Early on this season, senior forward and preseason all-American Nigel Hayes struggled to find his shot. In three of the Badgers’ first six games, Hayes failed to reach ten points. He was criticized by fans for poor shot selection.

But resiliency is a mainstay in the mind of head coach Greg Gard – as the lifetime assistant that landed the head job as the Badgers were about to open Big Ten play last year, he’s been used to having to find a rhythm quickly. And thus, amidst cries of mediocrity, he’s helped Hayes adjust.

Moving away from the three ball

Much of Hayes’ troubles early on were the perception that he was “forced” to take shots. With the team shaking off the cobwebs of the offseason, Hayes averaged 9.8 shots taken per game in the team’s lethargic 4-2 start that featured big losses to ranked Creighton and North Carolina teams. Worse yet, he took 5.2 threes a game, uncharacteristic for a dynamic player who’s been known to get the ball in the post and has had a respectable mid-range game in the past. Hayes shot 9/31 from three-point range (29%), including 4/18 shooting in the Badgers’ two losses. Hayes took around 20% (30/151) of Wisconsin’s three-point shots in those six games; the team averaged just over 25 three-point attempts per game, an extremely high number for any college team.

Since that time, Hayes’ scoring has shot up while his three-point attempts have tailed off considerably. Amidst the team’s current five-game win streak, Hayes is just 3/4 from three-point range. And yet, he’s making a higher percentage of his threes (75% compared to 29%) albeit a small sample size. The team that averaged 7.8 makes from three over their first six games has made 9.2 per game in their last five. That’s because the more premier three-point shooters on a talented Badgers backcourt – Koenig, Brown, Trice, Showalter – have found a way to get open and create shots. Call it the pressure of the offseason, call it high expectations, but Hayes has found his shot after an awful starts, and it’s not the three-pointer.

A little help from his friends

Part of Hayes’ draw as a player is how dynamic he is, and that includes not always taking the shot. As mentioned before, Hayes took just under 10 shots per game in his first six while averaging just 3.2 assists per game. Since, he’s averaging a similar amount of shots (9.2 vs. 9.8) but also at a 4.6 APG clip over his last five.

Hayes may be shooting a similar number of shots per game, but he’s shooting much, much smarter now. He didn’t lead the team in scoring in any of the first six games despite taking the second-most shots. But in the five-game win streak the Badgers are on right now, Hayes hasn’t been the first- or second-leading shooter on the team in four of the five games, and has led in scoring twice, including a 28-point effort against Oklahoma.

Hayes’ efforts to get his team more involved are also having an important result: training the bench for the future. Four of five starters (Brown, Koenig, Showalter and Hayes) will be graduating next year, leaving Ethan Happ and the current Badger bench to shoulder the load over the coming years. Thus, it’s important to get the bench as involved as possible in crucial moments. In Hayes’ efforts to pass off the shot more, he’s allowed a myriad of big games from bench players:

  • 10 p, 3 r, 1 a from D’Mitrik Trice against PVAMU
  • 10 p, 5 r, 1 a from Jordan Hill against PVAMU
  • 16 p, 2 r, 1 a from D’Mitrik Trice against Oklahoma
  • 4 p, 4 r, 2 a, 3 stl from Khalil Iverson against Idaho State
  • 16 p, 5 r, 1 a, 2 blk from Khalil Iverson against Marquette

In the previous six-game stretch, the team had only had two 10-point performances from bench players (Iverson against Chicago State and Georgetown), and since then, D’Mitrik Trice has emerged as an important piece of the Badgers’ scheme. Being a great basketball means being multi-dimensional, and Nigel Hayes has showed he’s capable of that by getting the rest of his team to look their best.

Aggressive play inside

As previously mentioned, Hayes gets a lot of his offense by taking the ball inside. The commitment to this has showed in his pristine recent stretch: his three-point shooting has tailed off (5.2 per game to just 0.8) while his two-point shooting has shot up (4.7 per game then to 8.4 now).

As a result, he’s getting fouled a lot more. Hayes got to the line only once in four of the first six games; he’s gotten there at least twice in all of the last five games. While his rate at the free throw line has been suspect all season, it’s undoubtedly better to get there more. He was averaging 3.5 attempts per game through six; that number has shot up to 8.0 attempts per game in the last five. For perspective, 8.0 FT attempts per game would qualify for 18th-best in the entire NCAA.

Still, Hayes is making just 62% of his free throws this season, his worst rate since going for 59% his freshman year. It’s possible that he’s just rusty in this area of the game, but with the other most frequent free throw shooter (Happ) showing inconsistency in this area of his game, Hayes must step up.

The Badgers (9-2) will look to finish up non-conference play in a strong manner at home against Green Bay (12/14) and Florida A&M (12/23) at the Kohl Center. Expect Hayes to play a vital role both in these games and over the rest of the season.