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2016-17 Pistons review: Darrun Hilliard’s career looking for traction

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Hilliard’s season did little to help his long-term future.

NBA: Utah Jazz at Detroit Pistons Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

As far as prospects go, Darrun Hilliard is intensely uninteresting.

There’s something naturally compelling about having young players on the team. There’s wishcasting their skills and projecting how they might maybe someday hopefully carve out their role in the NBA. At DBB over the past decade, we’ve talked ourselves into a lot of second round, fringe prospects finding their way into the Pistons lineup.

Maybe we should blame guys like Kyle Singler, Jonas Jerebko, and Khris Middleton, who came out of the second round and found success. Second round picks usually fizzle.

Hilliard is a legitimate prospect. It doesn’t take crossing your eyes too hard to see him finding a place in the league. There’s a lot to like about him. He has prototypical size, plays solid defense, is versatile, shows a silky smooth jumper at times. In his stints in the D-League, he’s even shown the ability to be exceedingly productive.

But there’s something about him that fails to capture the imagination of fans. Perhaps it’s that the Pistons also have two other young, developing wings to share the attention in Stanley Johnson and Reggie Bullock. Johnson has the lottery pick pedigree and is still a very young player. Bullock raised everyone’s eyebrows when he caught fire after the All Star break last season. Meanwhile Hilliard, despite his virtues as a prospect, doesn’t bring those same assets to the table.

He was shaky as a rookie overall, with the NBA game understandably looking too fast for him. But he knocked down 38 percent of his three point attempts, a nice figure for a roster that looked to be short on shooting.

But when Hilliard got chances to see the floor this year and show he belonged in the rotation, he wasn’t able to deliver. By the end of November, Johnson was struggling and his spot in the rotation looked to be in jeopardy.

Hilliard got his chance to seize the job. He didn’t play terribly, but he did little to distinguish himself. Over 11 games as the primary backup on the wing, he averaged just 5 points and shot 43 percent from the field and 33 percent from three point range.

Perhaps the most damning thing about Hilliard has been his tendency to enter the game hesitant. He’s shown a knack at throwing a bad pass or two early into his minutes before settling down and looking like he belongs.

On November 23 against the Dallas Mavericks when Van Gundy was initially reevaluating Johnson is his primary wing off the bench, Hilliard managed the impressive feat of committing three turnovers in five minutes. He finished the season with a 16.8 percent turnover percentage, second highest on the team behind rookie Henry Ellenson.

Which is odd. After a four year college career, Hilliard is older and more experienced than your average second year player. Once he settles into the game, he typically looks rather poised and polished. And turnovers were never an issue while he was at Villanova. In fact, his senior year when he was his team’s highest usage player, he only averaged 1.2 turnovers in 29 minutes per game.

The turnovers left Hilliard as a guy you couldn’t trust. And here’s the thing: you don’t draft a 22 year old four-year college player with the expectation that you’re not going to be able to trust him.

It leaves Hilliard in a similar position as Spencer Dinwiddie was last year. Two years into his career after coming onto the Pistons as the 38th pick in the draft, neither had carved out a role with their team nor shown the coaching staff that they could be counted on for a role in the coming year.

We saw what happened in the case of Dinwiddie. The Pistons dumped him to the Bulls, who waived him over the summer. He eventually latched on with the woeful Brooklyn Nets and turned in a reasonably respectable season as their primary backup.

But Hilliard might have more of a disadvantage than Dinwiddie. Dinwiddie always seemed to have a style that could eventually have some success. His scoring revolved around getting to the rim, drawing fouls, and knocking down threes. He just couldn’t put it together during his time with the Pistons.

Hilliard’s game revolves around the midrange shot. 48 percent of Hilliard’s shots came from either midrange or outside of the restricted area in the paint. For a team that was 26th in three point attempts and 29th in free throw attempts, that’s not the type of player the Pistons need to see more minutes.

They both also faced interesting roster situations entering their third seasons. Van Gundy wasn’t going to enter the coming season with Dinwiddie as the team’s presumptive backup, instead targeting one in free agency. So Dinwiddie looked to be the odd man out. Rather than leave Dinwiddie entering the final year of his rookie deal expected to warm the bench, SVG and Jeff Bower let him find an opportunity elsewhere.

The depth chart at Hilliard’s positions have plenty of question marks. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Reggie Bullock’s contract situations, Stanley Johnson’s development. So like with Dinwiddie, SVG will have to figure out if Hilliard fits into the team’s plans and how much he can trust Hilliard entering next season.

One thing weighing in Hilliard’s favor of remaining a Piston is the team’s cap situation. Even if they don’t re-sign Caldwell-Pope, there’s not many options for shoring up their depth. The Pistons also don’t have a second round pick in this year’s draft. Under contract for 2017-18 with a cheap team option, keeping Hilliard around means one less roster hole to figure out filling.

Odds are that unless the Pistons go with a wing with their first round pick, Hilliard will probably start out next season in Detroit. But time is running out. When the most inspirational argument in your favor is “Meh, at least he’s cheap,” you shouldn’t feel too comfortable.

So when he gets opportunities from here on out, he needs to make the most of them. If not, he’ll be looking at an uphill battle to stick in the league.