By way of friend and foe, praise for Pistons ’15 draftees comes from ’16 hopefuls

CHICAGO – Stan Van Gundy and his staff congregated here to prepare for the 2016 draft. But if they were seeking validation for their 2015 draft, it came in the form of a foe of Stanley Johnson and a teammate of Darrun Hilliard.

Daniel Hamilton knows Johnson from their days as Los Angeles-area high school phenoms and Josh Hart’s link to Hilliard comes from their two seasons as Villanova teammates. Both raved about the Pistons rookies as they pressed their case at the combine to join the NBA fraternity.

Hamilton played at St. John Bosco in Los Angeles, a rival of Johnson’s Santa Ana Mater Dei, and as stars and wing players they usually wound up going head to head.

“He’s just always been a great player,” said Hamilton, leaving UConn after his sophomore season. “We played each other in high school. Mater Dei, they got us pretty much every time. Stanley’s a great talent and that’s a great organization, Mater Dei. It was heated and competitive. Everybody really came out for that matchup in California. Once we played, pretty much the gyms were sold out.”

Hamilton remembers Johnson always being just a little bit bigger, better and stronger than everybody else.

“He was just basically going through everybody. He was real skilled and real big.”

But he also remembers something else about Johnson, the quality that perhaps struck the Pistons more than anything.

“That dude is real competitive,” Hamilton said. “All he wants to do is just win. Throughout his whole career, he’s been a winner. There’s no ceiling for Stanley. He could arrive at any time. I know Stanley’s going to keep staying in the gym like he usually does. I feel like he’ll get better each and every year in the NBA.”

Hart is testing the draft, taking advantage of a newly instituted rule that allows underclassmen to attend the draft combine before deciding whether to fully take the plunge, after his junior season at Villanova.

If he leaves, he’ll be going out on a high note as the leading scorer for the 2016 NCAA champions. He says Hilliard, though a year removed, was as much a part of it as he, Kris Jenkins, Ryan Arcidiacono and the teammates he left behind.

“He’s one of the reasons why we won it,” Hart said. “He was a role model for all of us. He paved the way. We all looked toward him as our role model. He was a great Villanova basketball player, a great leader for us and a lot of us took those qualities from him. He was definitely as much a part of that championship run as we were, as I was, Ryan, Daniel (Ochefu), everybody.”

Hart said he communicated regularly with Hilliard throughout the season and especially during the NCAA tournament, either by text, phone conversation or FaceTime.

“I tried to FaceTime him the other day,” he said. “I’ve been talking to him about this process. Always there to support him; he’s always there to support me. That’s my brother for life.”

Hilliard, having gone through the stressful process of working out for NBA teams in the weeks leading up to the draft, has been providing Hart with advice as he prepares to decide whether to stay in the draft or pull out and play as a Villanova senior.

“There’s no pressure. That was the big thing. I was talking to him: ‘What if I go there and I don’t do well?’ And he was just, ‘There’s no pressure. Just be yourself and let that carry you.’ He was saying I’m in a good situation either way.”

The Pistons like the situation of their roster and depth chart headed into 2016-17, in some measure because of the way their 2015 draft has fortified it. If they can add a few more pieces like Johnson and Hilliard as the fruit of their week at the 2016 NBA draft combine, they’ll be in better shape to build off their 44-win season and playoff berth Van Gundy’s second season produced.