Hayes steadily transforming into explosive force for Badgers

Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes has turned himself into a force as a rebounder in his sophomore season -- one of many expanded areas to his game thanks to discipline and hard work.

Andy Manis/AP

MADISON, Wis. — When Nigel Hayes completed his first season at Wisconsin a year ago, there was little question it ranked among the most productive freshman campaigns in recent Badgers memory. He earned the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year award. He was named to the freshman all-conference team. He became the first player in conference history to earn the freshman of the week award in consecutive weeks on two separate occasions.

So much success. And yet so many areas in which to improve. Ask Hayes, and the bugaboo at the top of his offseason list was, without question, becoming a better rebounder. In fact, Hayes has suggested he had no choice to improve on the glass after Badgers assistant coach Gary Close called him "the worst rebounder in America."

So, is it true?

"I may have said that," Close said. "I’m not sure."

"Half joking," Badgers forward Duje Dukan said. "Half serious."

"Legitimate quote," Hayes said. "He said I was definitely the worst rebounder in America."

While the contents of that offseason conversation is up for debate, here’s what is perfectly clear: Hayes has turned himself into a force as a rebounder in his sophomore season — one of many expanded areas to his game thanks to discipline and hard work.

As a freshman, Hayes averaged 2.8 rebounds per game. And he gathered two rebounds or fewer in 20 games. At the halfway point of this regular season, Hayes is averaging 7.1 rebounds per game and has had only three games in which he tallied two rebounds or fewer. He began the year with a flurry, recording at least 10 rebounds in the first three games. And on Sunday, during Wisconsin’s 67-62 loss at Rutgers, he picked up his fourth double-double of the season, with 15 points and 10 rebounds.

Related content

Yes, Hayes has seen his minutes increase from 17.4 as a reserve to 31.3 as a starter. But there is more to the statistical productivity.

"Nigel’s the kind of guy that if you challenge him, he’ll want to prove you wrong," Close said. "He did it with his jump shot and just his athletic ability, his strength, his hands, he should be a really good rebounder. You’ve just got to learn how to do it."

Part of Hayes’ improvement stems from offseason weight loss that dropped him from about 247 pounds to 235 pounds. The leaner frame helped make Hayes more explosive and quicker to the ball. But Hayes also learned that rebounding in the Big Ten, one of the most physically demanding leagues in college basketball, also requires a particular mindset.

"There is probably a percentage of rebounding that is based off strength and quickness," Hayes said. "You can get that from the weight room. But the majority of it, probably 95-plus percent is just the anticipation of a shot going up, assuming that all shots are misses and then just putting in effort to get the rebound.

"Coach Close helped me think about that every day. He kept telling me that I needed to make sure I rebounded better this year."

Hayes’ rebounding increase is only one facet to his improved game for the Badgers. Perhaps the most noticeable change has been the development of a 3-point shot. Last year, he did not attempt a single 3-pointer. This year, he has made 13 of 34 3s and ranks second on the team among rotation players in 3-point shooting percentage (.382).

He also has significantly improved his free throw shooting. Hayes ranked second on the team last season in free-throw attempts, but he made only 58.5 percent of his shots. This year, he again ranks second in attempts and is burying 69.2 percent from the line, which has helped his overall scoring average increase from 7.7 to 12.2.

"I’m still not shooting that well on free throws, as well as I should be, but that’s definitely an improvement," Hayes said. "Last year, I was able to get to the line a lot. That’s all fine and dandy. If you can’t convert, it’s kind of pointless to do all the driving to the rim, shot faking and banging down low. So I think that would be the biggest area for me, but I’ve still got work to do."

Hayes’ all-around game has been on display for months now, and he continues to impress Badgers coaches. During a practice on Friday, Hayes swished a step-back jump shot from the left corner over teammate Aaron Moesch, which came one sequence after Hayes scored a lefty layup on the right side of the basket over the outstretched arm of Ethan Happ. The bevvy of impressive plays prompted Badgers coach Bo Ryan to chime in.

Photo gallery

"Nigel, take it easy on the nets," Ryan cracked. "You keep making them like that, we’ll have to find a replacement."

Perhaps the biggest growth in Hayes’ game has been his versatility as a defender. Last Wednesday, for example, Ryan made a halftime adjustment to turn Hayes loose on Purdue’s two tallest trees in the paint — 7-foot center A.J. Hammons and 7-2 center Isaac Haas. The strategy of rotating onto each man worked because Hayes used his athleticism to frustrate both players and provide Badgers 7-footer Frank Kaminsky with some much needed defensive help. Wisconsin went on to win the game 62-55 after leading by just one point at the half.

"We wanted to give it a shot just to see if it bothered them a little bit," Close said. "He did a great job. He worked his tail off."

Teammates, meanwhile, have also praised Hayes’ expanded game, which has made life easier for them on the court.

"The 3-point shooting is the most obvious to the fans," Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. "But I think for us internally it’s his defensive versatility. We can switch point guards onto him and feel comfortable guarding a quick guard. And he showed (Wednesday) he can guard a 7-2, 300-pounder pretty darn well. I think that really makes your team better when you have guys who can guard one through five at a high rate. And he’s shown that this year."

So, what’s next for Hayes? Close said he believed Hayes had only begun to "scratch the surface" and that there were plenty of other areas he could improve on. And Hayes, ever the goofy, effervescent one, tells a story about his favorite player, Kobe Bryant, which is telling of the type of player he wants to become.

"I saw video of Kobe playing a little kid 1-on-1 in China," Hayes said. "He played the kid 1-on-1 like it was the NBA finals. The kid made a shot. That’s when Kobe was like, ‘You’re a child, and I’m going to kill you, child.’ And I was like if Kobe has that attitude toward a little kid, imagine his attitude toward everyone else. I was like if I want to be half as good as Kobe, that’s probably an attitude I need to adopt."

Hayes will continue to put in the same maniacal effort. And the results surely will follow.

Follow Jesse Temple on Twitter