There were countless words typed for countless articles this preseason about how Nigel Hayes' game had improved over the offseason. He had slimmed down and developed a three point shot, these posts said. There was optimism that the reigning Sixth Man of the Year would be a better player this year, but it was a cautious optimism.
Hell, there was debate amongst Badgers fans on whether or not Hayes should even be named the fifth starter, although he did win the vote and more importantly the starting job.
That cautious optimism has turned into a reckless, throw caution to the wind, turn it up to 11, let Tom Izzo grab something for you off the top shelf optimism. Hayes has looked excellent through the first three games of the season (small sample sizes be damned!) and has only looked better as the level of competition has improved. The Badgers trampled UW-Green Bay last night by the score of 84-60, and until the second/third unit came in for Wisconsin, the score was worse than that. The best player on the court (although, I'd entertain arguments for Frank Kaminsky) was Hayes. He got to the basket at will, he drew fouls, he stepped out and went 2-for-2 from beyond the arc and he grabbed double digit rebounds for the third straight game. He also, no big deal, scored a career high 25 points.
"Hayes is really good. He's improved," said UWGB coach Brian Wardle, "He's a big, strong mismatch because he's kind of an inside-out forward that can do a lot of things. He hurt us."
Hayes has turned into, yet another, dual threat at forward for Wisconsin. He may have secretly been trolling all of us last year by not attempting a three all season, just so we would all freak out this year when he started drilling them.
"They were playing off," Hayes said. "They weren't respecting the shot, and rightfully so going off of last year. I take what the defense gives me and got some jump shots and got some layups."
So far this year, Hayes is averaging 15.3 points per game and 11.3 boards per game. He's shooting 57.7% from the floor and is three-of-five from distance. He has 1.7 assists per game and 1.3 blocks per game too! If it weren't for Kaminsky's mind-bending start to the season, we'd be here saying Hayes is the best player on the team. He's second in the conference, behind Detective Kaminsky, in rebounds per game and rebound percentage and he's tied for first, with Kaminsky for total win shares. Those two are the only ones in the conference who have managed a 1.0 win share so far this young season. He admittedly falls to eighth when you look at win shares per 40 minutes, but that is still pretty good for a guy that didn't even start last year.
After an odd first game, where he didn't attempt a single free throw, Hayes has attempted 20 in the last two games. His ability to slither through the lane and draw contact is unparalleled on Wisconsin's team. Teams with shaky depth in the front court will have trouble guarding Hayes, thus freeing him up to utilize his deadly mid-range game as they play off him fearing a foul call.
In a town currently enveloped in Melvin Gordon hysteria, and rightly so, the dominant start the basketball team has had should not go unnoticed. Nigel Hayes deserves your praise and yes, he will drink your milk shake too.