(Editor’s note: Third of a five-part series on the Pistons off-season’s significant personnel moves, the decision to draft Darrun Hilliard. Coming Thursday: trading for Steve Blake.)
The three young veterans comprising the core of the franchise’s future all volunteered the same observation to Stan Van Gundy about the Pistons rookie they saw at Summer League.
“I like his game,” Van Gundy says Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all told him. “He really knows how to play.”
And, yeah, they were all beyond excited about what Stanley Johnson offers the Pistons. But in this instance they were talking about the other rookie, Darrun Hilliard.
The Pistons liked Hilliard so much that Van Gundy passed on the opportunity to trade down and pick up a future No. 2 pick to ensure they got the shooting guard out of Villanova.
“It was probably a good chance we could still get Darrun, but our scouts and Brian (Wright, assistant general manager in charge of the draft) liked him so much that I didn’t want to mess around with it,” Van Gundy said. “That’s what I ended up saying. Look, a lot of times in the second round you’re taking the best option you have available, but you’re not sold on it. “I said, ‘You really like this guy. You’ve liked him all year.’ I’d read Brian’s reports, every week. They’ve liked him all year. You like a guy, we���re not going to screw around and take a chance to try to get too cute. Just go get the guy that we want.”
What the Pistons liked so much about Hilliard centered around what Drummond, Jackson and Caldwell-Pope immediately noticed: He knows how to play. He’s got an instinct for scoring and does it in a variety of ways, but more than anything Hilliard looks like a pure basketball player. Van Gundy has said that in the second round teams generally zero in on someone who does one thing, maybe two, that give a player a chance to find an NBA niche.
That’s not Hilliard. He’s an all-around player.
“It starts with the fact – and he didn’t show this in Orlando – but he can really shoot the ball. We knew that. But I had seen him several times his junior year because I had broadcast their tournament down in the Bahamas. I’d probably seen him eight or nine times that year. So I knew there was more than just the shooting. The thing I remembered from down there is that he could really makes plays off the dribble – he could pass the ball – and that’s actually what I came away from Orlando with, too.
“He’s got a real poise to his game. He plays like an NBA player already. He’s totally under control. You can’t speed him up. He plays at his pace and he knows how to play the game and that’s what our guys watching the games – KCP, Reggie, Andre – kept saying.”
The Pistons have a crowded field at Hilliard’s position with Caldwell-Pope – who led the Pistons in minutes played last season – and Jodie Meeks ahead of him. He’ll also have to compete with Reggie Bullock, a 2013 No. 1 pick who came along with Marcus Morris in trade from Phoenix, and holdover Cartier Martin.
But Van Gundy wouldn’t be surprised if Hilliard, 22 and a four-year product of a highly competitive college program, manages to work his way into the mix.
“He could go out and play with people right now. He’s not wild. He’s smart. He’s got a mature game,” he said.
Van Gundy said the two things that would be an adjustment for Hilliard are the speed of the game and the NBA 3-point line.
“I’ve seen it before,” he said. “I said to Brendan (Malone, assistant coach), we went through it with Eddie House when he first came in the league. He ended up a really good 3-point shooter. It’s one thing to go through your workouts and shoot threes, but now when you start running up and down the court in game conditions, your legs are a little tired and that extra distance becomes a lot.
“Even in Summer League, playing against better defenders who close out harder and quicker, challenge shots better, that’s an adjustment he’s going to have to make. But I like his decision-making and the plays he was making. He just didn’t do a great job of getting the ball in the basket.”
One rare weapon that Hilliard figures to use to great advantage as he figures out the NBA is his ability to finish with either hand. A natural right-hander – Hilliard was a high school quarterback who could throw it 65 yards with his right hand, he says – Hilliard shoots his long-range jump shots with his left but is more apt to use his right within 10 feet of the rim.
“I did know that he could really finish around the basket with his right hand and I knew he could make passes with it,” Van Gundy said. “He’s got a great shot fake. He’s got some really good things. One of the things Brian really liked is he thought he was different than some of the guys we had in that he was able to make plays in pick and rolls and play off the dribble more than guys we have right now.
“It’ll be interesting. I think he’ll push people for playing time.”