DENVER — Even if Kobe Bryant comes back to save the day, he’s not going to do it alone.
So in addition to Bryant inspiring legions of L.A. Lakers fans all over again, here’s a vision for their upstart season still to come:
- Dudes in the third-deck stands dancing devotedly under Jordan Hill wigs and wearing garbage man costumes.
- Mike D’Antoni’s three-point attack exploding to unprecedented levels because defenses are sucked inside by Hill’s commitment to be the active pick-and-roll roller that the Lakers assumed Dwight Howard would be.
- There’s renewed awareness of breast cancer—Hill’s personal pink crusade since his mom died of it when he was three.
- The cool tattoo to get becomes the Spider-Man emblem that Hill has in the middle of his chest.
- And all of the pretty people across Southern California tap into their inner beasts, doing their jobs with unprecedented passion, energized by Hill’s absolutely unstoppable attitude toward dirty work: “Nobody can keep me off the boards” (real quote).
If it all sounds a little fanciful, I’ll say this also: I really did bring up the topic of “Linsanity” when talking to Hill late Wednesday night in the Lakers’ locker room.
Hill grinned. He laughed. Then he paused before he spoke, smiled some more and then said with a very simple chuckle: “I’m just happy to get more minutes, man. I’m just happy to get more minutes, and I’m going to continue to do what I’ve been doing like I’m a force down there in the paint.”
If Hill, 26, is in any way following in Jeremy Lin’s footsteps as another no-name phenomenon to fall into D’Antoni’s lap, it’s clear the coach now recognizes Hill as the Lakers’ energy source the past two games. Hill delivered 21 points and 11 rebounds in the victory over New Orleans and 18 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks in the loss in Denver.
Denver coach Brian Shaw specifically cited Hill for keeping the Lakers in the game Wednesday night, and D’Antoni joked that Hill got 18.5 of the Lakers’ 19 offensive rebounds (actually eight).
Averaging 16 minutes before these past two games, Hill played 26 minutes Tuesday and 30 Wednesday.
“I always thought that if I could get at least 28 minutes a game, I could easily get a double-double,” Hill said. “I’ve never really had 28 minutes a game.”
D’Antoni said after the game in Denver that Hill is now “pretty solidified.” And that’s not even as much as D’Antoni said before the game about Hill: “He’s really good—if not our best player.”
Here’s what Lakers guard Steve Blake had to say: “He’s been doing that all training camp and in practice. It’s not a surprise to us. He’s just now getting the opportunity and making the best of it. He’s a workhorse.”
Should D’Antoni have identified the unique talent he has to work with and moved earlier to cultivate it? Hill doesn’t hold any grudges, saying: “The coach was just figuring out lineups, and I respect him for that. I just waited till he wanted me to go out there in that starting lineup and do what I do.”
This is where we should stop for a little objectivity with regard to Hill’s game. He fell behind Shawne Williams and Chris Kaman in preseason by consistently missing mid-range jumpers and committing fouls while setting screens—two fundamental parts of D’Antoni’s offense.
Hill’s problem in both areas was rushing to get the job done. He made 13 of 14 free throws the past two games by slowing down his stroke.
Can he sustain his energy if he is going to play twice as long in the game? Can he be trusted not to get hurt considering last season began with a herniated disk and ended with hip surgery, with Hill now nursing a bone bruise in his right knee?
These are the kinds of limitations that usually emerge when a guy is trying to go next level. Remember Earl Clark’s Lakers' coming-out party last season for a desperate D’Antoni? Clark went and signed with Cleveland for $4.5 million per year, and it took him five games there to go from starter to not playing at all.
Shaw was talking before the game Wednesday about how many players want to be like Kobe and hear stories about Kobe—but do not “understand what it really takes to perform on that level.” That includes Bryant’s aggressiveness to make sure he gets to show what he can do, something more patient guys like Hill as the No. 8 overall pick in the 2009 draft definitely haven’t brought.
But even for the tier of top players below Bryant, there is an epic gulf between them and the role players in the league. It’s just an entirely different workload—not just in minutes, but expectations and responsibilities.
If you’re going to be a main man, then you have to do difference-making stuff three out of every four nights, all season long, no matter foul trouble or woman problems or the sniffles. You establish your greatness through your consistency, not by one poster dunk Tuesday (the Lakers’ Xavier Henry) or one big game Wednesday (Denver’s Timofey Mozgov).
Hill can express confidence about making the leap, but there’s a lot that awaits him that he can’t know without experiencing. Even Lin made all that magic in New York during early 2012 and then fell off—losing his starting job in Houston this season but fighting back, improving his jumper and producing 34 points and 12 assists Wednesday night in place of injured James Harden.
What is concrete is that just as D’Antoni’s Knicks needed Lin’s creative energy, D’Antoni’s Lakers need Hill’s primal energy. Even before Hill’s massive rebounding effort Wednesday night, consider these season-to-date advanced stats from NBA.com on “contested rebound percentage,” meaning how many of guys’ rebounds were won despite a threatening opponent lurking or battling within three-and-a-half feet.
To a Lakers team that D’Antoni complains gives “false energy,” Hill can definitely offer something real.
Perhaps something consistent. Hopefully something inspirational.
“Now that I’m getting more minutes,” Hill said, “I can really do what I can do.”
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.