Can Jordan Hill Handle Wear and Tear of Being a Starting Center?

David MurphyFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2014

SACRAMENTO, CA - APRIL 2: Jordan Hill #27 of the Los Angeles Lakers in a game against the Sacramento Kings on April 2, 2014 at Sleep Train Arena in Sacramento, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images)
Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Coming off a career season, Jordan Hill was given a hefty raise by the Los Angeles Lakers with a new two-year deal worth $18 million.

While Hill’s stats of 9.7 points and 7.4 rebounds per game were solid, they came within the context of playing just 21 minutes per game, usually off the bench. The high-energy big man is typically at his most effective when channeling his intensity into limited blocks of playing time.

Yet $9 million per season is starter’s money in the NBA and with Pau Gasol gone, Hill will likely find himself as the Lakers' starting center. How will he handle the increased responsibility as well as the wear and tear of a long NBA season?

A raw, unranked high school prospect, Hill burst onto the NCAA scene for the University of Arizona and was the No. 8 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 2009. He had a disappointing rookie season as a power forward under Mike D’Antoni, however, and was sent to the Houston Rockets as a relatively minor chip in the three-team deal that brought Tracy McGrady to New York.

Hill averaged 16 minutes per game as a backup center in Houston, suffering a right MCL injury in February 2012 before being traded to the Lakers for Derek Fisher. Hill reinjured his right MCL after joining the Lakers and didn’t play until the tail end of the regular season, impressing coach Mike Brown with his hustle and athleticism, and earning solid minutes during the first two rounds of the playoffs.

The following season, he appeared in only 29 games due to a herniated disc followed by a hip injury that required surgery.

The knock on Hill over his sporadic five-year NBA career has been twofold: First, he has never truly developed a fundamentally polished back-to-the-basket low-post game. And second, his helter-skelter energy can become a weakness when it results in either an inability to play extended minutes or injuries that rob his season.

In other words, when a 6’10” kamikaze crashes onto a hardwood court, the implacable wooden surface generally wins.

This season, the high-motored 27-year-old could benefit greatly from the Lakers’ hire of Byron Scott as their new head coach. While Hill was never a fit in D’Antoni’s floor-stretching system, his nose for rebounding and overall energy will appeal to Scott’s traditionalist approach.

Dave Miller, who was an assistant coach under Scott with the New Orleans Hornets and more recently worked alongside him for the Lakers’ SportsNet channel, spoke on-air with host Jaime Maggio about a new opportunity for Hill:

I think he loves him (Hill) because he defends and he rebounds, and that’s something that Byron will demand. But what I think he’s got to do is convince Jordan Hill to be a physical screener, and in Byron’s system, if you screen, eight out of 10 times you will be open. He’ll also accentuate his dynamic role. He’s not going to put Jordan Hill in a position not to succeed. Jordan Hill is not a stretch 4. Jordan Hill is not a mid-range jump-shooter. Jordan Hill, Jamie, is a paint-dweller.

In order for Hill to succeed next season as a starting paint-dweller, however, he’ll have to stay healthy. Can a crash-and-burn specialist survive extended minutes, especially if his aggressive nature is exactly what his coach wants?

Scott will need to teach Hill that being a successful and consistent contributor also means finding the middle ground and learning to channel his energy. While conditioning has often been an issue, so has Hill’s focus—he’s not a particularly disciplined player.

Another important factor will be alleviating the need for big minutes through a supporting cast. The Lakers recently pulled off one of the true bargains of the 2014 offseason when they signed 25-year-old big man Ed Davis to a two-year, $2 million contract with a player option in year two. Formerly with the Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors, Davis is a natural power forward who—like Hill—has demonstrated the ability to augment his minutes as a high-energy center.

The grouping of Hill, Davis and third-year utility center Robert Sacre could result in a very serviceable three-headed rotation at the pivot spot.

Hill’s new two-year contract, though richer than some might have expected, comes with a team option for the second year. The hope is that the bruising frontcourt player stays healthy, continues to develop and proves to be a lasting part of the team’s future.

He’ll have to handle the wear and tear of next season, but with proper coaching, managed minutes and quality backing from his frontcourt teammates, Hill can finally realize his NBA dream.