson finishes the year, Koenig will be in direct competition with Jackson for point guard minutes. He's an excellent leader, and knows how to pick his spots. That hasn't translated to gaudy stats this season, but his development will be integral for Wisconsin's success in the upcoming years.

It's not much of a debate: Nigel Hayes has proved he's the best freshman on the team, and one of the best in the Big Ten. But the Badgers will need both Hayes and Koenig to mature both offensively and defensively for the team to turn it around this season and continue their success next season.

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