It's a light day for Nigel Hayes. With his Sideshow Bob-esque hair pulled back into a pseudo ponytail that bobbs atop his head and his gray t-shirt with "NBA Draft Combine" scrolled across the chest in red, the recent Wisconsin graduate foam rolls, loosens his ankles and goes through a variety of stretches over the course of an hour. It's tedious, monotonous and, above all, incredibly necessary.
"As hard as you work, you have to work hard to recover and take care of the body," Hayes said.
It's late May, and Hayes has spent most of the past two months here at Peak Performance Project, or P3, one of the premiere basketball training facilities in the country. Nestled near the beach in Santa Barbara, California, P3 served as a dojo of sorts for Hayes as he trained ahead of the NBA Draft Combine, and now it's his home base between the flurry of upcoming private workouts he has scheduled with a handful of NBA teams. Tomorrow morning, Hayes will don another gray shirt, this time with "Los Angeles Lakers" scrawled across the front as he works out and plays some 3-on-3 in front of the Lakers brass. He hasn't been drafted yet, but just a few months removed from playing in the Sweet Sixteen, Hayes already feels like he's living the NBA lifestyle.
"The pre-draft process is extremely tiring," Hayes said. "It can get grueling depending on how many workouts you do. Some guys do a couple, and some guys like myself, not being high on the lottery board, have to do a couple more, so it can be tiring. It's almost like you are living the NBA lifestyle already."
Hayes isn't joking. A recent stretch for the former Wisconsin Badger looked like this: Fly from Los Angeles to Chicago on Monday morning to participate in the NBA Combine. Stay through Friday. Fly to Wisconsin on Saturday to graduate. Fly back to L.A. on Sunday. Work out for two teams on Monday. Work out back at P3 on Tuesday. Work out for another team on Wednesday. And so on and so forth.
Compounding things further is the fact that Hayes's draft status is somewhat uncertain. Some mock drafts have him being selected late in the second round. Others don't have him being selected at all. Hayes's 6-foot-7 frame is considered undersized for his position, and he won't be able to play inside as much as he did at Wisconsin because of the greater height and strength of NBA athletes. Despite being a versatile defender and a creative mid-range scorer, Hayes shot just 31 percent from 3 last season, another aspect of his game that gives NBA teams pause. Hayes knows the criticisms of his game, and he has spent the pre-draft process tirelessly working on them, specifically his shooting. To have a chance to thrive in the NBA, he needs to become the quintessential "3 and D" player, and he knows it.
But when speaking with Hayes, you get the feeling that all this basketball stuff is like when two candy bars drop out of the vending machine. He's thrilled to have a chance to play pro hoops. But what's most intriguing about the Toledo, Ohio native, what truly pulls you into his orbit, is everything but basketball.
Hayes loves to talk. You learn that right away. One minute he's waxing poetic about his favorite animated movies (peep Zootopia, Hayes says), and the next he's forcing you to get into a cryotherapy chamber for the first time in your life (I survived). He's also completely unafraid of moving the conversation into uncomfortable areas, touching on topics most athletes shy away from. For much of his time at Wisconsin, Hayes frequently took to Twitter to articulate his thoughts on why NCAA student-athletes deserve to be paid. Then, when ESPN's "College Game Day" set arrived on campus last October, Hayes showed up with a sign that read "Broke College Athlete. Anything Helps" with the name of his Venmo account at the bottom. The photo of him went viral.
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) October 15, 2016
He's also spoken eloquently on race, touching on everything from police violence against minorities to the pushback black athletes get when they choose to speak their minds. Hayes is one of the most outspoken athletes college sports has witnessed in a very long time, a quality infused into his genes by his mother.
"My thoughtfulness and speaking my mind, it just comes from my upbringing. My mother is not shy to speak her mind," Hayes said. "She's not afraid to stand up for herself, to speak up on what's right and to stand up for her children. I think that example that I have always seen of her is what has allowed me to do that so easily."
If Hayes's mother is the "nature" part of the nature vs. nurture conversation, then Hayes's four years at Wisconsin is the "nurture." Some thought Hayes should have abandoned Madison for the NBA after his stellar sophomore season, which resulted in a trip to the NCAA Tournament championship game, but Hayes disagreed.
"I didn't feel I was good enough yet," he said matter of factly.
Besides further developing his game, remaining on campus for two more years molded Hayes as a person. He earned a degree in Finance and Investment Banking, setting himself up for a future beyond basketball. He also grew immensely as an intellectual.
"Another credit to staying in college. I was able to do some thinking," Hayes said. "Four years is a lot of time. You can do something, read some books, talk to some people. The NCAA and the racism issues are things that affect me personally, and I think it was just a moment and that it was a calling that it was time for me to speak up."
As Hayes's platform grows with his foray into professional basketball, he believes his purpose becomes more vital than ever.
"I don't know why, it's the world we live in, but because some of us can put a ball in a rim better than others, it makes people listen to us more," he said. "It is the duty of all people to speak up for injustices or wrongs and stand up for what is right and try to make the world a better place. Since we do have that power and that platform, we should use it for good and speak up on certain issues that are unjust."
For now, Hayes's primary focus is making sure he gains that platform. There are more tweaks to his game he needs to make, more teams to work out for and more interviews to conduct. With so much going on in the lead-up to the NBA Draft in late June, both on and off the court, you might think Hayes's head would be cluttered. But that would be very far from the truth.
"The most relaxing and peaceful part [of this] is knowing that I'm doing something to achieve a goal I always wanted," Hayes said.
And those goals stretch far beyond putting an orange ball into a hoop.