It is a late Wednesday night in Germany at about 10:30pm as I reach ex NBA player Darrun Hilliard of CSKA Moscow in his hotel room in Munich, Germany. The American is playing his third season overseas and has the double load of playing Euroleague and VTB League and this week has 2 Euroleague games. For some it is but for the ex NBA player remembering the wear and tear of the NBA, playing 2 games within 48 hours can be tough especially with the long trips from Moscow, but having that team plane makes the wear and tear of travel make it somewhat easier. In the last weeks, I had the pleasure of talking to some ex NBA players like Derrick Williams and Anthony Brown who have made the adjustment to playing overseas after having seen it all in the NBA. Sometimes one might expect ex NBA players to be a bit reluctant to speak about the big show and reminisce about the good old days, but surprisingly most guys really cherish having had the opportunity to have laced them up in the worlds most elite league. But if there is one topic where guys won´t hesitate for a split second to muse over is the legacy of the black Mamba Kobe Bryant and what kind of an impact he had on them. The tales that a Derrick Williams and Anthony Brown had were priceless and lines like “I wasn´t thinking farewell but getting my shoes signed after his last game” or “I remember Kobe joking he would get 82 points and then dropping 60 in his last NBA game” are special fond memories and shows just how much Kobe was loved by his peers. It wasn´t any different for Darrun Hillard. When I mentioned Kobe, I could feel his eye brows rise higher than the tower of London and his smile get wider than the Panama-canal through the phone. His first remark about Kobe was, “I´ll never forget my Kobe story”. I believe you could ask every NBA player who ever dueled against Kobe Bryant what their favorite 1-1 moment was with him, you surely would get a reply from every player and get enough stories to produce the next basketball thriller. Hilliard was a rookie with the Detroit Pistons and played only his 3rd NBA game against Kobe Bryant who was in his farewell season and the way he described the moment was as if you were there Live. “It was huge playing against him so early in my NBA career and with him retiring that season. I had been a huge Kobe and Lebron fan growing up. I had been too young to have been a Jordan fan. A normal procedure with the Pistons was that usually the rookies could go to the circle before the game to shake hands with the opponents captains. After a while the veterans don´t want to do it, so they send the rookies. It is a special thing for the rookies to do. But because it was the last game of Kobe, the veterans all went to the circle not the rookies. Well that didn´t hinder me from going to the circle. I made my way to the circle, shook Kobe´s hand, gave some love and then got kicked out. It felt like it lasted 1 hour, but really it was 30 seconds. I remember seeing an interview after where Kobe said that he remembered this kid shaking his hand and then disappearing. This is my absolute favorite story from the NBA that I had”, stressed Darrun Hillard. It was also so refreshing to see how disappointed he was that he has never been able to find that interview of Kobe Bryant talking about him. Sometimes I truly felt like a little kid in a candy story being able to interview these high class players, but in this Kobe Bryant moment, I totally felt Darrun Hilliard being that little kid in the candy store.
Darrun Hillard was born on April 13th, 1993 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He first had the basketball in his hands at age 5, idolized Allen Iverson and was also a football fan and enjoyed watching the Philadelphia Eagles practices while getting to the facility on his bike. He attended Liberty High School in Bethlehem and had a lot of success there. Even though using his right hand for many things like eating, writing and throwing a football, he learned to shoot the ball lefthanded. He developed a deep bond to his coach Mike Bachman and averaged 18,0ppg and 6,0rpg as a junior and as a senior averaged 19,7ppg. He led his team to the PIAA State semi-finals in his junior season scoring 26 points in the loss to Penn Wood and reached the second round of the PIAA tournament as a senior. All in all, he scored 1,413 points in his high school career finishing second to scoring to Warren West. He was named the Express Times player of the year and was named to the First Team Class AAAA. His stellar high school career earned him a full ride to Philadelphia school Villanova(NCAA).
The American played at Villanova(NCAA) from 2011-2015 playing a total of 132 NCAA games. He had serious growing pains as a freshman as he was supposed to have been red shirted, but head coach Jay Wright decided against it needing him aboard because of a rash of injuries. He played 29 games averaging 4,8ppg and 2,4rpg. He scored in double figures in 4 games and had back to back 13 point efforts against Missouri and Pennsylvania. Things looked up in his sophomore season as he started every game and his minutes soared from 18 to 28 and he played 34 games averaging 11.4ppg, 2.8rpg, 1.6apg, 1.7spg, FGP: 47.0%, 3PT: 31.5%, FT: 73.9%. He scored in double figures in 19 games including 25 points in a win over Syracuse and 22 points a piece in wins over Purdue and Marquette. He ended the season strong hitting North Carolina with 18 points in a loss in the NCAA tournament. In his junior season he averaged 29 minutes playing 34 games averaging 14.3ppg, 3.6rpg, 2.6apg, 1.3spg, FGP: 48.6%, 3PT: 41.4%, FT: 71.8%. He made a big jump in his outside shooting getting over the 40% plateau. He scored in double figures in 30 games and had a career high 30 points in a victory over Marquette. He netted 11 points in a OT 82-79 win over Providence where he hit a crucial trey at the end to help seal the win. He scored 13 points to eventual 2014 NCAA champion UConn at the tournament and won various awards like Big east most improved and was a All-Big 5 Second Team selection.
The club continued to grow each season and had their best in Hillard´s senior year as he led the Wildcats to an amazing 33-3 season. He averaged 14,3ppg, 3,1rpg, 2,1apg and 1,8spg while shooting 38% from down town. He had some big games against Syracuse scoring 23 points in a OT win, had 24 points in a victory over Creighton and had one of his finer moments against Butler achieving 31 points on 8 three´s in an exciting 78-75 OT win where he hit the game winning trey with 1,5 seconds remaining. This was probably his finest individual game, but not most memorable moment. “It is really difficult to say that this game was my most memorable considering how many trophies we won. There were so many memorable moments in my career. We were at ground zero freshman year and to see to where we got to senior year is amazing. I don´t like to bring attention to myself to a game like this. Many accompanied me along the ride to success”, remembered Darrun Hilliard. He scored 27 points in his last NCAA game, a brutal 71-68 loss at the hands of North Carolina State in the round of 32. He finished his NCAA career with 1,511 points, 18th highest in school history; 400 rebounds; and 176 steals. He ended his NCAA career winning many awards like second team for the Sporting News, was an unanimous All Big east First Team, was a All District V First team and was Big 5 player of the year. The American has a lot of respect for head coach Jay Wright who pushed him, but Hillard´s belief that his coach didn´t believe him is what helped him evolve into the player he is today. “Freshman year was very tough. It was a big transition going to another school and not knowing if I could make to senior year. I always had this feeling that coach Wright didn´t believe in me. I wanted to prove him wrong and that was the driving force that kept me in school and helped me do well. I put my mind to getting better each day and not to quit, but to finish that marathon”, warned Darrun Hilliard. The American was fortunate enough to have played with future NBA players like Daniel Ochefu, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Josh Hart, but it wasn´t one of these that had the biggest impact on him, but rather a red shirted freshman who never played a NCAA game with Hilliard. Hillard was most impressed with current Phoenix Sun and 2 time NCAA champion small forward Mikal Bridges. “When he got to Villanova, he was physically a child. I saw him grow and blossom to the player he is today. He was a dog at both ends of the court his junior year. I saw what he could be. He got into the weight room , ate correctly and took everything serious. I´m really proud that he was able to full-fill his potential. He is the only guy that I really follow in the NBA”, stressed Darrun Hilliard.
In the summer of 2015, the 198cm guard was drafted by the Detroit Pistons in the second round at #38. He played NBA Pro Summer League in Orlando (Detroit Pistons) playing 5 games averaging 9.4ppg, 2.6rpg, 1.2spg, FGP: 28.8%. He would go on to play 2 seasons in the Motor city playing 75 games. In his first season he played 37 games averaging 4.1ppg, 1.2rpg, and also played 3 D-League games with the Grand Rapids Drive averaging 25.7ppg, 3.7rpg, 2.7apg, 2.3spg. In his second season with the Pistons he played 38 games averaging 3.3ppg, and also played 4 D-League games with the Grand Rapids Drive averaging 23.5ppg, 5.8rpg, 2.5apg. With the Pistons, he scored in double figures in 6 games including 13 points against Toronto twice and once against Memphis and had 11 points against Orlando and Atlanta. He had the pleasure of having been teammates with guys like Andre Drummond, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Steve Blake, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris, but one guy he won´t forget is assistant coach Tim Hardaway. “Tim was a coach, but he still had that competitive edge that us players had. If you didn´t do your job, he would let you know right away. He is a Chicago boy and always talked trash. What I´m really happy about having seen is him being the coach. Most guys just know him from his cross over moves, but I knew him as a coach. You could always pick his brain. He got the best out of you”, remembered Darrun Hilliard. Another thing that he has that not every NBA player can boast to their grand children is having a positive record against Lebron James. He has a 2-1 record against the 4 time NBA champion and will never forget being on the same court as his idol. “I remember my dad and I seeing Lebron play in high school. It was so crazy. He was 18 years old and already so good. Then there I am on the floor with Lebron in the NBA. This was the first time where I realized that I had to separate being a fan from being a competitor. I had always been a fan, but now I was on the other side. I had to get him before he got me. It wasn´t easy, but this meeting with Lebron taught me a valuable lesson that nobody is bigger than yourself”, warned Darrun Hilliard.
In his third professional season he split time between the San Antonio Spurs (NBA): playing 14 games averaging 1.1ppg, and played also with the Austin Spurs (NBA G-League) playing 40 games averaging 20.5ppg, 4.5rpg, 3.7apg, 1.1spg, FGP: 52.6%, 3PT: 39.3%, FT: 83.6%. His brief time with the Spurs is another one that he will cherish forever. If shaking hands with Kobe Bryant for a moment was like a kid in a candy store then being on a squad like the Spurs that featured legends like Tony Parker, Manu Ginoboli, Pau Gasol, Kawhi Leonard and Ettore Messina must of felt like a 8 year Barcelona boy stepping on the field at Camp Nou and not believing his eyes seeing 100 Messi clones all doing their tricks with the ball. He wouldn´t trade his short time with the Spurs for anything in the world. “My locker was next to Pau Gasol´s, so I obviously talked to him a lot. Kawhi talks a lot more than people think. The biggest thing I got form him was trying to apply his greatness mindset. He was hurt when I was there and the club was trying to get him back in shape. We were together a lot and played a lot of 1-1 and 3-3 to help him get back in shape. The guy is obviously physically gifted, but his mentality is bar none. There is a reason why he is the player that he is”, stressed Darrun Hilliard. Plus not to forget, he was able to learn from a master mind who loves the European game with head coach Gregg Popovic. In a way, he got an early introduction to European basketball from Popovic. “Coach Pop did prepare me, but honestly the great players there did more. It was Tony Parker and Manu Ginoboli´s last years, but I was also pretty focused on helping my G-League team win the title. With my time with the NBA Spurs, I tried to eaves drop on every conversation as best as I could like the kind of mind set each player had. I didn´t take one moment for granted, but tried to take everything I learned and apply it to life and the game. I was very meticulous about what I observed and just tried to see how they carried themselves as best as I could. The most important thing that I gained from coach Pop was his saying appropriate fear. You should never fear anyone, but remember to have that sense of respect. If you take your opponent for granted, then you can be beaten”, remembered Darrun Hilliard. Of course when your only 27 years old and have that typical competitive mind set, thinking about the NBA is always on the menu, but the reality sometimes is different. “I´m still young and it is still a dream. I´m a competitor and always want to play at the highest level, but I´m not striving for it at the moment. I´m very happy being a member of CSKA Moscow and would never take this opportunity with this team for granted”, warned Darrun Hilliard. He saw everything in the NBA and like most other players knows it will always be strictly a business before anything else. “You can get traded at any time of the day. At one moment your talking with the G.M and in the next moment read on Twitter that you got traded. Guys will be upset that is natural. Important is that you should never take the NBA for granted”, warned Darrun Hilliard.
In the 2018-2019 season he came overseas joining Kirolbet Baskonia Vitoria playing 35 ACB games averaging 10.8ppg, 2.3rpg, 1.4apg, FGP: 48.2%, 3PT: 42.5%, FT: 76.3%, and played 34 Euroleague games averaging 9,4ppg, 2.9rpg, 1.1apg, FGP: 49.3%, 3PT: 32.2%, FT: 77.5%. It isn´t always easy for that ex NBA player to come over and play their first season overseas well. The American came into a totally new situation, but had a very solid rookie season in the Euroleague and ACB despite having a difficult adjustment period. “I really struggled at the beginning. My wife and I were constantly on the phone. I came over with totally different expectations. I thought that every game would be like a Final 4 atmosphere with the crazy crowds from Panathinaikos. I just didn´t know the ins and outs of the Euroleague. Playing for Baskonia was a real challenge, but I was fortunate to have been able to play for 2 great coaches. I am happy that I made it through the struggles and am very grateful that Baskonia gave me my first opportunity overseas”, stated Darrun Hilliard. In The Euroleague, he scored in double figures in 16 games and memorable games like netting 19 points in a 97-73 blow out win over Maccabi Tel Aviv and had a strong playoff series scoring in double figures in 3 of the 5 games against his future employer CSKA Moscow. In the ACB, he scored in double figures in 20 games registering 24 points a piece in wins over Joventut and Fuenlabrada and had 21 points against Breogan. He also split against FC Barcelona scoring 18 and 15 points.
He joined CSKA Moscow in 2019 and is currently playing his second season with them. Last season he played 27 Euroleague games averaging 10.6ppg, 2.4rpg, 1.2apg, FGP: 40.4%, 3PT: 41.2%, FT: 79.6%, and played 15 VTB games averaging 11.9ppg, 2.7rpg, 1.9apg, FGP: 45.8%, 3PT: 42.6%, FT: 79.2%. In the Euroleague he scored in double figures in 16 games including 22 points in a win over Valenica, 21 points in a win over Alba Berlin and Panathinaikos and 20 points in a win over FC Bayern Munich. In the VTB League he scored in double figures in 9 games including 24 points in a loss against Khimki and 21 points in a victory over Tsmoki-Minsk. Last season the season ended abruptly for the 2 time Gomelsky Cup Winner on account of COVID-19 and as he was relaxed in his hotel room in Munich, talk concerning COVID-19 was a normal procedure for him as well as it has been for the whole world. “Dealing with this whole COVID-19 has been a big adjustment and you just have to be more aware and be cautious. We don´t have the freedom to move around as much, but overall despite all the problems, I´m so glad that I can still play the game. CSKA has done a great job having the team plane and making everything as easy as possible when we travel. The only difference to the whole traveling now than before Corona is more testing and paper work”, added Darrun Hilliard. This is now his second season living in Moscow that almost houses 12 million people and despite having lived in big US cities like Philadelphia, San Antonio and Detroit, it has been a big adjustment calling the Russian city his second home. “I come from a small town and at times it can be overwhelming. I would compare Moscow to the hustle and bustle of New York city. There isn´t a lot of sunshine in the day and the sun goes down early. CSKA have done a great job providing us with drivers and nannies, but I´m a home body anyway. I´m always home recovering”, expressed Darrun Hilliard. On the court, CSKA Moscow haven´t been great, but fairly good, but it´s still early in the season. They have been very strong in the Euroleague siting in position 3 with a 6-3 record and in the VTB have a 4-2 record and are in 2nd place. The club has done a good job keeping part of the roster intact with top Euroleague guard Mike James, Americans Will Clyburn, Daniel Hackett and Joel Bolomboy and German national player Johannes Voigtmann while adding some spice to the roster with Georgian Tornike Shengelia and Russian Nikola Milutinov. “The team is different in many ways and it also feels like a new team. Many guys are still getting adjusted which shows in certain points of the game. We lost some key guys from last season, but I feel that we can be special. We want to build on from the season we had last season and get the right chemistry to go all the way”, warned Darrun Hilliard. The club lost a key player in Mr Euroleague Kyle Hines, but also won a new face in versatile big man Tornike Shengelia. Even if many may think you could never replace a Hines, a Shengelia is a very special player and will make many in Moscow proud. “Both have special characters. Both are natural leaders and have that special aura with them. They both have the knack to do the right thing every time. On the floor Kyle won multiple trophies and off the court, nobody can say anything bad about him. That speaks volumes about his character. It was a huge blow losing him. I wish him the best in Milan and hope his family loves Italy”, commented Daruun Hilliard. The American has seen it all having experienced so much in the NCAA, seen Kobe and Lebron in the NBA and now become a solid Euroleague player. He definitely isn´t the player he was once at Villanova or in the NBA or before boarding a flight to Spain in late summer 2018. He has come a long way and has taken on an interesting development and stretched his game to new heights being able to call himself a real European player. “I´m really thankful for Jay Wright allowing me to grow and evolve at Villanova. He was patient with me and allowed me o grow each year. I had a different and bigger role each season. In the NBA, you just have to be in the right situation, be patient and have a coach and style that you can flourish in. I´m glad I could show my game in the G-league and help win a title while improving my game. When I came to Europe, I really didn´t know what to expect. The natural thought process of a player coming overseas from the NBA is to put up big stats in Europe and return to the NBA. But it doesn´t work like that. I slowly began to figure out my game with Baskonia. With CSKA coach Itoudis has done a good job always finding new ways to challenge me. It is obvious that I have a different role than a James or Clyburn who are our heavy hitters. They need the ball. I want to be able to play like them. I know that I won´t get a crazy amount of shots like they do, but I just have to find my spots and take advantage of each situation. I just have to be efficient and control what I can control meaning being ready to take shots and to knock them down”, warned Darrun Hilliard. The sky is still the limit for him. He has NBA experience and can prove at any time, he can be the best player on the floor in a Euroleague game or a ACB game. If he will ever return to the NBA is unknown, but guys like PJ Tucker or Brian Roberts have shown it can be done coming from Europe. If he doesn´t get back to the NBA, he will surely carve a fine Euroleague career and whenever he does step into the circle before a game have those unending special Kobe moments. Perhaps a young player will have that ambition to sneak to the circle and shake Hilliard´s hand. Basketball dreams never end for any one old or young and won´t end for Hilliard either as he continues to play the game he loves overseas.