Nigel Hayes awoke in the offseason to the booming voice of motivational speaker Eric Thomas.
At 4:52 a.m. — that’s not a misprint — Hayes’ phone would come to life as an application played a YouTube clip from a few years back of Thomas speaking to players at the Jordan Brand Classic, a high school all-star basketball game.
Forget an alarm squawking or his favorite song playing.
When Hayes awoke, he wanted to hear something that would set the tone for the day.
“There’s some kid who didn’t get to come here and he’s [upset] that he didn’t get to come here,” Thomas tells the elite prospects. “He thought he should be here, too, and guess what he’s doing? While you’re in here listening to me, while you’re getting those shoes, while you’re getting your Jordan gear, while you’re feeling like, ‘Yep, I made it, I’m in the top 20, baby,’ there’s some kid who didn’t get to make it. And right now he’s trying to take your spot. Right now he’s saying, ‘Yep, he beat me to the Classic, but I’ll get him in the NCAA, I’ll get him next year. And if I don’t get him then, I’ll get him after that. And I’ll see him in the pros, and I’ll get him then.’
“Are you hearing what I’m saying? So you’ve got an opportunity, but you’ve got to separate yourself.”
Day after day this summer, that message would inspire Hayes, a forward, to climb out of bed as he prepared for his sophomore season at Wisconsin.
“That little 45-second speech, I felt like I could relate to that,” he said. “Some days I’d wake up and be ready to go, and some days I’d be like, ‘I really don’t feel like doing this.’ When that part of the video comes on and says that, I’m like, ‘This is why I’m up.'”
|NIGEL HAYES CAREER STATS|
Hayes had a terrific rookie season for the Badgers, earning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year and All-Freshman honors. Then he went out and totally reinvented himself.
The early returns have been nothing short of spectacular. On a team that already has two frontcourt stars in senior center Frank Kaminsky and junior forward Sam Dekker, Hayes has shown signs that he may emerge as a third.
Heading into Saturday’s game against Boise State (3-0) at the Kohl Center, Hayes is averaging 15.3 points and 11.3 rebounds for the No. 3 Badgers (3-0). He’s coming off a career-high 25 points in UW’s 84-60 victory against visiting Wisconsin-Green Bay on Wednesday night.
“Really, I just want to be the best player I can be,” Hayes said recently. “I pride myself on trying to be a well-rounded individual and basketball player. Smart, unselfish, doing the right things. I feel like with what I’ve acquired over the summer, I’ll be able to do that.”
Hayes would generally arrive at the Kohl Center by 5:15 a.m. and get in a good workout before the Badgers were scheduled to lift weights at 7.
UW coach Bo Ryan said he arrived early one morning and spotted Hayes dribbling a basketball with one hand and a tennis ball with the other to improve his dexterity.
Teammates also noticed the extra hours Hayes was putting in.
“I tend to get to the Kohl Center pretty early in the morning … and Nigel, he’s already sitting on the chair getting his break with a full sweat and a full lather every day,” Dekker said. “To see him working like that and trying to get better for this team is really cool.”
After lifting, Hayes would attend summer-session classes and return to the Kohl Center for team workouts. He’d still be there at night, usually with a manager, working on his shot.
All in all, Hayes figures he put up 700 shots a day, seven days a week. “Sometimes,” Hayes deadpanned, “eight days a week.”
— Sam Dekker
Hayes was lethal on 15- to 17-foot jump shots last season, but he didn’t feel confident beyond that range. Remarkably, he didn’t attempt a single 3-pointer as a freshman.
“Human nature would be to say, ‘Well, I’m going to show them I can do this.’ And he had the discipline not to do that,” said UW assistant coach Lamont Paris, who recruited Hayes out of Toledo, Ohio. “But that’s not surprising if you know the kid.”
So far this season, Hayes is 3 of 5 from 3-point range. He was 2 of 2 against UW-Green Bay, with the shots coming on back-to-back possessions in the second half.
“Last year, nobody respected him from 20 feet and his guy could slough off and clog the lane,” said Bruce Smith, who was Hayes’ coach at Toledo Whitmer High School.
“I believe this: If he shoots the 3, he plays at the next level. I’m not afraid to tell anybody that. I firmly believe that he’s going to be a millionaire if he can consistently knock that shot down.”
Hayes’ 3-point shooting is only part of his makeover.
After playing last season at 250 pounds, he slimmed down in the offseason and is now at 235. He’s added quickness and explosion, and actually feels stronger than last season, when he said it felt like he was playing with a weight vest attached to him.
“We’ve seen some plays not only off the dribble, but in his ability to change direction and get to the rim a little quicker,” Paris said. “And he’s a quicker jumper. He’s making some plays at the rim, when last year he was almost exclusively below the rim.”
Hayes’ career game against UWGB was a picture of offensive versatility: He scored eight points in the paint, seven from the free-throw line, six from 3-point range and four on jumpers from outside the lane.
He’s also added a baby hook to his repertoire.
“He’s got a physical talent and a lot of God-given abilities,” Dekker said, “and I don’t even think he’s scratched the surface of what he can do.”
Which leads us to the single biggest improvement in his game: his rebounding. Hayes averaged 2.8 rebounds as a freshman, a total that caused UW assistant coach Gary Close to lob not-so-subtle jabs in Hayes’ direction.
Hayes had 108 rebounds in 38 games last season. He already has 34 this season, including a team-high nine on the offensive glass.
“My rebounding last year was terrible, especially for my height, strength, size and the position that I played,” Hayes said. “Coach Close always joked about it. … I have to take a more conscious approach that I’m always crashing the boards.”
Smith, who coached Hayes for four years in high school, tuned in for the tape-delayed showing of the Badgers’ exhibition victory against Wisconsin-Parkside earlier this month and smiled.
He also offered a warning to future UW opponents:
“There’s a lot of his game,” Smith said, “that he hasn’t brought out yet.”