Sconnie Sports Talk

Wisconsin men’s basketball: Nigel Hayes finds his “next step”

Robert Franklin, AP Photo


There are countless motivational quotes out there, that speak on the journey to success versus the actual point of destination. For Wisconsin all-time great Nigel Hayes, these quotes are spoken into existence, as Hayes has learned to make the most of each part of his professional basketball journey.

At just 23 years old and a year removed from graduating as a Badger, Hayes has played for four professional teams, and as of Wednesday, signed a contract to play for a fifth team. First reported by ESPN’s Jonathan Givony and confirmed to me by Hayes himself, the 6’8″ forward will play this season with Galatasaray (Turkey), one of the top club teams overseas. Ironically enough, Hayes will team up with Aaron Harrison, a former Kentucky star that Hayes battled against in back-to-back NCAA tournaments at the pinnacle of the college basketball world from 2013-2015.

For such an accomplished basketball player that has found success and improved shooting range at the highest level, one may get discouraged. But for Hayes, he remains positive, and looks forward to the “next step of the journey.”

The first scheduled game of the 2018 season for Galatasaray is October 3rd, so Hayes will likely have to pack up and move his life to the other side of the world shortly. In the meantime, the always-working intellectual athlete took the time to reflect over his last year of professional basketball.

After living in the same place and playing for the same basketball team for four years in Madison, Nigel played for four organizations in the 2017-2018 season: the Westchester Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Toronto Raptors, and Sacramento Kings, literally moving all over the country. Hayes was a top shooter and perimeter defender for the Knicks, leading him to make his NBA debut for the Lakers in January. He scored his first NBA points for the Raptors, but found the most success in Sacramento, averaging over 20 minutes per game, and garnering a year and a half long NBA contract with the Kings.

According to Hayes, the “most difficult part about bouncing around is just living out of a suitcase. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to, though. The beauty in the journey.”

As difficult as it has been, though, Nigel made the most of it throughout his first season, and obviously has enjoyed living out his dream. “The coolest part about the NBA is the love fans show, and how people adore and idolize you,” Hayes exclaimed.

“To us, we’re just going out and playing the game we love, and having fun. It’s a great feeling to have that kind of love and appreciation shown to you.”

Throughout the ups and downs, Hayes shared that he had NBA veterans mentor and look out for him in each stop that he made, namely former All-Star Luol Deng in Los Angeles, swingman CJ Miles in Toronto, and NBA legend Vince Carter in Sacramento.

In addition to these longtime pros, Hayes’ family and former Badger teammates remain the closest to him. “The biggest mentors are just the same people close to me that have always been there for me,” Hayes explained, following up with, “I talk to them damn near every day. Only a text or call away.”

Nigel has remained tight with his former Badger running mates, but there is no one more supportive of him than his incredible mother, Talaya. The two are as tight as family gets, and it shows when they are together, both in public and on social media.

A few weeks before Hayes signed with Galatasaray, he played in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas with the Sacramento Kings, along with notable top recruits Marvin Bagley and Harry Giles. Although only playing one year in the NBA, Hayes showed Bagley and Giles the ropes in several highlights, pulling the two aside and giving them pointers during competition, exhibiting his leadership and dedication to the team. Overall, Hayes described playing in Summer League this year as “an experience.”

Hayes further developed as a reliable perimeter defender last season, and immensely improved his outside shooting, finishing with a 45% 3PT average from his time in the G-League last year. He feels those elements of his overall game were improved, but is obviously not satisfied.

“I want to make everything better. My best ability is my versatility. So, I just want to do that more and further that aspect of my game,” Hayes explained.

Nigel obviously got to the best league in the world, and even got minutes, but wants to be much more, stating, “I was most proud of signing my contract and proving to myself that I knew I was good enough to play in the NBA. Now, the goal is making a name for myself and becoming great.”

Along with being a great basketball player, Hayes is also known for being an outspoken activist on human rights issues, including speaking on NCAA student-athlete compensation and racial injustices while he was a student, so much so that he and the Badgers nearly boycotted a regular season game at UW.

Because of this, I asked Nigel his thoughts on President Donald Trump’s several troubling tweets, notably the (likely) racially charged attack on CNN’s Don Lemon as well as LeBron James, one of the greatest athletes and role models of this generation. Hayes responded quickly with, “It’s probably best to focus on other things,” as opposed to Trump and his thoughts and bashings on social media.

The NBA, which Hayes is constantly working to get back to, is generally considered the most progressive of the four major sports league in the US. I asked Hayes how he can continue to be himself and use his voice in the pros, to which he exclaimed, “By just continuing to speak and use my platform.” There is no doubt Hayes will do just that.

As for the basketball court, Nigel truly sees the beauty in the journey and will make the most of his “next step” in Turkey, likely to be one of the best players in the league from the jump.

But at the same time, Hayes is not one to ever lose sight of his preferred final destination, telling me, “I’m ready to get back to the NBA. This is just another step on the journey.”