Pistons saw something in Hilliard others didn’t – now he’s out to prove them right

ORLANDO – Darrun Hilliard wasn’t among the 60-plus players invited to the NBA draft combine. He was ranked the 62nd best draft prospect by DraftExpress.com and 77th by ESPN.com, compilations their creators say are based on the consensus of their conversations with NBA scouts and personnel executives.

Stan Van Gundy says the Pistons had Hilliard rated among the 25 best prospects in last week’s draft, yet they had a high degree of confidence he would be available to them at the 38th pick.

Hilliard participated in the Portsmouth (Va.) Invitational in April, a showcase for players on the fringe of draft status. A few others who performed there, including Richaun Holmes and Treveon Graham, earned invitations to the combine – but not Hilliard, who said he wasn’t aware of his DraftExpress and ESPN rankings.

“It is what it is,” Hilliard shrugged as he got ready to launch his NBA career with practices leading to Saturday’s Summer League tipoff for the Pistons. “Everybody’s got their opinion. Coming into Villanova, I had the same thing. My rating was a two-star. It just goes to show you that with hard work and dedication and not really feeding into people’s opinions, you can do whatever you want to do.”

Given Hilliard’s standing on his Villanova teams and the success the Wildcats had over his last two seasons, it’s astounding he flew so far below the radar. Hilliard averaged 14.3 points a game each season – second by one-tenth of a point as a junior, leading his team as a senior – and shot 40 percent from the 3-point line over that time for teams that went 62-8. As a senior, Hilliard led Villanova to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

Pistons assistant general manager Brian Wright, who drives the draft process, uses the word “crafty” several times in discussing Hilliard. The Pistons see Hilliard evolving not only into an efficient 3-point shooter, but more than that as a scorer.

He’s very good off the dribble, Wright said, with an uncanny pump fake. Wright agrees with Jay Wright, Villanova’s coach, that Hilliard’s keen decision-making skills play well in pick-and-roll situations. And as he gains strength – Hilliard just turned 22 – his defensive instincts should make him a very good two-way player, the Pistons believe.

In a curious way, Hilliard’s “craftiness” might have worked against his draft standing. As Van Gundy has said, in the second round NBA teams tend to look for one standout, NBA-ready skill in prospects. Drafting in the same spot in the 2014 draft, the Pistons took Spencer Dinwiddie 38th for his unique passing ability in a 6-foot-6 frame at point guard.

But that profile doesn’t fit Hilliard, who does many things well and has no glaring weaknesses but probably isn’t going to win the dunk contest anytime soon.

“That’s all my life, too,” Hilliard said. “A lot of people try to label me as a shooter or whatever, but I’ve still got to prove that at the NBA level. But I can do a lot more. I’m solid on offense. I make good decisions and I can also shoot the ball. But if you look at how I played at Villanova, it wasn’t just one thing I had to do. I was dribbling the ball, bringing it up sometimes and being a good teammate and a good leader.”

Hilliard will line up at shooting guard in Summer League for the Pistons, his likely home, but in today’s NBA Hilliard’s smarts and versatility promise to make him a valuable commodity that becomes a Swiss Army knife in the hands of a coach with Van Gundy’s chops.

Van Gundy had a simple message for Hilliard before Summer League practices: “Just to play my game. Just do what I did at Villanova,” he said. “A lot of the things we were doing are the same things offensively as coach Van Gundy’s concepts. I’m excited. I know coach Van Gundy wants me to play hard and play smart and be solid on offense and defense. I’ve been doing that all my career at Villanova.”

As the draft unfolded, the Pistons took calls for their pick at 38. They could have traded down, maybe still landed Hilliard, and picked up a future second-round pick or other considerations. But Wright knew there were at least two teams picking in the mid-40s who had heavy interest in Hilliard and one picking a few spots after that he knew would take him if he were still available. They didn’t want to risk losing him, so Van Gundy made the call to keep the pick at 38 and grab Hilliard there.

Hilliard said his agent knew that Phoenix and Dallas had expressed interest and other teams without a pick to get him had Hilliard rated even higher.

“I knew the Pistons had the earliest pick I could possibly go to,” he said. “I was real excited about going to Detroit. They’ve got a great team, they’ve got a great coach, great owner. I’m just excited to be a part of this organization.”