The Pistons think they got a first-round talent in Darrun Hilliard. So does Hilliard’s college coach.
Villanova’s Jay Wright runs a four-guard system and does it to great results. The Wildcats had no glittery stars this season but wound up with a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament alongside Kentucky, Wisconsin and Duke. Six players averaged between 9.2 and Hilliard’s 14.3 points a game, but when it came to winning time the ball always found its way to Hilliard.
“All of our guards score. We have real balance,” Wright said Friday from his office at Villanova. “He was obviously our best player, but if you look at all of our games – tight games, road games, big-time games – any time it was crunch time, he was our guy. He was our go-to guy and he always came through. I think he’s going to be a hell of an NBA player.”
Wright and Van Gundy go way back. When Wright was 22, his first job was as an assistant at the University of Rochester in New York. Bill Van Gundy, Stan’s dad who was then coaching at Genesee Community College in nearby Batavia, invited him to speak at his coaching clinic. Up next was the head coach at Division III Castleton State, Stan Van Gundy.
“Stan got up after me – he’s only a couple of years older than me – and spoke like a 50-year-old coach. I was so embarrassed,” Wright laughed. “But his dad sent a letter to the president of the University of Rochester telling him what a great job I did what a great representative I would be for the university. And the president actually mentioned it to me. Literally, before I’d even coached a game. I’ll never forget that.”
So Van Gundy had great insight into his first-rounder, Stanley Johnson, through his connection with Sean Miller, who was a grad assistant at Wisconsin when Van Gundy was there, and a direct connection to Hilliard, too. When Van Gundy was out of coaching and working as an analyst for NBC Sports Network, he saw Villanova win three games and the Battle of Atlantis tournament in November 2013.
“Stan watched us play in the Bahamas and he and I would talk each day,” Wright said. “He knew a lot about our players. I think he has an insight on Darrun. I think they’re right on with their evaluation of Darrun.”
Wright recruited Hilliard out of Bethlehem, Pa., because he saw a guy who was everything to his high school team. He wanted to redshirt him as a freshman – Hilliard was young for his class and needed to add bulk – but injuries forced his hand. But he quickly became the same type of jack-of-all-trades for the Wildcats that he’d been in high school.
“Sophomore year he really started coming into his own and we had a good team. He was one of our leading scorers,” Wright said. “Junior year, we were good and then he started to do other things – score, rebound, he was one of our best defenders, great decision-maker. As a senior he was our leader, captain, leading scorer, did everything for us. He really played on good teams with a lot of scorers and he’s always been unselfish. I think the NBA game will really give him more opportunities to score, because he can really score in a lot of ways.”
Hilliard shot 41 percent from the 3-point line as a junior and 39 percent as a senior. He’s an 80 percent foul shooter. At worst, he projects as a solid 3-and-D type. But Wright sees more to him than that.
“He’s probably the most well-rounded and has the best size of any of our guards who’ve gone to the NBA,” Wright said. “I think he’s got a lot more to his game. He was one of our best perimeter defenders. He’s great off the pick and roll. He can really use the pick and roll as a passer and as a scorer. Great decision-maker. And I think he can be a really good rebounder.”
Just as Johnson came back from his visit and told Miller he hoped he landed with the Pistons, so did Hilliard.
“I texted (Van Gundy) last night. I told him ‘Darrun will love playing for you,’ ” Wright said. “Because Darrun really respects coaching. His high school coach is one of his best friends. He and I have a great relationship and Stan is a coach that is detail-oriented, very committed, very passionate. Darrun loves that. He’s going to respect that. I talked to Darrun when he came back from his Pistons visit and he said, ‘I love their staff. I love their culture.’
“Darrun understands that a coach that’s really passionate is a coach that’s going to make him better and he loves that. I know when he came back from that visit that he loves Stan. I told all our guys about Stan, what a great coach he is, and all of our guys really respect him. They respect that coaching style – that attention to detail, demanding, passionate and very honest.”
Hilliard will get right to work with the Pistons as their Summer League team will gather Monday in Orlando for four days of practices before the July 4 opener. Hilliard projects as their starter at shooting guard, with Spencer Dinwiddie at the point, Johnson at small forward and Quincy Miller at power forward.
Lots of reasons to pay attention to Summer League this year. Getting Miller for nothing more than a D-League flyer was like getting an extra draft pick. Getting Hilliard in the second round, the Pistons believe, was like getting a bonus first-rounder. Jay Wright concurs.