The Curious Case of Chuck Hayes
By JOHN KROLIK
March 24, 2011
Of all the triple-doubles that have been recorded this season, Houston forward Chuck Hayes’s has to be considered one of the most unlikely. Hayes recorded 14 rebounds and a stunning 11 assists against the notoriously defense-adverse Golden State Warriors, and he sealed the triple-double with a jumper in the fourth quarter.
The triple-double was more of an amusing outlier than a true signature performance for Hayes; after all, the Warriors do allow the highest ratio of assisted baskets in the league, and they have the worst rebounding rate in the league, so racking up rebounds and assists against the Warriors is not a particularly difficult challenge. But the triple-double does draw attention to the fact that Hayes has quietly turned himself into a respectable offensive player.
Chuck Hayes has long been a subject of fascination for both scouts and the statistically inclined. When Hayes first began playing for the Rockets during the 2005-6 season, the 6-foot-6 center was regarded as an oddity whose amazing prowess for grabbing rebounds allowed him to be a rotation player.
Over time, people began to realize that Hayes was more than just a rebounder and energy player — he was one of the best defenders in the league. Despite his size, opposing players found it almost impossible to get post position against Hayes, and he bottled up much larger centers and power forwards on a nightly basis.
Coming into this season, Hayes was viewed as the kind of player than only a nuanced fan of the game could love. He was the shortest center in the league, wasn’t the kind of shot-blocker that Joel Anthony or Ben Wallace is, and didn’t even have Leon Powe’s ability to score around the basket.
Hayes was a player for fans who appreciated the fight for low-post position more than a shot swatted into the third row, a good off-ball screen more than a swished fade-away jump shot, and a tough rebound in traffic more than an ankle-breaking crossover. While seeming to be nothing more than a player half a foot shorter than the players he was supposed to be guarding and the owner of one of the worst free-throw strokes in N.B.A. history, Hayes was out there doing the little things to help his team win.
Hayes still does the little things, but this season he has added a new wrinkle to his game: he’s suddenly producing offense like a legitimate N.B.A. center, and a fairly good one at that. Hayes is scoring 7.6 points per game this season, which represents both a career high for him and a 3.2 point boost from his 2009-10 scoring average in only five more minutes per game. He’s averaging 2.5 assists per game, which is the fourth-highest mark for any center in the league and a career high.
And while Hayes’s scoring volume has gone up, his efficiency hasn’t suffered at all. His true shooting percentage is the highest it has been since the 2006-7 season, and his turnover rate is as low as it has been since his rookie year. Hayes has really come on in the new year: he averaged 9.5 points on 50 percent shooting in January, 9.3 points on 59.3 percent shooting in February, and has averaged 8.4 points on 60.9 percent shooting in March. Believe it or not, Hayes is now a solid offensive center.
Every part of Hayes’s offensive game has improved. He’s much more confident as a scorer in the low post, and has become an excellent passer from the low block. He’s no longer afraid of the free throw line — after converting 7 of the 18 free throws he took over the course of the entire 08-09 season, Hayes has already made 77 of the 116 free throws he has taken this season. (Perhaps there is hope for Andris Biedrins yet.)
While Hayes still does most of his scoring off of offensive rebounds and off-ball cuts, he is now a player who can be trusted with the ball in his hands anywhere in the general area of the hoop.
Teams are generally willing to be patient with talented, physically gifted players, especially ones who can score. Even if they don’t seem to grasp defensive rotations, don’t share the ball particularly well, take ill-advised shots, and don’t play with much effort, teams are generally willing to take risks on them, because it’s easy to picture a talented scorer “getting it” one day and becoming one of the best player in the league.
It’s much harder to picture an undersized, graceless forward who earns minutes because of his hustle and basketball IQ developing into a legitimate offensive threat, but Hayes has proved that it can happen. For years, Hayes has rewarded everybody willing to pay close attention to the things he does on the floor. This season, the things he does have become impossible to ignore.