Connecticut Sun guard Tiffany Hayes is grateful for her second act — Andscape
In more ways than one, this WNBA season has marked a sense of return for Connecticut Sun guard Tiffany Hayes.
It began with a return to one of her first basketball homes. In January, Hayes was traded from the Atlanta Dream, an organization she had spent the last decade with, to the Connecticut Sun. It’s in Connecticut where Hayes first put herself on the national map with the nickname “Tip” as a member of two national championship teams with UConn.
This month has marked Hayes’ return to playoff basketball. Her last appearance was five seasons ago when she led the Dream within a game of an appearance in the WNBA Finals.
And in some ways, it’s also been a welcome return to full form for Hayes, who has been able to play a complete WNBA season without missing any action due to injury for the first time in multiple seasons.
“I’m thankful that I was able to be accepted here with open arms and be able to gel with this team the way I have,” said Hayes. “Being healthy for the majority of the season, I’m thankful for that part as well.”
It’s surely been an adjustment for the WNBA veteran, but Hayes has become a pivotal part of a Connecticut team looking to get over the championship hump. As the Sun prepares for the start of their semifinals series against the New York Liberty (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN), Hayes has been overwhelmed with gratitude.
“To get those [playoff] feelings again with another team that I feel really good with and good playing with, it’s definitely a nice feeling. It’s a feeling that I’ve missed. I’m grateful to be able to experience this, this late in my career,” said Hayes, who turned 34 on Sept. 20. “I’m taking each step and each day. I’m grateful for each day.”
Hayes never pictured changing her team colors.
When free agency would roll around with the Dream, Hayes said, she often never thought twice about where she wanted to continue her career. It was always going to be Atlanta.
This was the team that drafted her and a fanbase cheered her on as she developed from a second-round pick with potential to an elite league talent. Atlanta is where she calls home. It’s a community she had impacted and actively worked to give back to. Hayes runs a basketball gym on the south side of Atlanta with her sister called Hoop Nation, where they aim to enrich the community through sport.
When she learned that a trade had been put into motion, Hayes said, it hit her in a place that “didn’t feel good.”
“I really wanted to be one of those ones,” Hayes said. “I thought I deserved it and I thought Atlanta deserved to get everything from me, for my whole career.”
Hayes’ final season in Atlanta in 2022 was tough for both player and organization. She missed the first 19 games of the season as a result of overseas commitments and injury. She played in only 11 games under new head coach Tanisha Wright. After Hayes missed four games in the beginning of August due to injury, the Dream announced she had left the team due to overseas commitments with the Azerbaijani national team. Wright told The Next that she had been aware of the possibility of Hayes’ absence but wasn’t informed of her exit until close to her departure. This was refuted by Hayes’ agent, who said the team had long been made aware of Hayes’ commitments.
Hayes ended her career in Atlanta as one of best players in the franchise’s history. Only Atlanta great Angel McCoughtry scored more points in a Dream uniform than Hayes.
“I loved my time in Atlanta,” Hayes said. “The way it ended was unfortunate. I definitely wanted to end my career there. Some things just didn’t work out in my favor. I had no control over it. I don’t want to speak negatively about any person, anybody, the organization. At the end of the day, things just didn’t work out.”
When the Sun dealt 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to the New York Liberty in January, part of the compensation they received in return was New York’s No. 6 pick in the 2023 draft. As Connecticut general manager Darius Taylor thought about his roster and what the first-round pick was going to potentially bring versus a veteran presence, he opted for the latter.
Taylor, who was hired by the Sun in November, was previously an assistant general manager and coach for the Dream. In coaching Hayes for four seasons in Atlanta, he viewed the potential of acquiring her as a no-brainer and sought to figure out how to bring her to Connecticut.
“She’s an impact player, two-way player — she can score and she can defend. I’ve seen her at her best,” said Taylor, who added that other teams had shown interest in acquiring Hayes last offseason. “I reached out to her and I said, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get you here to Connecticut.’ I just kind of laid out what our team looked like, how she could be an impact player.”
Hayes was already familiar with Connecticut. Years ago, she played overseas with Sun MVP candidate Alyssa Thomas. Last offseason, she played alongside Sun assistant coach Briann January and teammate DeWanna Bonner overseas in Turkey.
“It was all good vibes all the time,” Hayes said. “Anytime [Bonner] would say just come on over [No.] 15, come on over, we need you. I love playing with DB, she’s such a great player and person. I just told her, ‘I don’t want any drama, I want to play and that’s it. I just want to help any way I can.’ I always put my head down and I work and that’s it. That’s the vibe that I got.”
For the last few seasons, Hayes has been hampered by injury. In 2019, Hayes missed games to an ankle injury. After sitting out the 2020 season, she was restricted during the 2021 season after tearing the MCL in her right knee, which sidelined her for two months. Hayes missed multiple games in 2022 after injuring her right knee, then her right ankle.
“I hate being on the sideline. I hate the rehab process. I love to be out on the court,” Hayes said. “I love being able to help my team as much as I can in any way that I can.”
“It’s unfortunate how her career has gone the last couple years,” Taylor said. “She just hasn’t been 100% healthy, so people have kind of forgotten how good she is.”
Taylor attributed some of Hayes’ misfortune to her usage rate in Atlanta and how much the team needed her to “kind of do everything” the last few seasons of her tenure. As Taylor looked to add Hayes to the Sun roster, he knew that her role would be different in Connecticut, potentially allowing her to play a full season.
“We need her every day,” Taylor said.
With the Sun, while Hayes is still asked to do the same things that made her an elite talent in the league – be a playmaker who can create for others and defend at a high level – she can share the work with other veteran players such as Bonner and Thomas.
“Before I was doing it a lot more, which was a lot on the body. Being here, there’s a lot more people who already have that role established and are very great at that role,” said Hayes. “It’s spread out here because there’s a lot of talented people on this team.”
Hayes, who posted her third-lowest usage percentage of her career this season, averaged 12.1 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.6 assists on 47.6% shooting – the second best shooting percentage of her career. She has played in all 43 of the Sun’s games this season.
Offensively, Hayes has always been a playmaker known for her lightning first step, ability to get downhill and crafty finishes around the rim.
“She was someone who you would always have that sort of fearful factor where you knew you had to give her enough space so she wouldn’t beat you straight down the line. She’s so quick,” said Sun teammate Rebecca Allen, who spent seven years as Hayes’ opponent with the New York Liberty. “She was always a key component of any scout.”
Hayes has also carved a space as a top defensive presence, often guarding an opponent’s best guards. She’s particularly adept at anticipating the actions of her defensive matchup. During the regular season, Hayes drew 31 offensive foul calls, which ranked first in the WNBA, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Over the course of her WNBA career, Hayes has ranked in the top three in that category four times, including four straight seasons from 2014-17.
There’s another aspect of Hayes’ game that has also amused, and at times worried, fans and teammates: her penchant for ending up on the floor multiple times during a game. Whether Hayes is attempting to finish at the rim or draw a charge, it’s anticipated that at some point her efforts will result in a fall.
“I feel like she’s someone who has never had a game where she hasn’t ended up on the floor at least three times, minimum. I don’t think I’ve seen a player fall more than her,” Allen said laughing.
In a recent poll released by The Athletic, active WNBA players voted for the most underrated player in the league.
“I don’t think [Tiffany Hayes] gets the recognition that she’s supposed to get, and I think she’s been robbed [of] a couple of All-Stars along her career, for sure,” said one player.
“I won’t say I don’t agree,” Hayes said. “I feel like I work hard. I do things a lot of players don’t do on both ends of the court. It does get overlooked. At the end of the day I know what type of game this is. It’s entertainment. People like to watch people who can entertain and do the nice things on the court. That’s what All-Star is. Not throwing any shade at anybody, those people deserve it too.”
In 2018, Hayes had put together an All-Star-caliber campaign in the first half of the WNBA season, averaging 17.2 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.2 steals. She thought it was enough to earn herself a spot on an All-Star roster, which would have been her second consecutive appearance. Ultimately, it wasn’t. Hayes recalled another player trying to get her to fill a vacant spot after a player dropped out, but she wasn’t interested.
“I wanted it the way I was supposed to get it, and I didn’t,” Hayes said.
“I don’t want or need it to define me. I’ve learned to give myself that because I know how hard I work and the things I give to teams. I know that about myself. That was something I’ve had to work on. … After a couple seasons, it’s just something that you have to realize.”
Hayes finished the 2018 season sixth in MVP voting and was selected to the All-WNBA First Team and All-Defensive Second Team.
Hayes has never been a particularly talkative or flashy presence. Her most flamboyant expression is often shown via gameday outfits. Allen described Hayes as a passionate player on the court but “so Zen” off it. Taylor said that could also play into Hayes being overlooked.
“She doesn’t get the exposure she deserves,” Taylor said. “As you can see, the players know. They hate going against her offensively and defensively because she’s going to give it her all every time.”
It’s been a year of immense change for Hayes, but as she hopes for another deep playoff run, this time with the Sun, she appreciates the opportunity.
“I think for me things have worked out for the better in the end, I’m grateful for that,” Hayes said. “That was just my ending for me there [in Atlanta]. Now I get to end in a place that has accepted me with open arms. I get to end in a place where I feel loved, where I feel respected as a player and as a person.”
As Hayes looks at what’s left to accomplish in her playing career, a lack of a championship amongst her list of accolades is notable. Whether or not she’s able to tick off that box before she hangs up her No. 15 jersey, Hayes can walk away from the game satisfied.
“A lot of people feel like a championship defines their career. For me, it doesn’t. Not even close,” Hayes said. “I know I’ve had a fantastic career. I’ve had a career that I’m proud of, that my family is proud of and a lot of my fans are proud of.
“Winning or not this season or however many seasons I decide to play, I can honestly say that I’m really proud of the player that I was, that I grew into and that I had to work really hard to become.”