The great artificial point guard debate: George Hill as “The Singularity”

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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.

True? True.

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.

  • Tyler

    Great piece.

    “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.”

    This describes Manu too a tee early in his career. He drove you crazy, but you knew there was something special there. Fortunately, the coaching staff gave him a wide enough berth (some might not have had the patience) to grow into the play maker he is now.

    As for George, he’s certainly getting better. But at the end of the day, him being a full-time PG shouldn’t be the goal. He has such a wide array of skills (shooting, speed, defense, vision is getting better, etc) that his biggest attribute is his ability to play alongside just about any other type of backcourt player. Doesn’t matter who you plug in next to him, he’s able to mesh well. That’s a huge positive. You can’t say that about too many guys.

  • Rohan

    Wow, this was an amazing read! Good work!

  • The Hammer

    I agree with with all of this. The reason for Indiana George’s success as a combo guard is nothing more that three significant elements; his willingness to be better, Manu Ginobilli and Tony Parker. With the will to learn and two magnificent teachers George Hill is now a combo guard like no other in the league. Yes we have CP3, Russell Westbrook and Rondo, they are excellent Point Guards’ but that is where it ends. They are not able to switch their game like George has. Tony is teaching him the fundamentals, the mechanics and the science while Manu shows him the intelligence and the art of basketball. No wonder he is so good. Don’t forget that the school will continue with Neal, Anderson and Green…but that is another story!

  • The Hammer

    Indiana George is a strong candidate for most improved and or fifth man of the year award (s).
    My favorite combo guy.
    Go Spurs. Is pay back for Memphis.

  • betsyduncan

    The Spurs as the Borg! I love it!
    Excellent article!

  • The Hammer

    I hope we keep him forever. There are teams out there that would pay big money for George Hill. None will get they wishes GH will stay in San Antonio.

  • DorieStreet

    I take this article to mean that George Hill is on course to be our 1st “next era” Spur. As his high basketball IQ encompasses the team’s system, let’s hope leadership qualities develop and emerge as well. As the nickname some fans dubbed him- “Indiana George”- smart, tough, and fearless; go forward and lead the Silver & Black when the anointed day comes…

    It looks as if Gary Neal will be there with him. Anderson & Splitter get a pass because of inuries.
    Blair: you’re next in line in terms of tenure–show us what you can do this postseason.

  • metalandganja

    Awesome. +1 for geek-heavy theme. =)

  • SAJKinBigD

    “The Singularity may not be here, but it is imminent. Resistance is futile.”
    This is brilliant… Loved this write-up and the conclusion is utterly brilliant!
    Now, we can take another Star Trek phrase and hopefully apply it as the team motto for the playoffs: “The weak shall perish.” – Species 8472.

    When I saw the header about The Singularity, I was afraid this was going to be a negative post about how the ball is sucked into a gravitational singularity when Indy-G has it and is running things. :D

    So glad you went a different direction with it!
    GREAT STUFF!
    Go Spurs GO!

  • este

    According to Malcolm Gladwell it takes about 10k hrs. to master a craft. G. Hill is getting closer to that magical 10k hr. mark and should only improve.

    Lost in all the Bonner criticism and Blair Vs. Splitter debate is the disappearance of RJ. For a guy who started out the season so well and looked as if he benefited from the extra work in the off season appears to have regressed to 2010 form.

  • ThatBigGuy

    Hill is the Evolutionary Jason Terry.

    In 2 years, he’ll be 25% better than Mavs era Terry, because he’ll have double the RPG and the ability to defend 3 positions.

    We better offer this guy a fat extension.

  • http://www.bpifanconnect.com Alix Babaie

    ThatBigGuy
    April 7th, 2011 at 10:51 am Hill is the Evolutionary Jason Terry.

    In 2 years, he’ll be 25% better than Mavs era Terry, because he’ll have double the RPG and the ability to defend 3 positions.

    We better offer this guy a fat extension.

    Yeah, he is an improvement to Jet also in the fact that he lacks the douchebag factor that JT has as well.

  • Anbs

    Great writeup! I hope George Hill gets a chance to read this!

  • doggydogworld

    Amazing article!

  • ChrisTX

    Nice article! HILL FOREVER A SPUR

    GO SPURS GO

  • MSteele

    @este
    I disagree with you on RJ, I feel he plays well within the system. He doesn’t take a lot of shots which shows he plays quite passive but he does shoot a very high percentage for a wing. He also plays solid one-on-one and team defense. He’s quite often guarding the opposing team’s best player and he’s usually the 4th or 5th option on offense which explains his low point total.

  • Latin_D

    Enjoyed this a lot, Jesse.

  • andy

    articles like this are the bones of why i come to this site. an excellent read, though one quibble:

    “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.”

    now, i understand that bbiq is a broad, imprecisely defined thing. however, i don’t think it’s accurate to say that what separates hill from the aforementioned guys is bbiq, per se. the fact that hill is blossoming in his decision making is a testament to his humility and work ethic, but perhaps more important for the long-term good of the team, also of the structure and personnel we have in place to support him in improving. i think that’s praise of the spurs organization that i thought slightly missed in this article.

  • Jacob

    I loved how the robotic hand appeared like the work droid from Stars Wars during the tweezer / rice exersize. I love robots…

  • WH Silver

    So key to the idea of a Singularity is the “fast faster” element mentioned in this post. We all understand Moore’s Law concerning the rate of CPU processing speed doubling at ever increasing rates. In practice it’s more of a coping mechanism that human intelligence employs when things come at us a bit too fast (Keanu’s Whoah Factor if you will). Yet we ought to view this accelerated pace of learning more as an opportunity than a respite.

    Closer to home, the Spurs early season success came from a Consensus of Realization that they were capable of playing a more up-tempo game, even if their defensive pedigree would be challenged. Call it Team Singularity. When every player on or off court, the coaching brain trust, hell, even dedicated bloggers are focused on ways to exploit each opening as it presents itself, it is building neural muscle (sorry about the mixed metaphor).

    Singularity in sport comes when you find yourself in that Zone more often than “usual” (remember, the NBA is already the best in its class) yet it is anything but overwhelming. Let the pundits idolize the superstars’ singularity. Game theory (see A Beautiful Mind) tells the real story.

    Let me close by returning to our beloved Mr. OoeyPooey and the writer’s takeaway: achievement is the product of self-realization given expression. We “feel” you, G. Hill. Continue to seize the moments of this tremendous season.

  • Dr. Who

    Nice read… Anyone who plays keys knows who Ray Kurzweil is. Fond memories of owning a K2000 thinking I was on top fo the world. Nice nostalgic vid of Kurzweil.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X4Neivqp2K4&feature=youtube_gdata_player

  • badger

    Hammer,

    I have been thinking a lot about how much money other teams are going to try to offer G. Hill, and I agree 100% that he is a keeper, and that he can be a long term component of the Spurs’ success.

    He is almost as fast as Tony, and he’s almost as good a shooter as Manu. His defense may already be as good as either Manu or Tony. If his playmaking and drives keep getting better, G. Hill has a couple of All Star games to make as a reserve guard, in my opinion.

    What a great guy to have coming off the bench!!!!

  • grego

    @badger – Hill is a better shooter than Manu. Manu is the best clutch player, but between the two, Hill is likely to shoot for a better average. Why? Hill shoots in a better form more consistently/more on balance. But of course I’d go to Manu in the last minute of a game.

  • bong p.

    Articles like this is what sets this Spurs blog apart from the rest of the other San Antonio faithful basketball websites. Should Hill evolve into a point guard extraordinaire at par, if not surpassing, with Tony Parker, then you have one key piece to continue this ball club flourishing. Gary Neal, although still a rookie, has shown that he’s part of the puzzle, too. Now let’s see if James Anderson, Tiago Splitter and De Juan Blair are the others who will form the core of the next generation Spurs.

  • bong p.

    I’m a “Trekker” myself, so here’s another rehashed quote from that immortal science fiction series: May the San Antonio Spurs live long and prosper where they have never gone before – a fifth NBA crown that’s there for the taking.

  • rob

    Geeks ARE human. Who would have thought.

    Great article.

  • Czernobog

    I love how “intelligence in the “vanishingly narrow way” that defines current AI” also applies to Allen Iverson.

  • cheyenne harty

    I am not prone to exaggeration. This is one of the best basketball articles I’ve read. Isaac Asimov would have been proud. And the video clip: an amazing job of packaging. This just adds to the reasons that 48-hours has become a daily read for me. Thank you. It’s good to know that journalists still care about their craft.

  • Patylu

    What an intelligent, well written, composed, fine article. Congratulations to you and to George Hill.
    Thank you both for giving us readers/basketball fans your Singularity.

  • Duff Beer

    I could not have said it better myself. Ok, nothing I said would have even come close.

  • http://readramblerant.blogspot.com Humberto

    Well, I had been meaning to read this since you mentioned on DDL a couple back, and to tell the truth it’s pretty fantastic. This gives me a new level to strive for when writing my own stuff.

  • Bubs

    This is a really nice analysis of George Hill, but Kurzweil is an absolute loon. His ideas have been thoroughly dissected and discarded by those who actually know something about the progress of technological innovation.

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