Rookie Darrun Hilliard impresses in first taste of extended minutes

In the NBA, sometimes it’s just about opportunity. For Pistons rookie Darrun Hilliard, that opportunity came Sunday evening.

Shorthanded after starting small forward Marcus Morris was ruled out with left knee tendinitis, Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy was forced to shake up the front court depth chart in his team’s 103-89 win over the Brooklyn Nets.

With first round draft pick Stanley Johnson earning his first career start, it was Hilliard who stepped into Johnson’s typical role off the bench, playing a career-high 20 minutes and responding with eight points (also a career-high) and four rebounds, including a three-pointer and baseline dunk keyed a decisive 15-4 second half run.

Hilliard’s effort was enough to leave a lasting impression with Van Gundy.

“I was really happy,” Van Gundy said following Monday’s practice. “It’s tough. You haven’t played in a long time. He really hasn’t played meaningful minutes since his last D-League stint when he went up there with Brandon (Jennings). Then to come out and play like that says a lot about him and work he puts in and how he’s stayed ready to go mentally.”

Hilliard’s 11 previous appearances with the Pistons have largely taken place during garbage time, when the Pistons either already had the game in hand or found themselves on the wrong end of a decisive beat down. His 20-minute showing against the Nets marked just the second time in which he’s played at least 10 minutes in a single game. His previous high came in his NBA debut, when he shot 1-7 from the floor in 13 minutes during a 21-point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks in November.

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Such fleeting on-court appearances can make it tough for a player to shake the jitters and work himself into the flow of an NBA game. However, entering the contest midway through the first quarter on Sunday allowed Hilliard to find the groove that allowed him to average 25.7 points in three games for the Grand Rapids Drive, the Pistons’ D-League affiliate.

“I think I missed a little rebound because I was just a little antsy,” Hilliard said. “But once I settled in, it was pretty fun.”

Hilliard’s status off the bench remains uncertain moving forward, with Marcus Morris listed as questionable to return for Tuesday’s matchup with the San Antonio Spurs.

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