AUBURN HILLS – The first shoe to drop after last week’s draft addition of Luke Kennard came quickly: The Pistons dealt Darrun Hilliard to Houston on Wednesday ahead of a decision on whether to pick up the third year of his contract or waive him.
The drafting of Kennard made for something of a crowd at the shooting guard position for the Pistons, who expect to retain Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in free agency. Even if that means they’ll likely lose Reggie Bullock, also a restricted free agent, the Pistons would still have Stanley Johnson – Caldwell-Pope’s backup the past two seasons – plus Michael Gbinije and Kennard at the position.
The Rockets made a flurry of moves around the league on Wednesday, acquiring players like Hilliard who have non-guaranteed deals for next season. Houston needed those contracts on its books in order to make the money work in its pursuit of Los Angeles Clippers star Chris Paul, according to multiple reports.
Hilliard, the 38th pick in the 2015 draft out of Villanova, showed flashes of promise as a rookie when he played in 38 games, starting two, and averaged 4.0 points while shooting 38 percent from the 3-point line. But a back injury that idled him for two months last summer seemed to set him back in 2016-17, when Hilliard failed to capitalize on a chance to lock down a rotation spot on more than one occasion.
Hilliard, at 24 the same age as Caldwell-Pope, shot just 37 percent overall and 26 percent from the 3-point line in his second season. The Pistons had a July 1 deadline to pick up Hilliard’s contract for next season and have it fully guaranteed. With their desire to give Kennard minutes at shooting guard in Summer League, which starts July 1, the decision to move on from Hilliard became clear. The Pistons face a similar decision on Gbinije, though they have until the middle of the month – or after Summer League has been completed, in other words – before acting to either pick up or decline Gbinije’s second year.
In adding Kennard, the Pistons appear to be getting a more accomplished version of Hilliard – a shooting guard capable of making plays off the dribble.
“I look at Luke as a pretty classic two guard in this league,” Stan Van Gundy said at Kennard’s introductory press conference last week, where the Franklin, Ohio native attended with his parents, girlfriend and agent and posed with Pistons uniform No. 23.
“The flexibility that Luke provides is he’s a playmaker. He’s not just a spot-up shooter. He’s a playmaker. And one of the issues we’ve had is we haven’t had a lot of secondary ballhandlers on the floor, so it’s really fallen to our point guards to make all the plays off the dribble. With Luke, that won’t be the case. You can put the ball in his hands and he can make plays for himself and other people.”
Kennard, who grew up about a 3½-hour drive from Detroit down Interstate 75 and said Tayshaun Prince – another left-hander who played at Kentucky, not far from his southwestern Ohio home – was his favorite player growing up, is happy to keep his roots in the Midwest.
“Since I was a kid, this is what I’ve dreamed of doing and last night was a special night,” Kennard said the day after the draft. “It’s definitely at the top of my moments in life. Midwestern kid, so it’s nice to be around home. It’s only a few hours away. My parents are thrilled about that. I’m thrilled about it. My hometown’s thrilled about it. Mentioned to Coach, they got a new fan base. Ticket sales might go up a little bit from my hometown.”