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Nigel Hayes: Playing in the EuroLeague has given me the self-confidence I lacked in the NBA

Zalgiris Kaunas forward Nigel Hayes joined TalkBasket for a chat on coaching styles, past-present teammates and his NBA aspirations

Nigel Hayes in action during the 2020/2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 4 match between Zalgiris Kaunas and Anadolu Efes Istanbul at Zalgirio Arena on October 15, 2020 in Kaunas, Lithuania. (Photo by Alius Koroliovas/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

On December 16, Nigel Hayes is going to celebrate his 26th birthday.

On his third year in Europe, the 6’8” forward that plays for Zalgiris Kaunas is demonstrating his improvement all over the continent. Not only do his numbers look better than last season, his first on the EuroLeague level, but also his contribution to the Lithuanian giants has increased significantly.

A Toledo, Ohio native, Hayes had an outstanding college career with the Wisconsin Badgers, where he played from 2013 to 2017. He was part of the team’s two Final Four runs in 2014 and 2015, ending up as the fourth leading scorer in school history (1,857 points).

His first professional season included no less than four teams: a G League stint with the New York Knicks affiliate plus a total of 9 games with the Lakers, the Raptors and the Kings. At that time, Hayes was offered mostly 10-day contracts and never got to play consistent minutes or have a definite role on any of those teams.

In Europe, he had a very good year with Galatasaray in Turkey and the EuroCup, before moving on to Zalgiris. Sarunas Jasikevicius, one of European basketball’s towering figures, and Martin Schiller (one of G League’s most prominent coaches) are as different as “Antarctica and Malaga” and Hayes cannot help but point out the obvious.

For a team that started with 4 wins in a row and then got a taste of its own medicine by losing six games in 45 days, bouncing back had been an imperative for a long time. In the same vein, for one of the athletes who supported the Black Lives Matter movement before it came into fashion, his 14-point performance on 3/3 three-point shooting at OAKA vs Panathinaikos OPAP was a reminder of the qualities he had displayed early on in his career.

After an important win (69-81) over the Greek team, Nigel Hayes took some time for TalkBasket.net to weigh in on team’s performances, past and present coaches, NBA time, Draft prospect teammate Rokas Jokubaitis and -of course- Tyler Herro’s choice of college.

Q: How big of a win was this, in terms of psychology?

A: It’s good for our psychology and it’s also frustrating for the objectivity of the game, how it went and how we played. We know what we are capable of when we play as hard as we can, execute the game plan and the rules-decisions our coach has put in for us. It’s good that we were able to do that, but it’s also like “Hey, we didn’t have to lose six in a row”.

Q: Why did you lose six in a row?

A: We were just not able to finish the job. In order to win a game, you have to do almost everything perfect. We were a lot closer to that today than we were in the last six games.

Q: How’s the season been so far for you and Zalgiris?

A: It’s been good. New system, new coaching style and coaching staff. It almost seemed like last year, when we lost 9 in a row and I was kind of “Shit, let’s not do that again!”. Luckily, we were able to stop the bleeding at six and hopefully take the recipe from this game – the way we played- and carry it over going forth in the rest of the season.

Q: What’s the main difference between Sarunas Jasikevicius and Martin Schiller?

A: It’s as different as living in Antarctica and living in Malaga or Ibiza. But both coaches are great in their own right. I’ve said in a previous interview that there’s more than one way to coach and to play basketball. Not one style is right or better than the other one. We don’t play any worse or better.

Nigel Hayes, during the 2020/2021 Turkish Airlines EuroLeague Regular Season Round 13 match between Panathinaikos OPAP Athens
and Zalgiris Kaunas at OAKA on December 11, 2020 in Athens (Photo by Panagiotis Moschandreou/Euroleague Basketball via Getty Images)

Q: What’s the principle that has changed?

A: The first I would say is the obvious … you know. The demonstrative yelling and correcting in every game. Saras has Dixicon and I talked to him after our last game against Barcelona – he knows. That’s a style of coaching that you see a lot in Europe and it stems from his treaty of coaching with Obradovic. You see those who played for him and are now coaching, they all have the same style. It works, but there’s more than one way to win games. We’ve bought into coach Schiller’s style, but we have to play close to a 100 percent as well.

Q: Do you believe that if it hadn’t been for COVID, you would be playing in the NBA right now?

A: I felt like I was playing very well last year, towards the end of the season. It was around January-February. It was as if I hadn’t missed a shot in two months. Things were going great, exactly like in the game against Panathinaikos. But I can’t see the future. All I can do is be here where I’m at. My feet are in a Zalgiris jersey and I want to play as well as I can for myself and my family. I want them to be proud of me and help my team win games.

Q: In terms of your NBA experience, did you expect more than 10-day contracts?

A: No, looking back on it now, I’ve always worked hard. I just didn’t work right and I needed to have more confidence in myself and my abilities. That’s something I have gained now, playing in Euroleague. You see a lot of the guys that go from the Euroleague to the NBA talk about how much harder it is. Luka Doncic was saying that it’s easier to score in the NBA and it’s true. It’s very difficult here. I feel that the experience I’ve had will help me. If the opportunity presents itself, I will be much more prepared this summer.

Q: Is Rokas Jokubaitis NBA ready?

A: Absolutely. I talk to him all the time about trying to make sure that he does the right things. I’ve been there for a short period of time, but I was able to listen, see and learn a lot from other veterans. I’m trying to help him be prepared for that.

Q: Which was your best NBA experience?

A: Just meeting players and watching how people work, the way they go about business.

Q: Do you appreciate the NBA more after what happened in the summer, with players and the league expressing political views and even boycotting a game?

A: It’s always been the best league in the world and also the best job playing basketball. NBA players and the whole organization have always set the bar very high. I’m not at all surprised that those things happened.

Q: Did people at Wisconsin call you to say they’re mad at you for persuading Tyler Herro to try Kentucky?

A: No, it doesn’t matter if they did or not. I told him to do what’s best for him and at the end of the day, it worked. All the credit goes to him for his work ethic.

Q: Did you personally have a good time at Wisconsin?

A: Great time. It was the greatest college experience you could ask for. All I needed was a National Championship. I was very close, but … Fantastic time.

Q: Is your former teammate Ethan Happ Euroleague material?

A: Absolutely. He has one of the best motors you’ve ever seen; he’s very crafty, he can score in a million ways around the rim; he will hustle and never cheat you.

Ethan Happ #22 (L) and Nigel Hayes #10 of the Wisconsin Badgers cheer from the bench in the second half against the Prairie View A&M Panthers at
the Kohl Center on November 27, 2016 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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