Welcome to our Lakers Season Preview Series! For the next several weeks, we’ll be writing columns every weekday, breaking down the biggest questions we have about every player on the Lakers roster. Today, we take a look at Jaxson Hayes.
On the second day of NBA free agency, the Los Angeles Lakers signed Hayes to a two-year veteran’s minimum contract after the New Orleans Pelicans opted not to extend a qualifying offer to their 2019 lottery pick. At the time, Hayes looked primed to be one of the biggest acquisitions the Lakers would make during free agency and potentially a starting center, given Anthony Davis’ oft-stated reluctance to play the position consistently during the regular season.
However, Rob Pelinka and the Lakers weren’t done after day two. They ran it back with most of the roster and added to their frontcourt with the Christian Wood signing. So, where does that leave Hayes entering his fifth season? What can Lakers fans expect from him during his purple and gold tenure?
What is his best-case scenario?
What if Hayes takes a career jump like Malik Monk did during his one-year stint in L.A.? If Hayes, who averaged 5 points and 2.8 rebounds in 13 minutes, can reach, say, 25 minutes and gets double-digit points and six or so rebounds a night, then this partnership with the Lakers could be a win-win scenario. Hayes could increase his value and opt out of the second year of his minimum contract for a bigger bag, and the Lakers could have another player outplaying their contract for an entire season.
To reach that type of production, Hayes needs opportunity and execution. That means leaning on his offensive strengths in pick and rolls, dribble handoffs and going downhill during fastbreak opportunities. Early indications from training camp show him working well with Max Christie, a guard he will likely be paired with during bench mob runs.
What is his worst-case scenario?
When a team invests a lottery pick into a player, and then doesn’t even offer them a second contract before letting them walk for nothing, it isn’t a good sign. It means they’ve given up and either don’t want what they could get for this player’s talent via trade, or no one else was interested in taking them.
Hayes could prove the Pelicans right if he continues to be inconsistent on the court. Last season, every good Hayes game was followed by half a dozen mediocre ones, and soon enough, he was relegated to the bench and DNPs. Hayes has all the tools and embraces the defensive focus and energy needed to be a good backup, potentially even starter in this league.
Still, for four years in New Orleans, Hayes has never fully gotten it together. If that trend continues in L.A., he might get the Thomas Bryant treatment this season and go from the potential solution for big depth to out of the rotation and asking for a trade midway through the season.
What is his most likely role on the team?
When looking at best and worst-case scenarios in sports and life, reality usually sits somewhere in the middle. With the talent level of the Lakers being far greater than it was in New Orleans, it should be fairly easy for Hayes to be a “try hard” player, defend well and finish at the rim, ala JaVale McGee when he donned the purple and gold. Will that give him career numbers or increase his status in the NBA hierarchy? Maybe not, but he’ll have opportunities in training camp, preseason and early in the first 20-plus games or so to demonstrate that he deserves a bigger role on a championship-contending team.
For now, some cautious optimism is needed from Lakers fans when it comes to what Hayes is and what he could be. Oleh Kosel, who covers the New Orleans Pelicans, told Silver Screen & Roll as much when he spoke to us shortly after the singing was made.
“Enjoy the incredible finishes in transition and on rolls to the rim,” Kosel said. “Hope that Darvin Ham and LeBron James can unlock something more. But realize that he’s not likely to ever approach a high ceiling because that passion for basketball seems to be missing.”
Can Hayes rediscover that passion in Los Angeles? Only time will tell.
You can follow Edwin on Twitter at @ECreates88.