Nigel Hayes has largely been scouted as the best player for the Wisconsin Badgers since the departure of Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker after the storied 2014-2015 season. Since that time, Hayes has been the face of the team, and what’s clearer now more than ever is that as Hayes goes, so does the team. On their way to a 15-3 record and a (current) first place tie in the Big Ten, the team has had their ups and downs. But critics who saw he’s lost his touch aren’t speaking the truth. Hayes hasn’t lost his game – the Ohio native has the talent, size and skill to lead this Badger team to greatness, but it can seem at moments that he may not be living up to an immense amount of hype.

When Hayes is playing to his highest ability, the rest of the team plays better. If Hayes is hitting his jump shots and distributing the ball well, it takes the pressure off of Ethan Happ and Bronson Koenig. It’s a team’s worst nightmare when the three are firing on all cylinders. In the three games this season where Hayes has scored at least 20 points, the team has won by at least 14. In the ten games where Hayes has shot at least 50% from the field, the Badgers are 10-0. Conversely, when Hayes isn’t hitting his shots the team falters: two of his four worst games from the field were losses, and he’s averaging almost six points higher in wins than he is in losses (17.2 to 11.3).

One part of his game that certainly needs touching up, however, is free throws. Last season, Hayes was reliable from the free throw line. But through 18 games this season, Hayes has been to the line 106 times and has shot a staggeringly low 60% of them. Through same amount of games last season, he went to the line more (131 attempts) and hit 73% from the stripe. It’s entirely possible that Hayes is feeling the pressure building on him in a way that it never did for Dekker and Kaminsky, who were true stars only in their final years with the Badgers – Hayes has shouldered the “star presence” on the team for over a year now. That said, there’s no excuse for missing free throws, and Hayes has only had seven out of 18 games this season where’s he’s gotten to the line at least three times and made over 50%.

Hayes is not a bad player, however, and no one would be awarded Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year if they were an average basketball player. In fact, though it may not be discussed as much, Hayes is having a solid year across the board. His field goals made and assists per game are the highest of his career. He’s cut down on turnovers from last season and is fouling at the lowest rate of his career. Though he may not be scoring as many points per game as last season, both his FG% and 3FG% are considerably up from last season, and he’s scoring 13.6 points per game in nearly seven minutes less time on the court per game. Hayes is actually scoring nearly a point more per 40 minutes from last season:

Hayes Scoring Per 40 Min.
2016-17 18.26
2015-16 17.35
2014-15 15.03
2013-14 17.71

It would be incorrect to say that Nigel Hayes hasn’t had down moments this season. But Wisconsin’s bench is better this year than it has been in a while, and maybe the team leader is just adjusting to pressure being taken off for the first time since “Make ‘Em Believe”. Hayes’ free throw shooting will improve. But until then, the Ohio native just needs to keep doing more of the same.