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Ellenson and Hilliard thrive in D-League stint, Gbinije sputters

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Pistons assignees get their longest stretch with the Grand Rapids Drive this season.

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Darrun Hilliard, Henry Ellenson and Michael Gbinije just had their longest stretch of consecutive games for the Drive this season. Ellenson and Gbinije have played five games in a row for the Drive, while Hilliard joined them for the first three. Since Ellenson and Gbinije are likely to get recalled today, I'll share my thoughts on how the three players did.

Henry Ellenson

Ellenson was again very statistically effective in this five-game stretch, averaging 20.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.0 assists.

One of the concerns, if not the biggest concern about Ellenson's game coming out of Marquette was his shooting never quite matched his reputation and profile as a stretch big. Only shooting 44% from field and 29% from the college line wasn't quite good enough for someone who projected to be a significant defensive liability in the pros. The Pistons essentially bet on his very high skill level for a player his size and thought he could figure it out.

So far, it looks like he's well on his way. Ellenson shot 11/29 from three (38 percent) in his most recent five-game sample in Grand Rapids, and kept his overall field goal percentage at the same level as college despite taking more shots from deep. The higher volume was just as encouraging as the uptick in percentage, as Ellenson looked comfortable taking the shot from a variety of spots around the arc. His form looked smooth and repeatable despite the fact that his shot still looks a little flat on occasion. He also shot 92 percent on 26 free throw attempts, which is another sign he can be a great shooter.

As long as he keeps up the improved shooting, the next step for Ellenson offensively is finding a way to punish smaller players when they're switched onto him. He had no problem blowing by slower D-League big men for floaters, layups and free throws, but he struggled when he was forced to try and exploit the mismatch of a guard or wing. Like I noted previously, he would mostly just back down from 20 feet away for 5-6 seconds before taking an 18-foot fadeaway with a hand in his face.

He either needs to get stronger or be able to get much better post positioning if he's going to be able to play the four in the NBA, because otherwise teams can just put a wing on him that he won't be able to guard or score on. It doesn't look like he's gonna beast anyone in the post anytime soon, especially anyone anywhere near his size, but he still has room to grow physically where he can at least force help when he's guarded by a shooting guard or small forward.

Like most skilled bigs, he's at his best offensively when he's matched up with opposing centers, as there wasn't really anything most of these D-League guys could do to contain him either in pick-and-pop or off the dribble. But in order for this to be a playable, sustainable situation in the NBA, he has to be able to play center defensively. He looks more comfortable defending the four than the five right now, it's on defense that you can most tell he used to be a guard as he has a good feel for closing out and rotating. Unfortunately, I think he's just too slow to really defend out there at the next level, and he'd be limiting his offensive potential playing that position anyway.

On the interior, he's a good defensive rebounder but is still lacking in both help instincts and explosiveness. The Drive's interior defense has been their biggest problem all season and that didn't get any better with Ellenson in there. I'm not totally sure what the path would be to fixing that - he seems like a really smart kid and his instincts will get better as he gains experience, but I don't see any evidence of some game-changing interior defender waiting to be unlocked by better positioning.

I was probably too hard on Ellenson after he was drafted and early in the season, and I've definitely gotten to the point where I think he was a good pick at number 18. I am very intrigued by what he can bring on the offensive end and think he has the potential to be truly devastating there, but I feel like it will take some time for him not to get absolutely killed defensively, if that happens at all.

Darrun Hilliard

The sophomore had been really struggling in the NBA prior to his assignment to the Drive, and he agreed to stay an extra day in order to get some playing time. It looks like this decision paid off pretty well, as he averaged 25.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists during the three-game stint. These are practically the same numbers he produced for the Drive as a rookie, but considering his production in the NBA has fallen off this year, that's not the concerning part.

It's hard to say too much about Hilliard's shooting in just a three-game sample. He went 2-for-10 from three in his second game with the Drive and then started the next game 6-of-6 from three and scored the Drive's first 18 points. He scored 29 points twice in three games. I can't say his shooting will be better now after playing for the Drive, but I was encouraged to see him getting off a high volume of attempts and creating some of them for himself. He clearly enjoyed having the extra dose of offensive freedom. All you can really hope for is having the green light in the D-League will snap him out of the big-league funk.

It's hard to know exactly what to look for when you're evaluating a player whose role (even in the future) with the Pistons is so limited to just shooting and defending, which I have found to be two of the hardest things to evaluate in a short span of games. two of the hardest things to evaluate. I didn't feel like I learned much about "Darrun Hilliard: future 3-and-D role player," but I can say he looked like an NBA player going against D-Leaguers, which is about what you could ask for.

I can say after seeing these games that I would definitely keep Hilliard over Michael Gbinije if the Pistons were forced to choose. Speaking of which...

Michael Gbinije

I've struggled to get a feel for Gbinije in all nine games he's played for the Drive, and it didn't help that this was a pretty up-and-down stretch of five games for him. He only scored 18 total combined points in the first three games, including a game where he played 31 minutes, didn't score, and only took one shot.

Not scoring a lot doesn't mean someone is a bad player, but I don't think an NBA assignee has ever been held scoreless in a game where they played 30+ minutes, and I would really doubt any assignees only took one shot in those 30+ minutes either. It didn't help him that Hilliard and Ellenson were also up and the Drive also had two fringe NBA guys in Ray McCallum and Jordan Crawford that see a lot of the ball. But the bottom line is if a guy is a real NBA prospect he should be dominant in the D-League, not taking one shot in 31 minutes.

Gbinije then scored 29 points (going five of nine from three) on February 4 in his last game before he was recalled. At that point I was already taking it with a grain of salt because it was one game out of five, but it was a pretty impressive performance, especially as the Drive rallied from 18 points down to beat the team with the best record in the D-League.

Hopefully that game can be a big confidence boost for the rookie. I'm skeptical he has an NBA future because he lacks any definite NBA skills (his defense didn't look as good as his earlier stints) and will be 25 in less than four months, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong.