MADISON, Wis. - Through 20 games this season Nigel Hayes is averaging 15.9 minutes and 6.8 points per game; shooting 52.3 percent from the field to boot. Those numbers even spike up if you just look at Wisconsin's conference games, as well: Hayes jumped up to 18.2 minutes and 9.2 points per game in his last seven games, and head coach Bo Ryan said Monday that Hayes is in line for more minutes down the stretch.
"He's one of those guys, I'm sure, 20 years from now, when I look back on coaching different people, he'll be one that will pop out for a lot of the right reasons," Ryan said Monday during his weekly press conference. "He's just one of those kind of guys you want in there with you."
That's high praise coming from Ryan, who told Hayes he'd get on the court more often as the pair took the same elevator before UW played Minnesota last week. The Badgers lost 81-62, but Hayes scored 12 points in a career-high 27 minutes of action, largely because junior center Frank Kaminsky picked up two early fouls and sat on the bench for most of the first half.
Hayes struggled defensively at times against the Gophers, but all in all Hayes is off to a good start for Wisconsin- especially for a freshman.
But Hayes has tried to avoid qualifying statements and other asterisks ever since he joined the team last summer, and credited his strong start to his coaches for holding him to a higher standard.
"They don't coach me as a freshman," Hayes said Monday after practice. "They expect the best from me and my performance. And the last couple games I've been going out there and contributing."
Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris said Hayes told him early on that he wanted to be coached as if he were an older player; one that had already proven he could produce in the Big Ten. That wasn't a stretch for Paris and the Badgers, who had Hayes on their radar since he was in ninth grade back in Toledo, Ohio.
Paris said it became clear to him that the 6-foot-7 Hayes was more committed to basketball than football, where he played wide receiver, and as the recruiting process unfolded the Badgers pegged Hayes for early playing time if he signed with them.
"After I saw him a couple times you could just see that there was just so much potential from a physical standpoint," Paris said Monday. "He had some things he needed to work on for sure, but he started doing that. He played football [but] he would come in in the mornings of his junior year … at six and do a basketball workout. So you knew he was serious about basketball."
And while Paris said he didn't tell Hayes flat-out that there would be a lot of minutes up for grabs after Ryan Evans, Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren graduated, he did let Hayes' support system know that the Badgers thought Hayes could play right away for them.
"We had a lot of conversations with his high school coach and his parents, unbeknownst to him, that we thought he could play early," Paris said. "We felt from a physical standpoint, just how strong he was, and defensively how versatile he was, we thought he had a chance."
But that early playing time comes with a price that Hayes has paid at times this season. If you're going to get a veteran's minutes, you'd better play like a veteran- and Hayes has played that way at times. He has flashed on the offensive end with three double-digit point games in Big Ten play, and Paris praised Hayes for his defense when his man has the ball.
Hayes and the Badgers also recognize that there's still work to be done, not because he's a freshman but because Ryan and his staff expect players to try and get better all the time. Paris said Hayes needs to play better defense when his man doesn't have the ball, because teams can take advantage of poor positioning and get to the basket even if Hayes recovers and plays good defense after the pass is made.
Still, Paris said Hayes has made steady progress on both offense and defense since he joined the team a few months ago. With an improving jump shot and the prospect of more minutes to come, Paris said it's time to challenge Hayes and see if he can take another step in the second half of Wisconsin's season.
It might be too late to really add another aspect to Hayes' game, but there's still time for Hayes and the Badgers to improve upon his solid foundation, because that's what Hayes asked for when he enrolled at Wisconsin.
"By all rights most people would be satisfied with what he's done as a freshman," Paris said. "[But] you just don't imagine that he's a freshman. You don't talk to him like he's a freshman … You don't have a little asterisk next to things- that was pretty good 'for a freshman.'
"But that's what he wanted. We had a conversation when he first got here about did he want to be compared to a freshman or to a good player in the Big Ten. He said he wanted to be coached like a good player- not to have that asterisk next to anything you said. That's the expectation level he had for himself, which is the most important [thing]."
With more minutes to come for Hayes over Wisconsin's next few games, the Badgers will find out soon enough if holding the freshman to a higher standard has already turned Hayes into the force on the front court they thought he could be when they recruited him not so long ago.
John Veldhuis covers Wisconsin football, basketball and recruiting for BadgerBlitz.com on the Rivals.com network. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnVeldhuis.