SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Chuck Hayes looks the part of a bouncer more than an NBA player. But the 30-year-old is entrenched in the Sacramento Kings’ rotation and providing needed leadership.
Hayes is 6-foot-6, which makes him the shortest center in the league. The veteran logged 83 percent of his minutes on the floor at the pivot in 2012-13. Hayes is currently playing his ninth NBA season, but he is as shocked as anybody he became a professional basketball player.
“Growing up in Modesto, the NBA seemed so far-fetched, you just want to get to college first. College was my first dream,” Hayes told Sports Out West at Friday’s practice.
Hayes attended the University of Kentucky and went undrafted after finishing school in 2005. He signed with the Houston Rockets and was waived in the preseason, but after a dominant stint in the Developmental League and a rash of injuries with the big league club, the Rockets inked him to a 10-day contract in January 2006.
In his second game against the Chicago Bulls, Hayes recorded 12 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks, which impressed management enough to extend his deal for the rest of the season. The Rockets activated his option for the 2006-07 season, and after making 43 starts the team re-signed him to a four-year, $8 million pact.
Since then, Hayes has developed into one of the best post defenders in the league. He is too short to block most NBA centers, but the 250-pounder uses his strength, footwork and wide body to leverage scorers out of the key. Some of Hayes’ more notable shutdowns include Carlos Boozer (who shot 1-of-7), Marc Gasol (1-of-6), Chris Kaman (2-of-9), and Nenad Krstic (1-for-8) in the absence of Yao Ming in 2009-10. Practicing against the 7-foot-6 Ming and 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo early in his career certainly helped, but the “big” primarily attributes his success to hours in front of the T.V.
“I watch a lot of film. That’s my edge. I study my opponent,” Hayes added.
What Hayes didn’t learn from video was his unorthodox free throw form. He has a hitch and hesitation which can be uneasy to watch, but it’s effective at drawing lane violations and the accuracy is fairly acceptable (he made a career-high 67 percent of his chances in 2011-12).
“(My shot) just kind of happened. It developed overnight.”
Hayes’ most notable achievement in the NBA may have been his only triple-double performance facing the Golden State Warriors on March 23, 2011. In 38 minutes, the starter notched 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 11 assists. Does Hayes think he can pull it again?
“In order to get (another) triple-double, I’ll have to get some steals, which I don’t know if I can get 10 of them, and I’ll need my teammates to make shots. (10 turnovers?) That’s an upside-down triple-double.”
Aside from his burly presence on the low block, Hayes is limited as a player. He’s a skilled passer, but his offense is confined to hook shots and layups, and boxing out can only do so much as a man of his stature. Hayes is committed to make the most of his talent.
“You try to improve every year. Finishing around the basket, rebounding better, shooting the free throws better, everything. You want to get better at every aspect in the game.”
Hayes had a health scare in December 2011 (after the lockout), when doctors believed he had a heart abnormality. The four-year, $21.3 million deal he signed with the Kings was voided, and his career was in jeopardy.
Of course, Hayes was undeterred by his latest challenge and proved the diagnosis wrong, which prompted Sacramento to re-sign the center for an additional $1.1 million. His contract will expire when he’s 32, but with a game close to the ground, the pivot should age well. Regardless of when he hangs up his playing shoes, Hayes will remain a poster child for underdogs.
Photo Credit: Kelley Cox / USA TODAY Sports