Killian Hayes Is Coming to Claim His Basketball Birthright

Though born in the U.S., the 2020 lottery hopeful has spent most of his life in Europe, where his father chased his own hoop dreams while trying to steer his son toward the NBA stardom he never had.
photo of David GardnerDavid Gardner@@byDavidGardnerStaff WriterAugust 2, 2019

Killian Hayes idles a few feet behind the three-point line, scanning the floor, when he spots an opening. Wielding the ball with his left hand and keeping a defender at bay with his right hip, Hayes slips a dribble behind his back and blows by his man. In another bounce, he's at the top of the key, splitting the remaining guard and a wing who has rolled inside to help just a second too late.

As the two remaining bigs collapse to protect the rim, Hayes stops short. He sends a soft floater arcing over their outstretched hands. In just two dribbles, Hayes has managed to outmaneuver an entire defense, making his own lane where none had been.

Hayes, 18, has played out similar scenarios hundreds of times in his budding basketball career. But today is special because of the setting. Hayes was born in Florida. His father, DeRon, who is watching from a seat on the baseline, played forward for Penn State in the early 1990s. Killian grew up wanting to play college basketball for one of the bluebloods, but he was raised in France and turned pro at 16.

Today, at a Basketball Without Borders camp at Queens University of Charlotte, will be the first and last time he'll play competitive basketball on a college hoops court. Because next year, when his American peers are just settling in for summer NCAA practices, Hayes will be following his own path again, becoming the first American to skip high school and be drafted at 18 in the one-and-done era.

To understand how Hayes went from Florida to France, becoming a first-round lock in the process, you first have to understand how DeRon took the opposite journey.

In 1993, after three seasons at Penn State, DeRon started wondering what life after college would look like for him. He averaged 14.1 points and 4.9 rebounds during his Nittany Lions career, but he didn't know anyone who had made it to the NBA, and he didn't know if or how he could make it. 

"At the end of the year, everyone was talking about: Do you have an agent?" DeRon says. "I was like, 'An agent? What did I need an agent for?' I was just thinking about playing. I didn't have anyone to mentor me. I was late to the game."

After he left Penn State, DeRon heard about an opportunity to play professionally in France. He packed his bags and began his European adventure, with no idea exactly how long it would last. He spent most of the first month stalling out an old Peugeot (he didn't know how to drive stick) and spending his entire paycheck on international calls (he didn't know the hotel was charging him). But he came away with the notion that he could make a life for himself overseas.

He played a season in Portugal. He spent the next two seasons in Sweden, living in a high-rise in Stockholm and sharing a bicycle with a teammate to pedal to practices. Each summer, he'd return home to try one more chance at the NBA. He caught on with the Magic in summer league and turned some heads at a showcase at Purdue, but ultimately, his best opportunities would always be back in Europe. The only problem was, he was going broke.

"I was living like a king," he says, "and by the time each season was over, I wouldn't have any money to show for it."

He discovered that paychecks got bigger as you ventured further east, so he spent a season in the Ukraine and two seasons in Russia. Every two weeks, he was handed a newspaper stuffed with thousands of dollars in rubles inside an old bank vault. The money was good, but the winters were long and the comforts of America—or even western Europe—were hard to come by. The closest he could get was if he took a daylong train ride to Moscow to eat at TGI Fridays.

After taking his professional career through Europe, DeRon Hayes felt the best path for his son Killian to reach the NBA was by playing professionally in Europe.
After taking his professional career through Europe, DeRon Hayes felt the best path for his son Killian to reach the NBA was by playing professionally in Europe.ALAIN JOCARD/Getty Images

In 1998, he got an offer to go back to France and play Pro A. There he met and married Sandrine, the sister of a teammate's girlfriend, and started a family. DeRon had caught on in the ABA when Sandrine was pregnant, so Killian was born in Florida. After a single season in the ABA, DeRon returned to Pro A, and Killian began his childhood in France.

When Killian was a little kid, DeRon would lower the hoop at Cholet's arena after games to let him dunk. From an early age, Killian had a deft handle and a flash of style that surprised his father.

One day, when Killian was around four, he told his dad he wanted to show him something and did a reverse dunk on the toy basketball hoop in their backyard.

"I was like, Where the hell did that come from?" DeRon says. "That sorta thing would happen all the time. We'd be doing a drill and all of a sudden, he'd announce, 'spin move.' I hadn't even taught him that word in English."

For Killian, basketball was what bridged his two worlds. He'd spend the school year in France playing with kids one or two divisions ahead of his age group. (In France, developmental basketball is divided into two-year increments.) And he'd spend his summers in Florida, learning American slang and American moves in pickup basketball on courts in Lakeland and Orlando.

"I feel like I'm from both places," Killian says. "I try to bring the best of America and the best of France with me when I'm on the court."

Like many kids of his generation, Killian learned a lot about basketball on YouTube. He devoured AND1 mixtapes and Dwyane Wade highlights. When he saw a move he wanted to learn, he'd show his dad and they'd go out in the driveway to master it.

But he would also see all the attention that American high school prospects were getting. He asked his dad if he could play at Montverde or IMG, prep powerhouses in Florida, but DeRon didn't like that idea. He came up in the American high school and college system, and he didn't think it had prepared him to be a professional. He wanted Killian to have every advantage he never did.

At 6'5" with a good handle and a willingness to absorb contact, Killian is projected by some in the NBA to be a 2020 lottery pick.
At 6'5" with a good handle and a willingness to absorb contact, Killian is projected by some in the NBA to be a 2020 lottery pick.Photo courtesy of NBA Academies

"I wanted to play high school basketball in America," Killian says. "I wanted to play in the NCAA, too, and go to a big school like Kentucky or Kansas. I wanted to be an All-American; that was my dream. But my dad said the best option was for me to stay [in France] and play pro, and I trusted him."

Eventually, that trust paid off. In April 2017, Killian was invited to New York for the Jordan Brand Classic International Game, and he won co-MVP after posting 13 points, seven assists, five rebounds and five steals. In August, he picked up another MVP honor, this time in the FIBA Europe Under-16 Championship. With 16.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.7 steals per game, he helped lead France to a gold medal.

In October, having just turned 16, he made his Pro A debut with Cholet.

Killian felt like his father's path had played out perfectly. Then the 2018-19 season began.

Cholet was blown out in its season debut, lost its first four games and found itself in last place two months into the season. In November, Cholet fired head coach Regis Boissie.

"I thought I'd made a huge mistake by staying in Europe," Killian says.

But Cholet brought back coach Erman Kunter, who had previously won a championship with the club, and he helped steer the season away from total disaster. Killian finished the year with 7.1 points and 3.1 assists in 19.7 minutes per game, and after a 2-9 start, Cholet went 9-14 for the rest of the season.

This season will be the ultimate measure of whether Killian has taken the right path. This week, he transferred to the German club Ratiopharm Ulm, with whom he'll have an opportunity to be a starter and show NBA teams that he'll be ready for his American basketball debut a year ahead of schedule. And despite the distance, his friendship with his French peers will push him, too: Theo Maledon and Matthieu Gauzin (both of whom played with Hayes on the French national youth development team) are highly regarded prospects in the 2020 draft class.

At Basketball Without Borders, NBA scouts were unanimous in their assessment that Killian is a future first-rounder, and some even saw him as a potential lottery pick in 2020. At 6'5" with a tight handle, sharp vision and an eagerness to absorb contact on his way to the rim, it's no wonder why.

"He's a unique player," one scout said. "You like that he comes from a basketball family and that he will bring that professional experience from Europe. Playing professionally makes you tough, and you can see that in the way that he plays. I'd bet on him making a big impact right away in the NBA."

At the end of the day in Charlotte, Killian walked around the court wearing an American flag patch on his left sneaker and a French flag patch on his right sneaker. He answered questions for a handful of reporters and then posed for a picture with his father in front of an NBA banner. A moment later, two Japanese players from the camp asked Killian for a picture. He took their phone and took a few steps back when they stopped him. "No, no," one said. "Will you take a picture with us?"

DeRon smiled as he watched the scene unfold. He could always see the path forward for his son, and now everyone else was starting to see it, too.

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