Gator commitment Hayes growing into his game

ALACHUA – Kevarrius Hayes (6-9, 200, Live Oak, FL Suwannee County) is only 16 and still growing. Since his freshman year, Hayes has added seven full inches in height and though still skinny, quite a few pounds, too. His mom, Verrice Hayes, says he’s always hungry and always eating, but keeping a son with a voracious appetite full is the very least of her concerns.

“Clothes … now that’s a problem,” she said Friday evening. “You buy him something new and next thing you know he’s outgrown it. I can’t keep him in clothes.”

A 2015 commitment to the University of Florida, Hayes is not only growing upward and outward, but his game is growing even faster. In the course of a single year, Hayes has evolved from a primarily rebounder/shot blocker into Suwannee County’s best – best, as in best scorer best shooter, best ball handler and best passer.

He needed all his skills Friday when he led Suwannee County on a 19-4 fourth quarter run that erased a 10-point deficit against Fort White in the quarterfinals of the Hitchcock Challenge at Santa Fe High School. It was his fast break elbows above the rim dunk on a pass lobbed off the backboard with 3:09 that capped the turnaround, giving the Bulldogs a 62-57 advantage over the Indians.

That dunk was part of a 15-point, 10-rebound fourth quarter of complete domination for Hayes. Whatever the Bulldogs needed, he delivered, with a final stat line read 35 points, 19 rebounds, seven blocked shots, three steals and one assist.

It was the kind of game that Suwannee County coach Jeremy Ulmer hopes will become the norm for Hayes, who hasn’t even begun to scratch the surface of his enormous potential.

“We’re hoping he’ll keep improving and play four full quarters like that last one,” Ulmer said after the win. “He’s got it in him to do that.”

What Hayes did in the fourth quarter – really, what he did the entire game – is quite a departure from last season when he was content to block shots, grab rebounds and score a few points around the basket. His breakthrough came during the spring while playing for Nike Team Florida’s under 16 team along with 2016 Florida commitment Johnny Mooney.

Playing against national competition, it seemed that Hayes’ game expanded nearly every game, which is why Florida coach Billy Donovan offered a scholarship and Hayes accepted immediately, although there was some initial trepidation. What sealed it for Hayes was that Donovan didn’t promise playing time or a fast track to the NBA.

“I really didn’t think I was the level to be considered a Gator player,” Hayes admitted. “I really didn’t feel I was really a Gator until he told me himself that I could be great if I worked hard and kept trying to improve every day. When he told me that, I just knew … in my heart I knew I was a Gator. I didn’t want to hear a lot of promises.”

Hayes took Donovan’s words to heart and kept working throughout the summer months and the preseason. Ulmer says it’s evident that Hayes has improved dramatically, but knows there is plenty of room for continued development.

“He still hasn’t figured out how good he’s capable of being,” Ulmer said. “He’s got so much skill and talent and he’s worked hard to get where he is, but there isn’t an area of his game that can’t improve. If he figures it all out and can sustain the intensity from start to finish I think he could be a really dominating player.”

Hayes is just a junior so he’s got a season-and-a half of high school ball and another spring on the AAU circuit with Nike Team Florida to hone his game so that he’s better prepared for college basketball. The way Hayes and Mooney have improved, Nike Team Florida is already being considered one of the teams that has a chance to win a national championship. It’s very likely that Hayes will also be selected to participate in the NBA Players Development Camp in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Academically, he’s on very firm ground. One reason he was quick to commit to the Gators was the University of Florida medical school. Hayes has designs on being a doctor someday so he’s taking the kind of courses that will prepare him for the tough work ahead to get into and out of medical school.

Favorite course? “That would be math,” he said. “I really love it. It’s fun.”

Most challenging course? “Physics … I love the concept of it, but the work is hard and it makes me focus and try harder,” Hayes said. “It’s always so much more fun when you know what you’re doing.”

SCOUTING REPORT: Hayes has an exceptional all-around game that continues to develop. He has expanded the range on his jump shot to 15 feet and it’s encouraging that he shoots the ball with the same mechanics every time. He was rock steady at the foul line where he knocked down 15-19 shots with two rim-outs.

He has to manufacture most of his points because teammates tend to jack up 3-pointers indiscriminately and none of them are very good shooters. On one of the rare occasions that teammates got him the ball, he knifed to the rim, took a waist-high pass and elevated for an easy layup. Fouled on the play, he completed the 3-point play at the line.

In the fourth quarter, Hayes simply crashed the boards every time a shot went up and the result was 10 rebounds, five on each end. Four of his five fourth quarter field goals were on stick backs while the fifth came on the lop off the backboard while on the break.

Defensively, he could probably stand to be a bit more aggressive although he does a good job of staying out of foul trouble by going for the ball after it’s already in flight rather than attempt to block the shot at the point of release. At some point the lights will go on and he will decide to be an intimidator on every single play.

Much like Jarvis Varnado, the former Mississippi State star who holds the NCAA record for career blocked shots, Hayes is a better off-the-ball shot blocker than he is playing his man straight up. If the shot comes from his left or right there is a far greater chance of a block than if the man he’s guarding goes straight into him, but that is one of the reasons he consistently stays out of foul trouble.

Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.