When the Badgers faithful look at Nigel Hayes, they see a university icon. They see a player that not only has provided countless memories on the hardwood, but also has embraced the local community and strives to change lives. He seems to have it all figured out. Behind his confidently goofy demeanor, however, lies one question that ultimately will determine his professional future: Is he good enough to make it big time?

Following his sophomore year, Nigel Hayes looked to be a surefire lottery pick in the coming years. With his imposing physical build, high basketball IQ, and a newly found outside shot, he seemed to check all the boxes as a versatile stretch-forward that the NBA covets in this era. Mock drafts pegged him in the 10-14 range in the 2016 NBA Draft.

Then, Hayes’ junior season happened. While he established career highs in points and assists while playing as the Badgers offensive facilitator, he struggled immensely with his efficiency and shooting as he became the focal point of opponents’ defensive schemes. Most alarming was the regression he displayed in his offensive game, as he lost the same outside shooting touch that had propelled him up draft boards the previous season. His percentages dropped from 49.7% to 36.8% from the field and from 39.6% to 29.3% from three-point land.

Many possibilities exist as to why Hayes struggled. One popular opinion is that he was trying to tailor his game to what would give him the most value in the NBA. This definitely holds merit, as his three point shot attempts increased by over one shot per game despite his difficulties in making them and he spent most his time on the wing. During his freshman and sophomore seasons, Hayes found most of his great success working inside and off the dribble. Simply put, he was trying to turn into more of a jump shooter during his junior year, and it took away from the facets of Nigel’s game that make him so valuable, which are his shifty ability in the paint and his ability to generate shots off the dribble.

After declaring for the draft and failing to make a splash at the NBA Draft Combine, Hayes decided to return to UW for his senior season. In just one year, many sports pundits’ predictions had dropped Hayes from a lottery pick in the 2016 draft to a middle second round pick in the 2017 draft. If Nigel was to regain the form that shot him up draft boards in the first place, he would need to rediscover what had made him so successful during his first two years as a Badger.

Up until tourney time, Nigel Hayes had shown some improvement, but not enough to reinvigorate the hype that surrounded him after his sophomore season. He has been more efficient and has displayed elite passing ability. However, that outside shot still held back his potential as a wing.

The solution? Stick him back inside where he can bang on the block with the best of the best. The results have not only been great for Nigel; they have led to the Badgers’ resurgence as a threat for the National Championship.

Over his last four games, Nigel has played at an elite level. Averaging 16.8 points and 9.8 rebounds while shooting 53%, he has been the “IT” factor that the Badgers need. While the Badgers ran their offense through Ethan Happ for much of the year, they have altered that strategy and have run it more through Nigel, and oh boy have they reaped the rewards of that decision (see: Nigel Hayes game-winning basket vs. Villanova).

Nigel’s string of good performances certainly has the potential to increase his draft stock. Much like Sam Dekker’s tournament play propelled him to lottery possibilities, Nigel could use March (and hopefully April) to propel himself into the back end of the first round. Having him play to his strengths will mean good things for both the Badgers AND Nigel Hayes.

THIS is the real Nigel Hayes. He is not a perimeter player. He is not one of the flashy athletic wings that can jump out of the gym. It was a mistake for the Badgers to attempt to utilize him in that way for over two years. In reality, he is an NBA-ready power forward that excels at driving off the dribble and generating shots for his teammates and himself. The NBA certainly houses many openings for a player with that skill set.

Nigel and the Badgers aren’t done yet. But when they are, and if Nigel continues playing at this elite level, don’t be surprised when NBA interest in his services soars through the roof. Through all the struggles this team has endured on their road to the Sweet Sixteen, they have finally begun to click on all cylinders and live up to their potential. All of this has happened due to one, ever present reason:

The REAL Nigel Hayes is back.

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Sam Monnat is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Big Brewers and Badgers guy.

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