From Popovich’s “favorite player”, to the NBA’s most improved, George Hill is invaluable to the Spurs playoff hopes

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Outside of New York, perhaps no place on Earth has as rich and extensive a basketball mythology as the state of Indiana.

In perhaps one of the most famous accounts, the film “Hoosiers”, before a tournament game fictional Hickory high school coach Norman Dale has his players measure off the height of a rim and the distance of the foul line at 10 and 15 feet.

Regardless of atmosphere or circumstance, basketball is a game played within the confines of the same measurements (give or take a few variances depending on the league). It is the players themselves that shrink or grow in the moment.

When San Antonio Spurs point guard George Hill (an Indiana native) returns to the American Airlines Center for the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the court and its dimensions will remain as they were in last year’s playoffs. It will be George Hill who has changed.

At this time a year ago, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich proclaimed Hill not quite ready for the playoffs, having seen the then rookie guard out of IUPUI’s confidence fluctuating. As Popovich told Jeff McDonald of the Express-News:

“Playoffs is a time for people who feel very confident about what they’re doing, and George isn’t in that category yet. He needs more time.”

Given a summer and list of things to improve upon, Hill spent hours in the gym honing his skills in preparation for this–an opportunity to prove himself in a playoff rematch with the Dallas Mavericks.

“Not really getting a chance to prove myself last year, that put a fuel to my fire in the summertime,” Hill said. “I wanted to come back a whole new player.”

Hill returned to his teammates in training camp as quite possibly the NBA’s most improved player this season.

There are players whose increased minutes and shot attempts (Aaron Brooks) led to larger production, and young All-Stars (Kevin Durant) whose natural development brought them to superstar status, but perhaps no player refined and developed his skill set more than Hill.

Shooting

The top priority on George Hill’s summertime list was shooting. For all the defensive versatility and athleticism Hill brought to the court, it was offset by an inability to convert on open shots–a requisite skill for anyone hoping to log heavy minutes next to Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

“He was a scorer more than a shooter but he and (Spurs assistant coach Chip Engelland) have worked hard at it,” Popovich said. “He’s put in the time and now he’s become quite good at it.”

It would appear, more so than Richard Jefferson or Antonio McDyess, that the biggest story of the offseason was the acquisition of George Hill’s jump shot. Something I’ve previously noted:

“Oh, what wonders one summer with Chip Engelland can do. It may be a small sample size, but judging by the blistering shooting percentages, George Hill can shoot. From deep. Especially from the corner. Now, a lot of attention will be paid to his development as a point guard, and rightfully so. Hill finally looks comfortable there. But the most important development for him, so far as his future with the Spurs is concerned, is his jump shot.

You see, if Hill is to carve out more than cameo appearances in meaningful games it will have to be as more than a backup point guard because there’s no way you’re limiting Tony Parker’s minutes come Spring and Summer. So if Hill is going to be an impact as a Spurs player he needs to be able to play beside Parker rather than replacing him. For years the only prerequisite for that, at least offensively, is the corner three.”

George Hill has hit that corner three-pointer, with a few sprinkled in from other locations, to the tune of 40 percent, which is a drastic improvement from the 33 percent he shot last season.

And it’s not just the stand-still three pointer. Hill has developed an assortment of shots–floaters, pull-ups off the dribble, coming off screens–that have opened entirely new possibilities to his game. According to Hoopdata.com, George Hill has dramatically increased his efficiency from every spot on the court.

George Hill Shooting Percentages

Year

At Rim

<10 feet

10-15 feet

16-23 feet

2008-2009

57.0

30.0

29.0

29.0

2009-2010

63.8

37.0

38.7

41.0

“I always saw a lot of potential in him,” Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. “So when I saw him come in this year being more aggressive and a lot more reliable with those shots, it was a great surprise.”

Defense

In a way, the addition of George Hill as an offensive threat has bolstered the Spurs defense. No longer a liability on offense, Hill is now able to play extended minutes (from roughly 17 a game last year to 30 this year), which is important for San Antonio as he is possibly their best and most versatile defender.

A year ago, Hill’s defense was more versatile than dominating. While not truly a defensive force, he proved capable at guarding multiple positions. While still crossmatched onto the opponents premiere perimeter player many nights this year, Hill’s defense has grown more consistent. Especially at the point guard slot, where ESPN’s John Hollinger has George Hill ranked as the second best defensive point guard in the league:

He’s a combo guard who owns freakishly long arms that he’s learning to use to great effect at the defensive end, but Hill’s numbers suffer a bit because he was so often used as a stopper at the 2. He can defend that spot capably but at 6-3 gives up some inches.

It’s at the 1 where Hill is a real defensive force, which is one reason San Antonio has held up so well in Tony Parker‘s absence.

George Hill has had several signature moments throughout this season, like when he recorded five steals and stifled Rockets point guard Aaron Brooks in the second half of a win over Houston. Or his defensive gem over Chris Paul that prompted Jeff McDonald of the Express-News to write:

If there was still doubt about whether Hill belonged in the NBA — and there wasn’t — his performance Monday answered it. Thrust into the starting lineup with Richard Jefferson ailing, Hill scored 16 points in the Spurs’ 97-90 victory over the Hornets, a number secondary to the unquantifiable damage he wreaked defending Paul.

That damage mostly goes unquantifiable, with the Spurs molding Hill in the image of Bruce Bowen–a sound defender who is more concerned with making an opponent work than gambling for steals.

“Good defenders and people who get steals are not always synonymous, they’re two different things,” Popovich said. “Some steal guys are poor defenders as far as team defense because they’re rogue defenders.

“His steals come mostly out of being a basically sound defender,” Popovich added. “He’ll have those nights because of his length, arms and instincts, but I don’t think of him like a steals guy like you think of Chris Paul of Allen Iverson.”

Point Guard

A starter for defensive purposes, Popovich has been mindful to keep Hill paired at nearly all times with either Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili, keeping the playmaking burdens out of Hill’s hands while he adjusts to a point guard position he has never played before.

Hill has increased his scoring average from 5.7 to 12.4 ppg, but is assisted on 53 percent of his baskets with only a slight uptick in assists (1.8 to 2.9). This suggests that while an improved overall game, Hill still struggles to create shots for himself or teammates.

Something that is explained by Hill’s lack of experience with the ball in his hands.

“He’s getting better and better at playing the pick and roll and doing some things off the dribble for himself and his teammates, but it’s been an education for him ever since we started summer league two years ago,” Popovich explained. “He wasn’t a point guard, so all the nuances of pick and roll and what’s available is an experience that will take more time for him to perfect.

“So when you watch him play you see a little ‘one’ and a little ‘two’, he’s definitely a combo guard.”

That’s not to say Hill hasn’t made strides in this area. Ginobili, who works with Hill on reading certain defenses, points out how quickly Hill has picked up on things like what to do when defenses blitz the pick and roll, forcing the ball handler away from the action.

Where before Hill only looked for the roller or made a harmless pass to the wing, Ginobili says Hill now looks to the weak side, which is usually open.

“Every time I see something, I don’t want to be a pain in the ass, but I try and communicate it with him,” Ginobili said. “He’s a great kid and he listens a lot.”

Last season, George Hill’s confidence fluctuated with his changing roles. Now given an opportunity to log heavy minutes, Ginobili expects his teammates game and confidence to grow here as well.

“It’s about maturity and confidence. The fact that he knows he’s going to play 40 minutes now, it really changes your head,” Ginobili said. “If you screw up a couple times, you know you’re going to have another chance, so you play more freely–that’s when it turned for me.”

  • Pork Fried Rice

    Someone’s obviously excited for the playoffs… Excellent stuff JB!!

  • Miggy

    Get well soon, George, the future is yours!

  • Gary

    We loved the kid from day 1

  • ITGuy

    Go George Go!! Go Spurs Go!!

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  • rohan

    oh my god……. he re injured his uncle… he step on the camera man’s foot…. i hope he will return as soon as possible… the playoffs is approaching….

  • Tyler

    Chip Engelland has to be one of the most unheralded assistants (if that’s the right term) in basketball. The strides Tony, George and now Dejuan have made on their jump shot is incredible. The guy is worth his weight in gold.

    I need more Chip Engelland in my life. More commentary, more interviews, etc. Anything 48MoH can get from him would be great. For my money, one of the most intriguing guys in the organization.

    I’d especially like to know what he plans on doing with Dejuan this offseason. Watching last night’s game, Dejuan has gone from absolutely no face-up game in college, to looking pretty comfortable in that area. That, coupled with his improved form at the FT line, impressive on both Chip and Blair’s part.

  • Tyler

    A day in the life of Chip Engelland while he works with Dejuan in the offseason? He probably wouldn’t get into specifics (and rightly so), but just the thought process behind what he does would be enough.

    Huge.

  • NL

    Very thorough post, thank you. Let’s hope his ankle is all right by Sunday night.

  • Jim Miller (jimjule)

    Hill is definitely a keeper. I’m also impressed with Garrett Temple, who has great speed and is 6’6″. Add him to the mix next year and the Spurs will have great depth at the 1/2 guard spots. That means Manu can play the three and Jefferson can go the the power forward spot. Jeff is a little small for the 4, but he is a scrappy rebounder. A good big draft pick and all of a sudden the Spurs will become a youthful team again.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    An anecdote about Chip Engelland: For a while, believe it or not, he played for the Philippine national team in the early 80s under former Loyola coach Ron Jacobs, who has since then stayed in the Philippines. This was the squad financed by Filipino business tycoon Danding Cojuangco, whose vision then was to reinforce Philippine quintets with naturalized Filipinos, something which is now commonplace in international basketball.
    His lethal shooting stroke was mainstay of the Jacobs-mentored squads, whose highlight was when they won, if memory serves us right, the 1984 Asian Basketball Confederation Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Engelland played alongside fellow American compatriots Dennis Still, a 6-10 bruiser, and 6-4 swingman Jeff Moore.
    So much for basketball trivia. Nuff said.

  • Blentzen

    Glad the Playoffs don’t begin until Sunday for the Spurs. It will give George’s ankle an extra day to heal. He is definately needed. The way he stepped up in TP’s absense shows his maturity as a player. So, bring on the Mavs. I STILL BELIEVE!!!!! 2010 THE YEAR OF THE SPURS!!!!! GO SPURS GO!!!!!

  • Easy B

    We definitely got our bogey team, but I think dallas also got theirs too….the lakers must be happy, because they will only have to play one of us. I think we have the team to beat dallas…but george’s health is a bit of a playoff wildcard for us…as is our 3pt shooting….hopefully we just did the demo job on all those 3pt bricks that have been put up.
    Its just great to know that we are going into battle with a player no-one can guard, a couple of former finals mvps, a couple of young guns and two very solid and talented veterans. THEN if we can get 6 to 10 pts from bonner and co. we will be very hard to beat.
    It might just be me, but I think this team has bonded and is really up for the challenge this year..hungry and focused at the right time….

  • idahospur

    FREAKING PSYCHED! I cannot believe it’s playoff time. I would love to take Game 1 just to tell the league: better hope you don’t have to face us this year. We are coming out mad!

  • BigFresh

    Who’s the #1 defensive PG? Rondo?

  • OutPaced

    @BigFresh: Good question. Rondo sounds right

    I’m from Indiana and went to Carmel High School–we played Broad Ripple in the sectional one year. We had a much better supporting cast; Broad Ripple was essentially George Hill and nobody else (I don’t think they had anyone over 6’5). We were looking ahead to the next game, then George Hill basically beat us singlehandedly, dropping at least 30 pts.

    It seemed shocking at the time bc we all thought McRoberts was awesome and was definitely headed for the NBA (he should’ve declared out of HS), but now it makes a lot of sense given the career trajectories of the two.

    Anyways, I’m happy to see George Hill doing well. He really is a “Spur” in terms of the work ethic, professionalism, etc.

  • redraider Drew

    Like someone said earlier this team has bonded and come together. Coincidence that Finley is gone and the Spurs are playing much more lively and uptempo, I think not. I am estatic for revenge we can get on Dallas.
    Go Spurs Go

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  • http://www.acraterintheclouds.blogspot.com GMT

    I’m glad to read of not only Hill’s improvements, but also a little bit about how Manu is helping him improve. I don’t think he could have a better mentor.

  • Jim Henderson

    Nice article.

    And Hill’s great, but for those of you who think we can consider trading TP WITHOUT getting an adequate point guard in return (plus a decent big) that can create off the dribble, read the following excerpt again:

    “Hill has increased his scoring average from 5.7 to 12.4 ppg, but is assisted on 53 percent of his baskets with only a slight uptick in assists (1.8 to 2.9). This suggests that while an improved overall game, Hill still struggles to create shots for himself or teammates.”

    Thus, while George has some great skills, some that TP doesn’t have, he is not ready to take over at our point FULL-TIME.

  • SpursfanSteve

    I agree with Jim this time. Hill is a combo guard, and a damn good one, but not ready to be a point guard yet.

  • Bushka

    George is a combo, but I love the fact that the spurs have picked him from relative obscurity and he is the perfect tonic to our guard rotation.

    Both TP & Manu can create for others and themselves and George is so well suited to play with both these guys.

    Plus the more years George logs in the league the better he will get at running the show as a point guard.

    Really outstanding return for us from the last two drafts. George + Dejaun. Now if Dejaun can go away and have the same kind of off season that George had this year we’re going to have some howling good young guys.

  • SpursfanSteve

    Completely agree Bushka. George is perfect for our system and has the ability to grow and change as our system does to account for the aging of our core.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    Don’t forget the “third wheel” at point guard – Garrett Temple, who played well when Hill went down and while TP was still sidelined. Now, you also have depth there, and another warm, young and able body to throw against Jason Kidd.

  • Bushka

    Yep can’t wait. I really think we have some assets that will trouble the mavs a great deal.

    Not your usual 7th seed vs 2nd seed matchup.

  • Manolo Pedralvez

    These are the better Spurs who won’t be cannon fodder to the Dallas Mavericks. Already, Pop is one-up on the gamesmanship by resting Timmy and Manu in the season finale. That ought to grate on the collective Dallas psyche, considering the Silver and Black, minus both, made it a game on their own homecourt. Saw an AP quote of Maverick coach Rick Carlisle after the match, saying: “Well, they have us.” Indeed, you have.

  • Hobson13

    “And Hill’s great, but for those of you who think we can consider trading TP WITHOUT getting an adequate point guard in return (plus a decent big) that can create off the dribble, read the following excerpt again”

    I pretty much agree. However, keep in mind that Hill is only in his second year. His knowledge of the game and court vision should improve just like Tony’s did early in his career. It will be very interesting to see how much more he improves over the summer and into the early part of next year. And for the record, Tony is a combo guard also. It is interesting to see that Tony’s assist numbers are very similar to what Gilbert Arenas’ numbers are/were. Although I wouldn’t have thought Tony and Gil’s games were too similar, the simple stats of points/assists do look quite a bit alike. (Tony however, does typically shoot a much higher FG%)

    I’ve thought for some time that Tony may be the odd man out, plus we do need a big and that equals only one thing in my opinion: a Parker trade. I like Garrett Temple, but he will be a project and we could use one more proven backup PG.

  • Jason

    I can’t believe that i’m saying this but yes, Tony has looked more and more like the odd man out, but a lot of that is probably just because the team jelled when he was out this year.

    Before I jump on the Trade TP bandwagon though, I’m going to have to see how Tony plays in the playoffs now that he’s back, and how he adjusts to his new role off the bench. Some players just need to be starters to be effective (think Finley or RJ) which is why pop has sometimes kept better players on the bench.

    As far as our depth at the guard positions goes, I would hesitate to let go of Tony before we know if Nando Decolo or Marcus Williams is gonna work out for us. I do see sort of a choice out on the horizon for this team though, in that Pop doesn’t seem too attached to the convention of having the 1 be the distributor: Think about Spurs guards and almost all of them are more like shooters and scorers than creators on offense. Nando is the first 1 guard we’ve courted in a while who’s talent is for distributing, rather we’ve gone after some 3s or big 2s that can pass like Manu, Temple, Williams, or Hedo in the past.

    There’s nothing wrong with running your plays through the 3, these days 6-6 guys are good enough ball handlers that its not a liability and in fact it creates lots of cool mismatches and allows both of your guards to behave like 2s or 3s and focus on getting open shots or driving to the rim. The thing is, we have to sort of make up our minds soon because although we’ve got Manu locked up for another 3 years, we need someone else to be a creator in training for the bench and next generation of Spur. So if we loose our assist leader (Tony) we need to have someone else ready to make those assists. If Nando turns out to be the best prospect out of himself, Williams, and Temple then it does make sense to trade Tony, but if one of the other two becomes our next creator – a la Manu – then it makes sense to keep Tony and just put him in the role of making 2 or 3 guard type plays. This is probably the best way of using Tony’s talents anyway, not unlike the way Dallas uses Jason Terry as a shooter though Jason Kidd is taller than him at PG.

    The change in NBA talent style is gonna allow teams to experiment with these crazy lineups: we should all start to sever this traditional paradigm that the players 1 to 5 have to be in ascending size.

  • Tyler

    @Jason –

    You make a good point. The game of basketball is constantly evolving. It drives me crazy when people argue the Spurs should trade Tony b/c he’s not a “true PG.” Its been touched on by a few posters here, so I won’t delve to deeply.

    But suffice it to say, we don’t need our PG to be a Nash/Paul, high volume assist guy. That type of PG doesn’t necessarily fit into our offensive scheme. In the past, we’ve run our offensive thru TD; in a way, he’s been our defacto PG, our primary creator on the offesive end. As they’ve evolved, TP and Manu have taken on a greater role in that area. And this year, w/o a healthy TP, Manu has pretty much carried our offense by himself.

    In today’s game, there’s a huge emphasis on veratility. The term “tweener” used to be a negative for guys coming into the league. Now, that term isn’t necesarily a bad thing. Temple is a great example. He can play multiple positions – there’s a huge value in that. Teams can’t be confined to these cookie-cutter ideas of what a PG or PF should look and play like. If you’re confined to those paradigms, you’re missing out on a lot of potential talent like George Hill.

  • Tyler

    One more thing – I think we’re getting waaaaay ahead of ourselves in talking about trading TP. A lot depends on how he comes into next year. If he struggles again next year, I think the FO will contemplate the idea, but not until then.

    When healthy, he’s too valuable. He’s a great fit in our system and a guy that can play on or off the ball. Sure, George looks great, but I think it’s too early to say he’s a shoe-in as a full time, starting PG in the NBA.

    As others have stated, a guard rotation of TP, Manu, and Hill is a devestating trio. To be a contender, you have to have that kind of talent. And when you do have that talent, you better not give it away too easily. Unless someone just bowls us over with an offer, I don’t know if the risk/reward is there.

  • Hobson13

    Tyler
    April 16th, 2010 at 7:11 am
    “One more thing – I think we’re getting waaaaay ahead of ourselves in talking about trading TP. A lot depends on how he comes into next year. If he struggles again next year, I think the FO will contemplate the idea, but not until then.”

    I do see what you are saying. This next week will be critical to what happens in the offseason. If the Spurs wipe out the Mavs, there’s no reason to believe we can’t get to the WCF if not further. However, if we lose this series, then we will have paid $90 million for a team that was absolutely no better than last year with respect to the rest of the Western Conference. If we don’t get past the first round, I forsee HUGE changes in the offseason. Let’s simply take the Mavs series vs. Parker and look at the scenarios.

    1.Tony plays well, Spurs win series – We might not want to trade him.
    2. Tony plays poorly, Spurs win series – Spurs obviously don’t need Parker.
    3. Tony plays well, Spurs lose series – (See last year) Obviously Tony’s best is not good enough to put us over the top. We need help in some area(s).(probably in front court)
    4. Tony plays poorly, Spurs lose series – Fairly or unfairly, Tony might become the scapegoat, especially in light of our record with him out in March.

    I will say this, in several of these instances, people could argue of a different outcome with regards to Parker. I would not argue with such a well-reasoned piece of logic. I agree that sometimes there are two logical sides to the same argument. However, with that in mind, the outcomes previously mentioned are POSSIBLE (the likeliness of each may be argued) whereas only 1 year ago, the entire subject of this conversation would have been laughable.

    However, as Tyler implies, we are now in crunch time. It’s now time to take the test and see what this team has learned this year. Let’s sit back and enjoy (hopefully) the ride for now. We can and will discuss trade scenarios over the summer months. Good luck Spurs!!

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  • TradeTP

    Good article.

    The difference between Parker and Hill is Hill’s ability to work at his game.

    Hill has a catch and shoot, and a three ball. Parker does not. Parker has Hill in terms of finishing at the rim, but this can be remedied more quickly than gaining a mid-long range J.

  • Rick

    These are the better Spurs who won’t be cannon fodder to the Dallas Mavericks. Already, Pop is one-up on the gamesmanship by resting Timmy and Manu in the season finale. That ought to grate on the collective Dallas psyche, considering the Silver and Black, minus both, made it a game on their own homecourt. Saw an AP quote of Maverick coach Rick Carlisle after the match, saying: “Well, they have us.” Indeed, you have.

  • http://www.deanbreaker.com/ Martin

    These are the better Spurs who won’t be cannon fodder to the Dallas Mavericks. Already, Pop is one-up on the gamesmanship by resting Timmy and Manu in the season finale. That ought to grate on the collective Dallas psyche, considering the Silver and Black, minus both, made it a game on their own homecourt. Saw an AP quote of Maverick coach Rick Carlisle after the match, saying: “Well, they have us.” Indeed, you have.

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