And Now For Something Completely Different: George Hill

For over a decade, the San Antonio Spurs have been one of the NBA’s strongest dynasties, claiming championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007. As Rob Mahoney pointed out in this column over at Hardwood Paroxysm, the Spurs’ identity has changed dramatically over that period, though; they went from a team built around Tim Duncan and David Robinson to one featuring Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to the current version that’s seen expanded roles for Ginobili and other players. One of those players is George Hill, who exploded for 30 points while going 11 for 15 from the field, six for six from the line and two for two from deep in San Antonio’s 119-102 win over Houston last night. He also added seven assists, five steals, two rebounds and a block and was prominently featured in today‘s The Basketball Jones for his efforts.

This wasn’t just a one-off performance from Hill, though. He’s really improved this year, going from 5.7 points, 1.8 assists and 2.1 rebounds per game in his rookie season last year to 12.7, 2.9 and 2.7 respectively this season. A large part of that’s thanks to his increased minutes (29.48 this year versus 16.30 last year) and the way he’s had to step up thanks to Parker’s injury, but he’s become a more efficient player as well. He’s shooting 47.7 per cent from the field this season (a 7.4 per cent improvement over last year) and 40.2 per cent from deep (a 7.3 boost). When Parker started missing games on Jan. 29, Hill got even better thanks to his larger role, scoring at least 10 points in all but four of the 30 games he’s played since that date. However, you probably wouldn’t pick him out as an NBA player if you saw him on the street; Hill stands 6’2” and is only 190 pounds, a frame not that different from some of us reasonably unathletic bloggers.

Hill took a pretty unorthodox path to get to the NBA, but its first steps were conventional. He grew up in Indianapolis and excelled as a high-school star. He was dubbed part of the “Magnificent Seven” group of local players, which also featured Greg Oden, Eric Gordon, Courtney Lee, Mike Conley, Jr., Josh McRoberts and Rodney Carney. He averaged a ridiculous (and state-leading) 36.2 points per game in his senior year as well. However, his career then took a significant detour. Instead of heading off to one of the basketball powerhouses that offered him a scholarship, such as Florida, Temple and Indiana, he picked the oddly-named Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis, a joint operation of the two larger schools which doesn’t have anywhere near the athletic recognition either. His rationale? Staying near his ailing great-grandfather, who died just before Hill began his university career.

Hill still shone on the smaller stage, but he faced challenges along the way. The Jaguars found a lot of success in his sophomore year, finishing tied for the best record in their conference, but he then had to sit out the following year thanks to a bad injury. He came back strong in 2007-08, though, leading the Jaguars to 26 wins (a school record) and the final of the Summit League Tournament, but they missed out on March Madness thanks to a loss in the final to Oral Roberts University.

Hill then decided to leave school early and declare for the NBA draft. He didn’t have a ton of hype around him thanks to his low-profile school, but impressed a lot of teams in pre-draft workouts. Here’s what Draft Express‘s Jonathan Givony had to say at the time:

In the first game we liked the way the extremely smooth George Hill conducted himself—his wingspan made him a presence defensively and he clearly has a high basketball IQ and excellent perimeter shooting ability. He’s definitely not a true point guard just yet (he over-dribbled at times and ran down the shot-clock) and is just an average athlete at best, but he looks like a versatile player who does not look out of place in the least bit despite coming from IUPUI of the Summit League. Indiana Pacers scout Kevin Mackey (who knows him extremely well considering their proximity) told us back in January that “George could start for any team in college basketball,” and Hill has definitely backed him up.

Many thought Hill would go in the second round, but San Antonio swooped in and grabbed him 26th overall towards the end of the first round. Despite limited playing time, he impressed many during his initial NBA season, including ESPN’s David Thorpe, who mentioned that one of the keys to Hill’s success is his wingspan. Despite that reasonably small frame, Hill has a 6’9” wingspan, which helps significantly and makes him deceptively difficult to stop. He’s also a great fit for the Spurs, as he’s a shoot-first point guard very much in the Parker model, so they don’t have to drastically change their offensive play-calling when he comes in. He’s still developing his game, and can be found on the wrong end of a highlight from time to time, but he should be a valuable component for San Antonio for years to come. He may not look like your typical NBA player, but he can be surprisingly effective, much like the semaphore version of Wuthering Heights:

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