Jaxson Hayes isn’t surprised by any of this.
Two years ago, he was a seldom-used reserve for Archbishop Moeller in Cincinnati who only played six minutes a game. Now he’s a potential top-10 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft with unlimited potential.
Again, don’t expect him to act surprised by it.
“I’ve always expected highly of myself,” Hayes said on Tuesday in a farewell press conference following one season of basketball for the Texas Longhorns. “I feel like that’s just because of how I was raised, so I’ve always felt like I could do something like that.”
Hayes was raised in a family of athletes. His sister, Jillian, is a senior at Moeller with more than 10 offers, including one from Kentucky, but the story really starts with their parents. Father Jonathan played tight end in the NFL for more than a decade, then coached the position at Oklahoma and for the Cincinnati Bengals. Mother Kristi averaged 52 points per game as a high school senior before going on to a standout career at Drake.
Despite their son’s boundless confidence now, however, Hayes only recently embarked on the stratospheric trajectory that currently defines his own basketball career and once drew a comparison by his high school basketball coach to Halley’s Comet.
The Ohio product entered high school at 6’0 and mostly focused on football until he grew to 6’7 and opponents started to target his knees and back. Picking up a sight-unseen offer from Middle Tennessee State only encouraged the switch.
When Hayes first began playing AAU basketball following his nondescript junior season, he only held that single offer until a fateful day when his team traveled to Dallas in April 2017 and ended up in a matchup against SC Supreme and high school sensation Zion Williamson.
In the first half, Williamson tried to finish around the rim, but Hayes blocked the shot — a dunk attempt, according to his mother — then threw a pinpoint outlet pass to his teammate, five-star guard Romeo Langford.
The two now look back on moments like that and laugh about how far they’ve come — Langford, a top-10 player in the 2018 class, has long been on that path, but now he’s joined by his fast-rising friend and former roommate when Twenty-Two Vision was on the road for events.
Hayes finished that month with 13 more offers and collected over 40 by the end of the summer, buoyed by his early success against Williamson and the confidence that afforded him.
“There was definitely a difference,” Kristi told 247Sports. “What I think it stems from — and what I think it stems from with every kid — is his confidence. Once he started having some success, that confidence built off of itself and kept building and building and building.”
Smart noticed the changes, too, noting the growth of his skills and assertiveness. When former assistant coach Darrin Horn went out to scout Hayes, he only needed to see the rapidly-improving big racing up and down the court twice to make a decision about an offer.
In late September, Hayes picked Texas over Kentucky and Xavier, but expectations were still rather modest — he finished just outside the top 100 players nationally amid concerns about his strength and whether he could do anything other than dunk and block shots.
As Hayes arrived in Austin and quickly gained about 15 pounds of muscle, the buzz started, a steady thrum that rapidly increased in intensity.
“He won’t be a secret for much longer,” Smart said of Hayes before his freshman season. “He’s going to be really, really good. It’s one of those things where he needs to continue to grow and learn on a daily basis and then be the best he can be today. But as much or even more than anyone our team he has an extremely bright future.”
In fact, the secret was already starting to get out — ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla called Hayes the best long-term prospect among the more than 20 teams he watched during preseason practices. Hayes didn’t wait long until making it official in the season opener against Eastern Illinois.
In the second half, forward Jericho Sims slowed down a transition opportunity. Trailing the play, Hayes came out of nowhere, soaring from beyond the restricted area to emphatically swat the ball off the backboard with a volleyball spike. He wasn’t finished, sprinting the court on a rim run. When Courtney Ramey found him with a pass, Hayes caught the ball and threw down a two-handed slam in one quick motion, punctuated with what quickly became his trademark howl.
“We had no idea how good he would be offensively from the standpoint of when he was rolling to the rim or on the move in transition,” Horn told NBA.com. “He could take the ball, and in one fluid motion flush it. Where most guys, even if they have good hands and can catch it, they have to gather themselves. Jaxson can catch that thing and get off the floor so quickly in stride before anyone knows what happened and be dunking on you.”
In the span of 12 seconds, Hayes flashed the special athleticism, timing, fluidity, and movement abilities that quickly made him an emerging star. He was already coaching his teammates, too. As the Texas coaches quickly adjusted to move more and more towards spread pick-and-roll actions to highlight the rim-running and finishing ability of Hayes, it was the freshmen telling point guard Matt Coleman when he was missing him on rolls and to pass out to the corner shooter if the defense collapsed on him.
“I don’t want to say that everything was open, but everything was open,” Hayes said after his first game.
Twenty minutes into his college career, Hayes was already seeing and processing the game at a remarkably mature level. And wasn’t shy about conveying it. When assessing ways to convey what makes Hayes special, the word precocious often comes to mind, but there’s a diminutive aspect of that word that feels inappropriate — the best way to describe Hayes is that he’s self-possessed. After all, there’s no substitute for the confidence of having high-level athletes as parents and showing phenomenal short-term growth as a result.
Less than two weeks later, the budding freshman had an opportunity to make a statement on a bigger stage — against No. 7 North Carolina in Las Vegas. Once again, Hayes showcased his lethal chase-down ability. This time Luke Mayes was the victim in transition, as what looked like an easy layup was pinned against the backboard with two hands.
In that showcase win that ultimately said more about Hayes than it did about the Longhorns team, the freshman made all five of his shots and 5-of-6 free throws to score 15 points, while adding nine rebounds and three blocks.
Reality couldn’t contain the secret.
As Sims struggled, Smart started fielding questions about why Hayes wasn’t in the starting lineup. Before long, Smart relented, and Hayes took advantage.
One night during that stretch, Hayes received a text from his friend Brandon Bates, a tight end at Kentucky who also went to Moeller, linking to a piece that showed Hayes moving up draft boards. Hayes doesn’t remember when it was, but he still has the screenshot on his phone.
“Dude, this is crazy,” Bates told him.
“Yeah, it’s insane,” Hayes responded. He just wasn’t surprised.
His game showed signs of growth, too, during that stretch. In a big home victory over Purdue, Hayes went against 7’3 center Matt Haarms, a senior who finished his final season with a block rate in the top 15 nationally. The freshman hit a hook shot over Haarms, then said in the post-game press conference that he didn’t gain any confidence from doing it, because he’s already confident.
By the time an unfortunate knee injury on a collision in the Big 12 Tournament effectively ended the Texas career of Hayes, he was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and one of the most efficient players in the country — No. 7 in offensive rating and No. 7 in field-goal percentage. He shot 82.3 percent from the free-throw line in conference play, good for No. 4 in the Big 12.
After the injury, Hayes said he started considering his future.
“It took a while,” he said. “As soon as I got hurt, I kind of started thinking about it. I wasn’t playing, so I didn’t have to focus on playing. So I took some time and I was thinking about it and I decided kind of late, I felt like — after the NIT. But I was meeting with my parents a lot. They came down for a few days. I met with coach. I went to church a lot. It was kind of a long process, I felt like.”
Smart and the staff tried to sell Hayes on how much he developed at Texas and how they could develop him into a top-two pick in next year’s draft. Hayes spoke with former Longhorns big men who made the jump after one season, like Myles Turner and Mo Bamba. His parents let him know that money wasn’t an issue, but helped provide perspective on the process.
“If I missed an important detail or skipped past it, they would kind of bring me back,” Hayes said.
On April 11, a week after the Longhorns cut down the nets in New York City, Hayes officially announced his declaration for the draft. The opportunity was too much to pass up.
On Tuesday, Hayes received clearance for full workouts, two weeks earlier than expected. He finished up classes on Thursday, after spending the last month traveling back and forth between Texas and California for pre-draft work — he stuck around to remain in good academic standing so he can come back and earn his degree and to make sure the school’s APR score didn’t take a hit because of his departure.
An unsurprising invitation to the NBA Draft Combine was in the works this week, as well, where he’ll have a chance to translate his athleticism to more concrete numbers and show off his work on developing a jump shot and better handles. After that he’ll work out for teams individually.
Organizations are already impressed, though, with most telling Hayes that he projects as a top-10 pick, though that’s not a consensus. In a worst-case scenario, he’s not expected to last past the middle of the first round.
“Just because I’m a tall, athletic big who can run the floor really well, defend the rim,” Hayes said when asked about his pitch to NBA teams. “Score around the rim and in the pick and roll.”
His football background is a benefit, he believes, helping him with his hand-eye coordination and his toughness after taking so many hits — because he was lean as a freshman, opponents tried to push him around in the post. But it seems like it’s more than that. Like the best wide receivers, Hayes has a remarkable level of body control that allows him to finish while making difficult catches. Eventually it will help him more as a rebounder, too, even though he needs to get better in that area.
Teams will also like his competitive spirit, which Smart described as the best on last season’s team, along with Ramey. Though Bamba struggled at times to play with a consistently high level of intensity, it wasn’t a problem for Hayes, who never left anything on the court during his year at Texas.
Smart believes that Hayes will be able to develop his game as quickly in the NBA as he has over the last two years, a major appeal for scouts at the next level.
“As far as his game, he’s going to be able to make jumpers,” Smart told NBA.com. “He’s going to put the ball on the floor. The way the NBA’s going, he’ll probably eventually shoot threes. The kid’s just a puppy. Who knows what he’s capable of doing?”
Whatever Hayes becomes, just don’t expect it to surprise him.