JIM VERTUNO | THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
AUSTIN — As a high school football player, Jaxson Hayes had a slight problem that was only getting bigger: His body.
He was getting taller. An extraordinary growth spurt shot him up to about 6-foot-7, and he was taking a pounding at wide receiver.
“They were going at my knees and back and stuff,” Hayes said.
Basketball beckoned. His career on the court was about to take off. And it hasn’t stopped.
From a 6-foot, 125-pound freshman, to a 6-10, 200-pound senior, Hayes has made an extraordinary leap from a player who barely got on the court to an elite-level prospect courted by some of the top college programs in the country.
Hayes landed at Texas, where his early play has twice earned Big 12 newcomer of the week honors, and his raw talent is showing so much potential that he’s generating buzz as a potential one-and-done NBA draft pick in 2019. And he’s still growing, having now reached 6-11.
“I call him Halley’s Comet,” said Carl Kremer, Hayes’ coach at Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller high school, an Ohio basketball power. “He’s once in a lifetime.”
Hayes is averaging 10.3 points and 4.9 rebounds off the bench for the Longhorns (6-3) and has a team-high 23 blocks. He’s coming off one of his best games when he was 6-of-6 shooting in a win over Purdue.
All this from a kid who didn’t start a game in high school until he was a senior and wasn’t rated as a top-100 recruit. Texas plays Saturday against Grand Canyon (5-4).
“This has been a whirlwind,” Hayes said. “I always dreamed of this as a kid. I thought I could be a mid-major player when I was 6-7. I just wanted to at least get one Division One offer.”
Everyone could see Hayes’ athletic potential, Kremer said. His father is Cincinnati Bengals tight end coach Jonathan Hayes, who played 12 seasons in the NFL. His mother, Kristi (Kinne) Hayes, played basketball at Drake University and averaged 52 points as a high school senior in Iowa.
But basketball developed slowly for Jaxson. Kremer describes Hayes at “No. 20 among 20” on the Moeller freshman teams. By his junior season, he was averaging about six minutes and less than two points on a team that played for the state championship.
But he could block shots and that got noticed when Middle Tennessee State offered a scholarship.
“As soon as I got that offer, I quit football. That’s when I thought this could really take off,” Jaxson said.
Hayes joined an AAU team and his first tournament game produced a play that his mom says changed everything: He pinned an opponent’s dunk attempt against the backboard. That player was Zion Williamson, one of the top recruits in the country, who is now a freshman sensation at Duke.
“Suddenly,” Kristi said, “everyone was talking about Jaxson.”
Texas coach Shaka Smart, who had connections in Ohio from his playing days at Kenyon College and as an assistant at Akron, came calling. So did Kentucky’s John Calipari.
“Going into the summer, I had one offer. By the end, I had 42,” Jaxson said. “That fall, I was in my English class and Patrick Ewing walked in (at school) with all the Georgetown coaches. My phone was blowing up.”
Smart first sent assistant Darrin Horn to scout Hayes. The report back to Austin was quick and emphatic.
“I watched him run the court twice,” Horn said. “I said, ‘Yeah, this kid can play.'”
Landing at Texas made for more than a few family jokes. Hayes was born in Norman, Oklahoma, when both of his parents were assistant coaches at the University of Oklahoma. Kristi recalls Smart making her flash a “Hook’em Horns” hand sign for a picture he wanted to send to Sooners’ women’s basketball coach Sherri Coale.
“I struggled with that at first,” Kristi said, laughing. “But I did it. Now we bleed burnt orange.”
Jaxson’s game is raw and he knows it. When he calls home, younger sister and high school hoops star Jillian jabs him for not getting more rebounds. His outside shooting touch remain inconsistent at best.
This week, Horn put him through 45 minute of drills on how to use his body against defenders in the physical play of the Big 12. And he’s developing a baby hook shot that he used last week against Purdue’s 7-3 center Matt Haarms. Of his 37 field goals through the first nine games, 28 have been dunks.
“I love that he gets the ball to the rim. He’s aggressive. He catches the ball and it’s getting to the basket,” Horn said.
Texas has had two one-and-done forwards the last two seasons in Jarrett Allen and Mo Bamba. Both came into college expecting to quickly leave. Hayes shrugs off the idea that he could join them next summer.
“I just want to focus on the now. If the time comes at the end of the season, the time comes,” Hayes said. “It’s kind of crazy to think about … People are talking about me going to the NBA, something I’ve dreamed of.”
He could be even taller by then. Kristi took her son to the doctor a few months ago when Jaxson was having back pain in yet another growth spurt. She wanted a bone scan to see just how tall he was going to get.
The results astonished everyone in the office. Kristi could hear their voices coming through the wall.
“They were pulling everyone in to see his results,” she said. “Look at this! He’s going to be 7 feet! I was saying ‘Hello, I can hear you!'”