KCP’s expected return figures to idle Hilliard, but he’s shown Pistons he has an NBA future

Darrun Hilliard has been working with Pistons strength coach Anthony Harvey and starting to notice the results.
Allen Einstein/NBAE/Getty Images

When the Pistons pick up play after the All-Star break at Washington on Friday, they fully expect to have Kentavious Caldwell-Pope back in the lineup. And they need him to make the playoff run they intend to launch, for his defense and his energy and his 3-point threat.

Getting Caldwell-Pope back means Stanley Johnson returns to his sixth-man role, where he’s been thriving since early January. And that, in turn, knocks Darrun Hilliard out of the rotation.

But his four-game cameo while Caldwell-Pope recuperated from a core muscle strain gave the Pistons further confidence that Hilliard has a serious NBA future. His 178 minutes played for the season is a relatively small sample size, but the fact Hilliard ranks behind only Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond in points per 36 minutes (14.8) underscores his offensive potential.

The Pistons are intrigued by his offensive potential, versatility and the different look he gives them compared to their other wing players.

“I think he’s pretty good. He can play of the dribble. He can shoot the ball,” Stan Van Gundy said last week. “He understands how to create shots, both for himself and other people. I think he’s going to be a pretty good offensive player.”

As with all Van Gundy players, defense will dictate how long Hilliard’s leash gets. If half the battle is intent, Hilliard’s on the right course.

“He’s really trying hard to get better defensively,” Van Gundy said. “I think he knows that’s where his improvement has got to be. Love his attitude and his focus and everything else.”

Improvement on that end will come on a few fronts. Both Van Gundy and Hilliard say it starts with getting stronger and quicker, to be addressed by an off-season weight and conditioning program. Beyond that, it’s experience – learning league personnel and the most sophisticated NBA defensive schemes.

“I’ve got get a lot stronger,” Hilliard said. “I thought I was pretty strong in college my senior year and I thought I was going to be good my rookie year, but I’ve got a long way to go. I’ve got a little bit of success now, but it can all change tomorrow. So I’m just trying to keep getting better, doing what I’ve been doing even when I wasn’t playing and hopefully I can keep this thing going.”

Van Gundy didn’t blink when Caldwell-Pope went down in the Feb. 3 loss at Boston, simply elevating rookies Johnson and Hilliard one rung apiece. Hilliard gave the Pistons something in each of his four starts, including setting season highs of nine and 13 points in consecutive games, and passing for six assists against Denver.

“He’s trying hard and I think he’s a guy who will learn from his mistakes,” Van Gundy said. “I like what Darrun’s done in this window of opportunity he’s had. You look at him and you see a guy you think can help you going forward. I’ve liked what he’s done, but he’s got to get better – but that’s what you would expect.”

The Pistons have three other shooting guards besides Hilliard under contract for next season with Caldwell-Pope, Jodie Meeks and Reggie Bullock. But Hilliard’s unique skill set – he’s the most accomplished at making plays off the dribble and can shoot comfortable inside 15 feet with either hand as a natural right-hander with a left-handed shot – figures to help him carve out a niche.

“He’s definitely ambidextrous and can do a lot,” Van Gundy said. “Great with his right hand anywhere inside 10 or 12 feet and can pass with either hand. He’s got some good skills.”

He’s got natural scoring instincts and he’s learning to use his gifts more efficiently as the game slows down for him.

“In training camp – I was just thinking back to that – I was moving so fast,” he said. “I was playing (point guard, due to a run of injuries at the position), so I was trying to get adjusted to that and I was just moving way too fast. I had broken my nose and things were just like, what’s going on? Just took a little bit of time, things slowed down and hopefully this can keep going.”