Sometime around mid-December, Badger fans fell in love with a burly freshman from Toledo, Ohio. While he was an ESPN Top-100 recruit, Nigel Hayes had few expectations upon arriving in Madison. Slowly but surely, he began to mold his spot on the team and in our hearts.
After winning the 2013-14 Big Ten 6th Man of the Year, he'll be thrust into the starting lineup alongside Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky down low. The best way for he and the Badgers to improve is if he learns the art of simplicity. If he plays under control, understands space, and makes simple decisions, he'll make sharp improvements.
I wrote about Nigel Hayes back in April when examining how good Wisconsin could be next season, and talked about "Sam Dekker's Disease." In Dekker's freshman year, he was a hell of a 6th man, and everybody expected him to blow up once he earned a starting role. While Dekker has certainly progressed, he hasn't exhibited the linear improvements that some fans hoped. He still struggles to create his own shot and rarely becomes a threat late in the shot clock. As we all know, the Badgers went to the Final Four, so Dekker's incomplete improvements didn't hold the team back too much.
Where am I going with this? I'm saying that one could speculate that Nigel Hayes will regress next season. The expectations to improve will be too strong, and he won't feel completely comfortable in his new role. However, I expect him to do just fine next year. The combination of his style of play and the team's experience will allow him to flourish.
Last season, when Hayes was on the floor, there was a pretty good chance that the offense would run through him. He'd find his way to the low block, and either drive the lane or nail a 12-footer. Next year, it won't be like that. He'll be a major offensive threat, but he will need to learn how to be productive without the ball. Dekker absolutely excels at that, and will make Hayes' development much smoother. Dekker played the 4 last year alongside Kaminsky. A big part of what made Kaminsky so great was Dekker's understanding of spacing down low. He gave Kaminsky room to operate and allowed him flexibility to go inside or outside. Both Bo Ryan and Dekker will emphasize the need for space to let Kaminsky flourish. If he can learn how to be productive without the ball, that will pay huge dividends for all parties. The team's offense will flow much smoother, and he'll become a more complete player.
Hayes won't be asked to do too much because the team is so solid from top to bottom. Before last season, the team struggled with their offensive identity. Was Dekker going to be the go-to guy? We didn't know. That offensive confusion contributed to their rut in January. Going forward, this team will have no such problems.
There's a clear delineation of the 4 returning starter's roles. Traevon Jackson will create and make simple decisions (hopefully), Josh Gasser will hit threes and defend the wing, Sam Dekker will snake through the defense for layups and open threes, and Frank Kaminsky will get them a bucket when it's needed. All Hayes needs to do is clean the glass, defend, and let Kaminsky rest. Because next year's Badgers are so well-structured, Hayes can develop smoothly.
Rebounding is his biggest area for improvement. He only averaged 2.8 boards per game, which won't fly for a starting power forward. But he has the physical tools and mental acumen to grow as a rebounder. The best way for him to get more rebounds is by following his shot after mid-range attempts. He makes them with consistency, but could clean up on the offensive boards by spending more time down low as opposed to on the wing.
Next year, little will change for Nigel Hayes. But it's not unlikely that he'll be the only returning starter in 2015. What does that mean for the future of the Badgers? They'll be in great hands with Bronson Koenig and Hayes leading the charge. Both demonstrated flashes of their potential last season, and will be the future of this program. If they get lucky with some recruiting decisions, they'll be in even better shape. But Hayes has the ability to be the star of this team in the near future.
Next season, Nigel Hayes will make very unsexy improvements, but that's the best-case scenario. The Badgers have tons of players who excel by not doing too much. If they can teach Hayes the art of simplicity, he'll be a star in the future.