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NBA Rookie Week: Stanley Johnson and Darrun Hilliard look like long-term Pistons

Pistons two draft picks panning out in their first season.

Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Stanley Johnson was a bit of a surprise pick for the Detroit Pistons during the 2015 NBA draft.

In the months leading up to the draft, Mario Hezonja and Justise Winslow were generally considered the top two small forward prospects, which was also the Pistons' greatest area of need. When Winslow dropped on draft day, many from the national media expected him to be the clear pick for the Pistons with the 8th selection.

After all, Winslow had just led his team to the National Championship as a freshman. He was considered a versatile two-way wing who could also help run the offense. Besides being an inch or two shorter than ideal, there was little not to like about Winslow.

Instead they took Stanley Johnson out of Arizona, one of the youngest players in the draft. Johnson was one of the top recruits coming out of high school and spent much of the season as a projected top 5 draft pick. But as the season progressed, his shooting and finishing ability came under fire and he dropped in draft projections.

Chad Ford was notably critical of the pick:

Local columnist Drew Sharp also torched the pick, penning a column "Van Gundy shoots€” and misses with Johnson pick." Sharp advocated instead for the Pistons to have taken Booker, which is reasonable, but also said "Van Gundy choked on this one. He insisted in the days leading up to the draft that the No. 8 overall selection would be a future pick. He envisioned prospects as to how they'll look after a couple years of NBA seasoning." He went on with "There's some cockiness in his comments that he'll eventually prove himself the best player in the draft. Sounds nice, but Johnson will have no shot. Literally."

That last part, yeah, that wasn't so reasonable.

But many at Detroit Bad Boys were fans of the Johnson choice. We ran an offseason plans project where readers could play GM by submitting their blueprints for the roster. Stanley Johnson was far and away the leading choice for the draft -- though Winslow was assumed to be off the board by many.

On draft night, I handled the post for the Johnson pick and wrote "Stanley Johnson and the Detroit Pistons are a match made in heaven" and "three years from now, the Pistons are in position to be one of the happiest teams in this year's draft." Johnson also endeared himself on draft night by taking up the mantra Detroit vs. Everybody.

So even though he lacked a complete consensus, Johnson still had a strong group of support in the Pistons fan base. After an impressive Summer League where he averaged 16 points per game on 57 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, and 2 assists per game, folks started penciling his name into the starting lineup. A preseason where he averaged 13.5 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists had some going over that in ink.

But DBB urged patience. Sean Corp wrote for the Detroit Free Press:

Pistons president and coach Stan Van Gundy is even talking about a willingness to start Johnson at either shooting guard or small forward, as he mentioned during an interview with Grantland's Zach Lowe recently.
However, if history is any indication, expectations for Johnson should be tempered. Rookies struggle, it's just a fact of NBA life. It's not a criticism it is an inevitability.

On that introductory post, my comments were:

Don't pencil Johnson in as the starter just yet though. It's almost certainly going to take some time for him to carve his role out in the NBA, especially on the offensive end ... Scoring at the NBA level on the wing isn't easy, especially when you're not a natural at the rim or behind the arc.

Even if that's the case, it doesn't mean he's not on pace to be an excellent player. Just the starting small forward dilemma problem isn't solved.

(Written before the trade for Marcus Morris.)

Johnson's rookie performance

So long as your expectations were reasonable for Johnson, his first season for the Pistons has been about as well as could be hoped. No, he has not been an above average player. Yes, he's had rookie struggles. But he's also checked all of the boxes for his long-term potential.

He was criticized for his finishing ability in college, shooting just 40 percent in the paint. For the Pistons, Johnson is shooting 60 percent inside three feet.

He was criticized for his ability to shoot from distance, despite knocking down 37 percent of his three-point shots at Arizona. For the Pistons, Johnson is shooting a respectable 32 percent from three, including 37 percent from the corners.

Johnson has struggled with his efficiency on the offensive end, posting a 47 percent true shooting percentage and 14 percent turnover percentage. But this is to be expected for a young rookie. He's been aggressive with his shot, taking the fourth most shots per 36 minutes on the team, and struggled at times with his shot selection. He's also struggled with his footwork and fundamentals, with only 30 percent of his turnovers coming on bad passes. Both of those things will improve with experience.

Johnson has particularly had trouble with his shot inside the arc, shooting just 43 percent on two point attempts. Hopefully learning the savvy to earn more trips to the line will help in this area, as he currently takes just .166 free throws for every field goal attempt.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Johnson has been his ability to step up during crunch time. Throughout the season, the refrain has been that Stanley doesn't look like a 19-year-old rookie. That's particularly been the case in fourth quarters, when Johnson is posting a 44 / 41 / 79 shooting line. His fourth quarter performances were instrumental in wins against the Knicks on February 4, the 76ers on January 27, and the four overtime game against the Bulls.

Currently out with a sprained shoulder that's sidelined him for the past five games, his presence hasn't been missed as much as you'd think from a key rotation player. But that's more of a testament to the quality play the Pistons have received from the next men up. His return will be a definite boost as Detroit fights against a competitive playoff field for their first postseason appearance since 2009.

As a long-term prospect, Johnson has shown everything the Pistons could have hoped for so far. A solid defender, great size, passable shooter, solid ball-handler. His sophomore year will be where he takes the next step in his effectiveness. He may still need another year of development before he's able to unseat Marcus Morris for the starting small forward job, but considering he'll only be 21 by then, that's not much to complain about.

Don't be surprised if his development looks a bit like KCP's.
Year 1: Inefficient with bright spots
Year 2: Shows improvements, still struggles with efficiency
Year 3: Solid starter with more room to grow

The book isn't written on Stanley Johnson yet, but opening his career as a controversial choice, he's done a nice job proving doubters wrong so far. There's plenty of reason to believe he'll continue to do so.

Second round pick: Darrun Hilliard

While the Pistons first round pick is progressing as hoped for, Darrun Hilliard is arguably exceeding expectations. His wasn't a name that showed up on mock drafts, so it was a surprise when the Pistons took him early in the second round.

Upon further inspection though, it was clear to see what the Pistons liked about Hilliard. He won a lot of games with Villanova and offered a versatile game. But fighting for minutes on the wing with a number of other players, it was tough to see where he fit in. During the preseason, even winning a roster spot ahead Reggie Bullock and Adonis Thomas didn't seem like an easy task.

An injury to Thomas helped him with the roster spot, and injuries to Jodie Meeks, Stanley Johnson, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope helped him find minutes with the Pistons. Early struggles from Bullock also contributed to Hilliard getting his chance to show what he could do.

In his first opportunities to see the floor, it was clear that Hilliard needed a chance to catch up with the speed of the NBA. He was turnover prone and shaky with his shot.

Hilliard spent a few games at the D-League, where he averaged a nifty 26 points per game. Perhaps it was that confidence boost or just more time in practice that did it, but once he got a chance for consistent minutes in the rotation following Caldwell-Pope's injury, he looked much more like the player the Pistons were looking for: A seasoned rookie capable of holding his own against NBA competition.

Also noteworthy is that there aren't really any prospects that the Pistons passed on with their 38th pick who look remarkably better than Hilliard. Perhaps Josh Richardson of the Miami Heat. But the vast majority of players drafted past 38 haven't even touched the floor yet. And of the few who have, hardly any have shown as much potential for sticking in the league as Hilliard.

Hilliard entered the league in a much different place than Johnson - a four-year college player, 22 years old, a second round pick. So as prospects, they look much different. As I wrote in Hilliard's preview:

If you're expecting Hilliard to develop into a starter, you're probably going to be disappointed. If he does get that starting job, you're probably going to be disappointed. But as a guy serving as the primary backup at the shooting guard and small forward spots, filling that role that Singler always should have held if the team had more talent on the wings, well, that's a role Hilliard could thrive in.

That still looks to be the case. Hilliard's shown a nice ability to put the ball on the floor, play solid defense, and has been a capable shooter. But it's that shooting ability that will likely dictate his ceiling. If he sticks as a mid-30 percent three point shooter, a more attractive player could take his spot. But if he can hit or surpass 40 percent on the regular, he could be a fixture in the rotation for years to come.

So what say you DBB? In retrospect, how do you grade the 2015 Pistons picks? What are some numbers that you're looking for out of Johnson and Hilliard next season? Any other players you're wishing the Pistons would have taken instead of these two?