The Chuckwagon came to Houston as a relative unknown in NBA draft circles — thus, he went undrafted — but those who watched him in college at Kentucky knew what teams were passing up. Hayes was a monster defender at UK and could actually put up some decent scoring numbers here and there. But he was undersized, and since all productive forwards who aren't 6'9 or taller are destined to fail, the Chuckwagon was forced to wait his turn for a chance at a pro career.
Luckily, in 2005, the Rockets — at the time having recently entered the beginnings of their now-famous "sign every undersized forward available" strategy — decided to take a chance on Hayes after the former Wildcat had earned MVP honors at the Portsmouth pre-draft camp.
What few remember about Hayes is that he was Jeremy Lin before Jeremy Lin was Jeremy Lin... sort of.
The Rockets cut Hayes after four preseason games, in which Hayes averaged 5 minutes and 0.8 points per game on 25% shooting. That was good for dead last on the roster, right behind former Kansas Jayhawks scrub Keith Langford. You have to remember just how bad Hayes was on offense in order to appreciate how much he improved over the course of his Rockets career. Those automatic layups were never quite so automatic in his rookie season.
Hayes entered the D-League with the Albuquerque Thunderbirds and led the league in rebounds, and was then signed to a ten-day contract by the Rockets when they needed some big men to fill in. In his second game of the year, Hayes recorded a double-double and went on to finish with impressive defensive and rebounds-per-minutes numbers among his fellow rookies.
From there, Chuck's role in Houston took off quickly, as he put up 5 points and 6 rebounds in 22 minutes per game in his sophomore season. Those numbers tailed off for a few years, and while he remained an important stopgap on defense, Hayes' poor offensive stats kept him off the floor. That is, until his final year with Houston, in which he averaged 7.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game on 53% shooting.
Hayes' fantastic individual post defense — which was often unfairly overshadowed by his limited help defense capability — wasn't the only thing he gave the Rockets and the fanbase. He was also a tireless worker, a standard-setter of sorts. The Rockets became known for their scrappiness and hustle during the latter Yao/TMac years because players like Hayes, Luis Scola, Shane Battier and others kept their foot on the pedal for the full time each saw the floor. Hayes defined Houston's never-say-die spirit, even amidst the most devastating injuries to the team's star players. You may not have known the Rockets' good role players, but you likely knew who Chuck Hayes was; that fat, strong guy who kept slapping the ball out of opposing centers' hands. (Heck, I use the "Chuck Slap" whenever I have to guard taller guys in rec league basketball. You learn things watching the Rockets, and I got that from ole Chuck.)
Chuck also gave us two moments basketball diehards will never forget, though one is less of a single moment and more like a years-long trend:
1) His free-throw stroke.
There are no words — none at all — so instead, here is a video to show you what you possibly missed:
In fairness to the Chuckwagon, his free throw numbers increased from a paltry 36% in 2008 to a respectable 66% in his final year in Houston. That did not change the fact that the hitch in his free throw stroke rivaled that of Charles Barkley's golf swing.
2) An Improbable Triple-Double
(By the way, if you click the video and go to its YouTube page, the top comment reads, "future of Houston." I love YouTube.)
On Wednesday, March 23, 2011, NBA bloggers everywhere nearly shat themselves on site when they saw that night's Houston Rockets - Golden State Warriors boxscore. Had there been a mistake? Surely, because for whatever reason, it read like this:
C. Hayes: 13 points, 14 rebounds, 11 assists
Everyone went to work writing about how improbable Chuck's trip-dub had been. From Basketball Prospectus, to Ball Don't Lie, to the New York Times — everyone had a field day with it. But the funny thing is that I think Rockets fans knew that Chuck's high assist total was certainly within his range. In Rick Adelman's system, Chuck had become one of the most surehanded and creative passers out of the high post in the league. The only problem was that he never had the ball enough to make plays those types at a high volume. Leave it to the Golden State Warriors to open up the possibilities.
Chuck enjoyed his time here, there's no doubt about that. We enjoyed it as well, and I don't think anyone felt any animosity toward the guy when he signed his new contract with the Sacramento Kings. We were happy for him, or at least I hope we were. I know I was. It's not a rags-to-riches story, but it's close. Chuck went from playing through a potentially nightmarish basketball career in the D-League to signing a multiyear deal with the Kings, right near where he grew up.
Doesn't get much better than that. Keep your head up, Chuck, and keep those feet moving.