Nigel Hayes' growth in 2015-16 is a reason Wisconsin will be headed back to the N.C.A.A. tournament

Whether it's develop a 3-point shot, become a stronger leader or make it in the N.B.A., junior forward Nigel Hayes always seems to have a plan on how to get there.

Talaya Davis knows that her son – University of Wisconsin junior Nigel Hayes – is a unique individual.

Over his first two years in Madison, Hayes has drawn plenty of positive media attention with the Badgers’ runs to the Final Four. He dubbed himself “Nigel Burgundy” while interviewing teammates in the locker room, tried to trip up stenographers by being a wordsmith and rarely answered a question without injecting humor into it.

But while he put up a façade with the media and seldom wears his emotions on his sleeve, Hayes deep down inside is a hungry, driven individual that doesn’t settle for less than perfection.

“He gets angry with himself when this happens or that happens and he may have not done all that he could have,” said Davis. “If he didn’t do this right or could have done this better, he feels he failed the team.”

Hayes’ drive has been well documented since arriving at Wisconsin, which returns to action Thursday night in the second round of the Big Ten tournament against either No.11 seed Nebraska or No.14 seed Rutgers in Indianapolis.

Purely a low-post player his freshman season, Hayes worked on developing an outside shot in the summer of 2015. After not attempt a 3-pointer his first season, he went 40-for-101 last year to shoot 39.6 percent.

Not always being able to hold his own in the low post, Hayes worked on his physicality and strength to get up to 240 pounds. That’s resulted in him going from averaging 166 free throw attempts his first two years to shooting 235 this season, closing in on Alando Tucker’s single-season school record of 249.

Knowing his shot mechanics needed to improve, Hayes took it upon himself to refine his delivery over last summer. And while there’s been bumps in the road, Hayes’ persistence never caused him to lose faith that what he was doing would benefit him long term.

As a result, Hayes turned into a player who was the Big Ten sixth man of the year in 2014 to a first-team All-Big Ten selection by the coaches and media after averaging a team-best 16.5 points and 3.1 assists per game.

“He's always had the talent to be able to be in that position; having the talent and then understanding how to apply it are two different things,” said head coach Greg Gard. “He's gotten better at applying his talent and playing to his strengths. Also he has come a long ways in terms of a leader.
“I think there are areas in all facets of this game that he can still get a lot better at, but I think in terms of understanding what his strengths and weaknesses are and playing more to his strength and trying to minimize his weaknesses, while he's still trying to make himself a complete player, is one area that I'm very proud of.”

But the biggest change for Hayes was the spotlight, which grew large on him and teammate Bronson Koenig following the departure of key players from last year’s national finalist team. Already working with an uneven shot, Hayes became the topic of criticism by fans when the team started suffering uncharacteristic home losses in the nonconference season.

People were critical of his decision to change his shot, for not being a leader and not showing enough emotion when games were slipping out of Wisconsin’s fingers.

He was the face of the team, the fun-loving guy, but the weight of the world was starting to fall on him with the Badgers not have a winning streak longer than two games through the first 18 games of the season.

“He’s his own person; he’s not a follower,” said Davis. “He’s a people person, he loves to have fun and make people laugh, whether it’s doing something or saying something, and a lover of life and people. He wants to make people happy.”

That changed after Wisconsin’s 70-65 loss at Northwestern, dropping them to 1-4 in the Big Ten. The Badgers had been taking steps forward over the previous week in a one-point road loss to Indiana and a 63-60 defeat to Maryland in the final seconds, but the fact that the Wildcats were more aggressive, hungrier and disciplined angered Hayes, especially when Northwestern punished Wisconsin off simple ball screens.

Before meeting with the media, he addressed the players behind closed doors, revealing he used the words “embarrassing” and that each player needed to look himself in the mirror to ask themselves what they wanted from basketball and this season.

It was reminiscent to how Hayes felt last April. Averaging 12.4 points last season, Hayes hit his average with 13 points, but it became moot when he felt he didn’t make enough plays down the stretch in Duke’s 68-63 victory in the national title game.

“That loss tore him up,” said Davis.

Stewing on the Northwestern loss for four days, Hayes scored 25 points and Wisconsin beat No.4 Michigan State, 77-76. Everybody knows the rest – 10 wins in the final 12 games, top-four finish in the Big Ten and a lock for another N.C.A.A. tournament. During Wisconsin’s seven game winning streak that started with that victory over the Spartans, he averaged 20 points.

“I know one thing, being the type of person he is, he would rather go with the flow and make sure all his teammates are happy than be that leader and tell somebody what they have to do,” said Davis. “Seeing him start to speak out about things and lead by example, that made me proud. I saw that he was going in the right direction and do something he had to do.”

At some point, the next direction for Hayes is playing professionally and the N.B.A. will be the likely landing spot. Playing at a high level in the month of March has done wonders for former teammates Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, who were drafted in the first round of last year’s N.B.A. draft.

On Sunday, Hayes scored 30 points on 8-for-16 shooting (3-for-5 from 3-point range) and went 11-for-13 from the free throw line.

Hayes has been mum on the topic of whether jumping to the N.B.A. after this season is on his radar or not. He admits that he has to improve his ball handling and become more consistent with his shooting but has continued to develop into a well-rounded player scouts love.

When Wisconsin’s season is done, just like he did with his family last year, they will weigh the pros and cons.

“He just wants to finish this season and try to get the team back to the national championship game,” said Davis. “After that, we’ll go from there.”

And if mom had her pick?

“A degree.”

Twenty credits away from getting his business degree, Hayes might see it good for his business to follow the footsteps of Kaminsky and return for a senior season to a team loaded with weapons. Wisconsin will graduate no scholarship seniors following this season and will be expected to be compete in the Big Ten standings once again.

Whatever the choice, Hayes and his family will have plenty of time to make an education decision. The N.C.A.A. passed legislation to give undergraduates more time to evaluate and assess their skill sets and how they pertain to the N.B.A. without losing their eligibility. The cutoff last year was April 16, tied into the spring signing period. This year the deadline is May 25, 10 days after the draft combine.

Hayes plans to chase his dream at some point. For now, he’s chasing another Big Ten tournament championship, something that seemed out of the question two months ago.

Just like Hayes himself, it’s amazing how quickly some things can change.

“I’m very proud of him,” said Davis. “There’s so much negativity out there and they’ve (the team) learned to block out the negativity, work together as a unit and trust each other. It’s been phenomenal how they turned things around.”  

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