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Texas C Jaxson Hayes’ rise into NBA Draft Lottery discussions is remarkable

Jaxson Hayes was the No. 229 player in his class when he committed to Texas, and only the No. 102 player when he signed. Now, the freshman is being projected as a lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Texas Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, Jaxson Hayes was averaging just 1.1 points per game — off the bench, nevertheless — as a junior in high school. All things considered, Hayes had not yet grown into the player that made him a 3-star prospect.

But when you consider where he was in 2017 compared to where he’s headed in 2019, it’s remarkable.

Hayes entered this year, his freshman season at Texas, ranked as the No. 102 player in the country and as the No. 21 power forward, per the 247Sports Composite. Tonight, he enters Texas’ 25th game of the season receiving praise as a potential lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Give yourself a moment to start from the top and read the first five sentences over again. Say them out loud. Call a friend or family member and read them those sentences. Refresh your browser. Get up, walk around your house or office and come back to this article and read those sentences again.

Here, I’ll say it again, this time shorter and sweeter — Hayes entered his freshman season at Texas as the No. 102 player overall. He enters Texas’ 25th game of the season receiving praise as a potential lottery pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Currently, Hayes has seen his projected draft slot as high as No. 8 overall. In other projections, Hayes, who was supposed to serve as Jericho Sims’ backup this season, is listed as the first big taken in this summer’s NBA Draft.

Incoming freshmen ranked outside of the top 50 overall generally have no business being in the lottery pick conversation after 25 games, much less those outside of the top 100.

For those of you who are just now learning about the NBA or perhaps don’t follow it closely enough to understand how amazing this is — Hayes being in the lottery pick conversation — take into account the following information: The NBA Draft has only two rounds. There are only 30 NBA franchises. That’s 60 players drafted. Never mind the undrafted free agents who will work their way into a summer league team and preseason roster.

Focus on that number: 60.

Sixty players will be drafted. Hayes wasn’t even in the top 60 overall incoming freshmen. Far from it. In fact, long before signing with the Longhorns as the No. 102 player in his class, Hayes committed to Texas ranked No. 229 nationally.

The 60 players drafted by NBA franchises each season come from a mix of international talent, successful sophomores and upperclassmen, and, of course, the elite freshmen. In many ways, they’re the best 60 NBA prospects in the world.

The No. 102 ranked player in the most recent freshman class typically doesn’t find himself in that pool of players just two years removed from averaging 1.1 points per game off the bench.

But here we have Hayes, averaging close to 23 minutes, 10.5 points, 2.4 blocks, and 5.2 rebounds per game, playing his way into a conversation that shouldn’t have included his name for at least another season.

This is incredible. And I still don’t you think you’re understanding just how incredible this is.

It’s highly unlikely to imagine Hayes nor Shaka Smart came into this year expecting the freshman to be where he is right now, included in chatter as the next one up on the lengthy list of NBA-bound Texas big men; a list highlighted by Tristan Thompson, Myles Turner, Jarrett Allen, and Mohamed Bamba. Each of the aforementioned has, of course, cemented their place in the NBA.

But here we have Hayes, who, unlike Thompson, Turner, Allen, and Bamba, wasn’t a five-star prospect ranked among the top 20 talents nationally. For all intents and purposes, it’s safe to simply say Hayes was just another guy coming out of high school. What he was going to be, or whatever he was capable of becoming, in most cases, should have taken at least a full season and a half to realize.

He’s done it in just 24 games.

Don’t confuse this with the idea that this kid wasn’t aggressively recruited by some of college basketball’s blue blood programs. Heavy interest from Kentucky, Big Ten schools and his hometown program, Xavier, accompanied the Longhorns; about 17 scholarship offers in total.

All of that aside, the fact still remains: the 102nd best freshman in the country has played his way into potentially being one of the best 14 players in this summer’s NBA Draft class; potentially one of the top 10. That’s the scale in which this must be viewed. That’s the magnitude. If your name is called during the NBA Draft, you are one of the best 60 prospects in the world, in the eyes of NBA scouts and front office personnel.

By this standard, that means Hayes is being touted, currently, as potentially being one of the best 14 prospects in the world.

Hayes came to Texas to add depth. Currently, he may very well be the largest difference in Texas still clinging to tournament hopes.

Maybe I’m just shouting into the void here, but this is remarkable. Perhaps it doesn’t take much to be amazed. Or maybe what Hayes has done for his draft stock and overall development in just 24 games should absolutely be celebrated.

Hayes could very well be one of, if not the first big man selected in the NBA Draft if he declares after this season, largely due to his success on the floor, but also because, though Oregon’s Bol Bol missing the rest of the season due to a foot injury should play a factor. But even without the injury to Bol, Hayes has made a case to take advantage of his rising draft stock.

And, folks, let’s be clear here — Hayes should absolutely declare. You don’t exceed expectations and watch your stock skyrocket to these heights only to return for your sophomore season. It’s time to go.

One of the only comparable jumps in draft stock I can think of in recent memory is Gordon Hayward going from a pedestrian shooting guard with three total scholarship offers to NBA lottery pick in a little under two years. And that required two seasons of college basketball and a Final Four run coached by one of basketball’s best minds, Brad Stevens.

And look, Hayes isn’t the first player to ever overcome his label and rank; just look back to last season as Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith blossomed from the No. 194 in his class to the 16th overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. But if Hayes isn’t the most impressive to do so, slowly sneaking towards the top five in some mock drafts only a few games past the halfway point of his freshman season, I’m going to need a compelling argument as to who is.

I went back to take a look at recent Texas bigs to gauge where Hayes’ season ranks. It isn’t analytical basketball science. Revealing complex levels to success is great. But keeping it simple works, too. It’s nice when you don’t have to break down the square root of outer space to explain how well a player is performing, or where a team is most effective on the offensive end of the floor.

So, let’s keep it simple.

Per 40 minutes, through 30 games last season, Mo Bamba averaged 17.1 points, 14 rebounds and 4.9 blocks per game.

Per 40 minutes, through 24 games this season, Hayes is averaging 18.5 points, 4.2 blocks and 9.1 rebounds per game.

Bamba, as you know, was drafted sixth overall by the Orlando Magic.

But even more impressive, Hayes, in 24 games this season, has all but bested former Longhorn Jarrett Allen’s stats from his lone season on the Forty Acres, in which he averaged 16.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, and just 1.9 blocks per 40 minutes in 33 games.

Allen was taken 22nd overall by Brooklyn Nets in 2017.

Given the comparison, it’s obvious that Hayes is legitimately earning every bit of praise and NBA Draft hype he is receiving having almost matched Bamba’s freshman stats while essentially exceeding Allen’s efforts. And he’s done it in nearly six fewer games than Bamba and nine fewer games than Allen.

That’s a credit to Shaka Smart and the Longhorns’ coaching staff as much as it is Hayes’ efforts.

Whatever comes of this Texas basketball season, the greatest success will undoubtedly be Hayes’ emergence as one of the best big men in college basketball.

Quite frankly, whatever becomes of this Texas basketball season may very well live and die with the way Hayes plays down the final stretch of the regular season.