A keen observer of all around him, Darrun Hilliard learns fast as he bides his time on Pistons bench

Darrun Hilliard is determined to make the most of the opportunity to play in the NBA – one he realizes can vanish in an instant
Allen Einstein (NBAE/Getty)
by Keith Langlois
Web Editor

Darrun Hilliard used his four years at Villanova to do more than elevate his NBA draft stock. He also honed his powers of observation. If Hilliard doesn’t beat the odds as a second-round pick to have a long and thriving NBA career, it won’t be for lack of appreciation for the opportunity at hand.

“I’m just enjoying the process,” Hilliard said three months into his rookie season. “Some people may think it’s tough, but in retrospect a lot of us are lucky to be here. I’m just grateful. I’m just trying to embrace all of this because I know my time is coming and I’m happy the team is getting better. That’s all it’s about. I’m not worried about me. I’m just happy the team is getting better, that Brandon (Jennings) is back – just grateful.”

Two recent incidents, random and unrelated, struck Hilliard and serve as examples of his observational aptitude. The first was the response of a veteran teammate to getting an unexpected tap on the shoulder from Stan Van Gundy.

It came for Joel Anthony two weeks ago in Chicago when Andre Drummond got into foul trouble and Aron Baynes needed to be subbed out to grab a rest. He hadn’t played a meaningful minute this season, yet Anthony went into the game and held it down admirably in a game the Pistons went on to win in four overtimes.

“Joel, he’s sitting out. He’s not really playing a lot. And when I’m in there working out, he’s right there, too,” Hilliard said of Anthony, 33 and a nine-year NBA veteran who played on two Miami Heat NBA title teams.

“He motivates me. He won an NBA championship, man, and he’s not really playing much. That’s just how it is. And if he can do that, then there ain’t no freakin’ way a rookie can’t do that. You’ve just got to prepare, be ready, stay ready and prepared for it and just be grateful. Joel was grateful for his situation, being in the league, and he prepared for his opportunity and he made the most of it. Coach has confidence in him to come in at any time. It was great to see.”

The second incident happened in the hours after the Pistons lost at New York on Tuesday night. Hilliard awoke to news that Knicks second-year player Cleanthony Early – similar prospects, fighting to establish their roles – had been robbed and shot in the knee while leaving a Queens night spot.

“As a young guy, you want to be great and you don’t want to wait,” he said. “That’s the hardest part. You have to be patient and wait your turn. That’s just how it is. I took a step back and realized where I was and reminded myself to be grateful for everything. In a night or a day, it could be gone. You see what happened to the kid in New York. That can happen to anybody and you’ve got to take a step back and be grateful for every situation you’re in.”

That includes his D-League assignments, where Hilliard has been brilliant in three games. He’s averaged 25.7 points and shot .490 overall and .430 from the 3-point line. He also averaged nearly seven foul shots a game and 3.7 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.3 steals. His performances with the Grand Rapids Drive help validate the Pistons’ evaluation of Hilliard, whom they saw as a highly skilled player who brought a different skill set to his position than the other shooting guards on their roster for his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays off the dribble.

Hilliard, befitting his maturity, understands that’s what got him drafted but also that in order to put them to use he’ll have to gain Van Gundy’s trust at the other end.

“I’ve got to play defense,” he said. “At first in college, I – not struggled – didn’t understand the defensive part of the game. Coach (Jay) Wright, he was just like coach Van Gundy. He’s a big defensive guy and I think I’m lucky to be able to go through that with coach Wright because I know what coach Van Gundy expects. He knows I’m a talented offensive player – we all are in this league – but it’s the guys who play defense and play both sides of the floor in his rotation who are going to be great in this league. My defense, that’s totally what my focus is on. I know I’m talented offensively, but defense is what’s going to get me in that rotation.”

One of the traits in young players that astute organizations look to identify and value as surely as they do size and skill is their ability to learn and grow. Hilliard checked off that box as the Pistons conducted their draft background analysis and he’s put it on display from Summer League on. And a player who will learn and grow figures to fare well under a coach of Van Gundy’s repute as a teacher.

“You just see why he’s such a great coach,” Hilliard said of Van Gundy. “You see why he went to the Finals. You see why he has had successful teams and why he’s been successful – because he’s prepared. That gives you all the right reasons to be prepared. Why not? If he’s telling you things, why not listen? Why not pay attention? Why not go over scouting reports or look at your iPad and see what players tendencies’ are? It’s all there for you. We only have a certain amount of time to play this game. I’m just trying to take full advantage of it.”

Talent delivers players to the NBA. Figuring out how to maximize it and mold it to a team’s needs keep them there. Some guys are out of the league before figuring that out. Darrun Hilliard is determined to not be one of them.