The great artificial point guard debate: George Hill as “The Singularity”
Can the spark of the divine be created in something where it is not inherent? Creativity can be nurtured, but in doing so is it instilling something that was not there before or simply providing the tools to express what already was?
More importantly, at least for the purpose of this discussion and the future development of one George Hill, are point guards created or born?
Raymond Kurzweil is a smart fellow you may have read about earlier in the season during our MIT Sloan Conference coverage. Kurzweil, our own Timothy Varner noted, is a member of the Singularity Summit, a gathering of like-minded intellectuals who believe that artificial intelligence will meet and surpass human intelligence within many of our lifetimes.
To back his claims Kurzweil notes the rate of technology growth is exponential, not linear, as highlighted back in February in Time Magazine:
Computers are getting faster. Everybody knows that. Also, computers are getting faster—faster that is, the rate at which they’re getting faster is increasing.
So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness—not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.
Kurzweil, you see, built a pretty impressive machine at the age of 17 years old, a computer that analyzed patterns in the works of classical composers and produced original musical compositions in similar styles; machine creating art, a feat once reserved only for humans. The machine obviously lacked the ability to attach meaning to such compositions, but that’s not the point. Kurzweil programmed a machine with enough tools to fake creativity.
The entire field of artificial intelligence, or AI, is devoted to this question. But AI doesn’t currently produce the kind of intelligence we associate with humans or even with talking computers in movies—HAL or C3PO or Data. Actual AIs tend to be able to master only one highly specific domain, like interpreting search queries or playing chess. They operate within an extremely specific frame of reference. They don’t make conversation at parties. They’re intelligent, but only if you define intelligence in a vanishingly narrow way.
If current AI allows for mastery of one specific domain, then the next step would be to program mastery in enough specific domains to pass for human intelligence within that frame of reference.
Teach a machine how to move its fingers then you can teach it how to catch and dribble, then pretty soon it’s playing a game of basketball. At some point the development of technology reaches a point where the machine is no longer faking, it’s actually thinking on par with human intelligence. Kurzweil and others refer to this as the singularity: a point at which all bets are off.
This brings me, finally, to George Hill. To say that Hill is not a natural point guard is an understatement. Last year when folks were clamoring for the Spurs to trade Tony Parker because the emergence of “Indiana George,” they failed to realize Hill’s low assist rate and the high (for a point guard) rate on which his baskets were assisted on. In short, Hill did not have the instincts to create much for himself or others.
This fact would seem detrimental to his development. A player can get better at shooting or work on ball handling but creativity in basketball is generally something a player either possesses or does not.
How many superior athletes with requisite individual skills have failed in attempts to convert into pure basketball players? (You can teach them to shoot, dribble, and make a chest pass, but you can’t necessarily teach them how to play basketball if you catch my drift)
It would lend credence towards one of the theories of player development extolled by ESPN’s John Hollinger. Players with higher turnover rates at a younger age have a higher ceiling for growth, the turnovers representing sparks of failed creativity—but creativity nonetheless—that will eventually be honed through trial and error.
Players like Al Jefferson or Steve Nash enter the NBA with an intuitive feel for scoring or passing and become the players they are today after they learn the technical aspects of footwork or reading defenses properly. These are merely tools to channel what is already there.
Reverse that process, provide the skill sets without instincts in place and you get a player—much like Emeka Okafor—whose game is, for lack of a better word, robotic.
But much like artificial intelligence, someday some coach is going to create a point guard, and if George Hill cannot be the singularity, perhaps he can be the missing link prototype.
You see, Hill is learning. Fast. His development is getting faster faster. From the moment the NBA first set eyes on Hill during the summer league the young combo guard has spent every summer adding a new part to his game. Not the instincts, mind you, but the tools. Slowly he’s starting to understand the patterns in the musical compositions and produce them, even if he has yet to comprehend what they mean.
In his rookie season there was very little originality to his game. He could drive, but only in straight lines. He could exploit passing and driving lanes, but he couldn’t create them. In pick and roll situations he didn’t necessarily turn the ball over, but more often than not when facing a hard hedge the most common decision was a safe, harmless pass to the closest wing.
Off to a summer with Pop and company in the lab for some further tinkering and programming.
George Hill returned in Year 2 still lacking as a playmaker and off the dribble, but with an outside jump shot and an array of floaters and runners he emerged as one of the leading candidates for Most Improved Player and a mainstay in the Spurs rotation—and not just at the backup point guard slot.
On pick and rolls Hill was given another option, finding the big man popping out on the weak side elbow (McDyess) or wing (Bonner). Not enough to play Hill without Manu Ginobili or Tony Parker, but enough to be effective in half court situations other than spotting up.
This season his production has leveled off but the nuances of his game continue to expand. While his points and assists are roughly the same, the ways in which he comes about them are improving.
With shot still intact, Hill has slowly developed some variance in his dribble drive game. He is not the artist that Parker is, but he’s come back with an in-and-out dribble he uses to good effect and has learned some of the value of changing direction and speeds, which has brought a new wrinkle to his pick and roll game.
While Hill still struggles to find the roll man on a consistent basis, the variance to his dribble game has afforded him more opportunities to create for himself, and this season Hill has proven more adept at splitting defenders or shaking free of the hedge defender and turning the corner, which provides a few basic drive and kick options.
All told, all Popovich and the coaching staff have done with Hill is provide intelligence in the “vanishingly narrow way” that defines current AI. But slowly they are adding up enough complex programming to provide Hill enough multiple reads to compose his own symphonies so to speak.
A season ago Hill rarely touched the court without Ginobili or Parker by his side to ease some of the playmaking responsibilities, and even when they were out, Popovich ceded ball handling duties to Roger Mason. Over the last few games it has not been a surprise to see Hill running the second unit on his own, or even better, taking turns initiating things within a three-guard lineup alongside Parker and Ginobili.
What separates Hill from the Marcus Banks, Smush Parker’s, or even Leandro Barbosa’s of the world is an extremely high basketball IQ. The instincts may still be lacking, but the processing power far surpasses his predecessors and it’s taking the same programming in new directions.
At times it’s almost enough to catch a glimpse of a spark, even if it fails to fully ignite.
In the third quarter against the Phoenix Suns in the middle of a 5-on-5 transition opportunity, Hill noticed Richard Jefferson free in the left corner. A season ago Hill would have made the pass right then, the defense would have rotated, and the offense would have reset from there.
Last Sunday Hill instead immediately looked Jefferson off, veering his dribble to the right and baiting the defense to take a few more steps in that direction. The moment Hill saw Jefferson’s defender take a few steps towards the rim he kicked the ball out for a wide open 3—turning a good look into a great one.
While Hill still has a long ways to go as a point guard, this is just one of several instances this season that he has been able to manipulate an entire defense (as opposed to just the defender in front of him) just by knowing if he takes a dribble here, the defense will react this way.
It-s as if Popovich and Hill have been able to find the mathematical formula for a point guard’s feel and are currently learning how to convert it into binary code, taking Hill from playing checkers to chess on the way to competing in Jeopardy.
The Singularity may not be here, but it is imminent. Resistance is futile.