Texas coach Shaka Smart was monitoring a recruit at an Atlanta AAU tournament just over two years ago when a player on the opposing team caught his eye.
A long-armed 6-foot-8 kid was running the floor with a smooth, effortless stride not often seen from someone so tall.
“He was very raw, but he looked like he had great potential,” Smart said. “I remember texting my staff to say, ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
That kid turned out to be Jaxson Hayes, a player just beginning an unfathomably rapid ascent from high school benchwarmer to NBA prospect. The potential lottery pick will be the only player to walk across the stage at the NBA draft on Thursday night without starting a single high school game until his senior year.
At 14, he was the last player to make the cut for his high school’s freshman “B” team. At 15, he came off the bench for the JV team. At 16, he made varsity but struggled to crack the rotation. Now, one month removed from his 19th birthday, Hayes is the Big 12’s reigning freshman of the year, a 6-foot-11 shot-blocking, rim-running monster drawing comparisons to the likes of Jarrett Allen and Clint Capela.
“It’s an amazing story,” Smart said. “I certainly see him having some challenges early on in the NBA, but he’s not the type of guy that is going to shy away from those. He understands that his best basketball is ahead of him and he’s just going to get better and better. Unless something happens to disrupt his trajectory, his future is incredibly bright.”
A big reason that Hayes’ potential went unnoticed for so long is that basketball initially wasn’t his primary sport. He hails from a family of athletes that encouraged him to dabble in a number of sports instead of specializing in one.
His mother Kristi is an Iowa basketball legend who scored over 3,400 points in her decorated high school career. His father Jonathan caught 153 passes in 11 seasons as a tight end with the Kansas City Chiefs and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Initially, they put him in ballet and gymnastics, in addition to basketball and football. Later, it was baseball, lacrosse and taekwondo.
When Hayes enrolled at Cincinnati’s most tradition-rich basketball high school, his multi-sport background was a bit of a disadvantage to his hoops aspirations. Most of the other freshmen trying out for Archbishop Moeller’s basketball team in 2014 were much more experienced and polished than he was.
“There were a lot of kids who already had skill sets and were developed,” his mother Kristi said. “They had been playing AAU from a very early age. Jaxson hadn’t. The only reason he made the team at all was they saw some potential in him.”
At that time, Hayes looked nothing like he does today. He stood only 6 feet tall and weighed a rail-thin 125 pounds, though he did possess enough bounce even then to become maybe the first player in freshman “B” team history to throw down an in-game dunk.
“The 12 people who were in there went berserk,” Hayes joked in February to the Austin American Statesman.
For his first couple years at Moeller, Hayes considered football his main sport. The sure-handed wide receiver only played basketball a few months a year during the high school season.
That changed Hayes’ junior year when a growth spurt took him to 6-7. Tired of linebackers and safeties taking aim at his knees and back, Hayes decided to focus exclusively on basketball for the first time in his life.
After averaging one point and two rebounds during his junior season at Moeller as the backup to Cornell-bound Riley Voss, Hayes played AAU basketball for the first time. He joined Twenty-two Vision, an Adidas-sponsored start-up built around five-star prospect Romeo Langford and run by the father of the Indiana-bound guard.
The visibility and playing time Twenty-Two Vision provided Hayes turned out to be life-altering for the little-known prospect. Coaches who came to watch Langford in the spring and summer of 2017 left enamored with the longterm potential of his teammate as well.
Before his first AAU tournament, Hayes had one scholarship offer from Middle Tennessee State, which presented that to him after watching his highlight tape earlier that spring. Eight more schools offered Hayes after his first AAU tournament. Another 15 or 20 followed after the second one.
“At one point in time, he had more high-major offers than high school varsity points scored,” said 247Sports.com basketball recruiting analyst Brian Snow. “All of a sudden, it just started to click for him. That’s when people started to see him.”
By the end of that summer, Hayes was pushing 6-11 and had piled up more than three dozen scholarship offers. The likes of Kentucky, Ohio State, Texas, Purdue and Xavier were each pursuing a player who had never started a high school game.
Smart offered Hayes in July 2017, just a couple months after he’d first stumbled across the young big man in Atlanta. By that time, Hayes’ bursts of potential were more frequent, from his emphatic blocks, to his soaring tip slams, to his surprising foot speed for his position.
“He had grown a little bit and he had a little bit more violence in everything he did,” Smart said. “Instead of two months going by, it looked like it had been 12 months. One of the most important things in recruiting is what trajectory guys are on. When we saw he was on that kind of trajectory, it was a no brainer to offer him.”
Hayes’ ascent has only steepened since he committed to Texas in Sept. 2017.
He averaged 12 points, 7 rebounds and 4 blocks his senior year of high school, propelling Moeller to a 27-3 record and a state championship. He then broke into Texas’ starting lineup in December, showcasing a knack for running the floor, finishing lobs and protecting the rim.
Scouts are intrigued by almost everything about Hayes’ defensive potential, from his 7-foot-3 wingspan, to his mobility on the perimeter, to his timing as a shot blocker. He doesn’t rebound well yet and he needs to add strength to avoid being pushed around, but there’s reason to believe he will continue to fill out given his wide shoulders and his father’s football physique.
What Hayes brings offensively is reliable hands, soft touch at the rim and knowledge of what he is and what he isn’t. He’s comfortable scoring on lobs, duck-ins and put-backs and he doesn’t desire the ball in his hands more often than that.
Hayes is expected to be drafted in the middle third of the first round on Thursday night, perhaps as soon as the latter part of the lottery. Whenever his name is called, it will be a proud moment for a family that has been by his side when the goal was simply starting a high school basketball game, not playing in the NBA.
“To think he’s going to be walking across a stage and they’re going to be calling out a team’s name, it’s pretty surreal,” Jonathan Hayes said. “I’m very proud of him for the hard work he’s put in and for how he has kept climbing to reach his goals.”
More from Yahoo Sports: