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Jordan Hill Stepping Up Yet Again for Los Angeles Lakers

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistDecember 4, 2014

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Jordan Hill is coming up huge for a Los Angeles Lakers contingent that is forced to find silver linings in small victories.

A time-thwarting performance from Kobe Bryant. A burst of explosion from Ed Davis. A 4-1 record against the NBA's Developmental League Eastern Conference teams. These are the rays of light a lottery-bound Lakers squad must bask in, until such a time when they're equipped for more profound purpose.

Hill's 2014-15 campaign has been blinding compared to nearly everything else. He is not the same player who deserved more minutes last season. He's not even the same player the Lakers signed to a two-year, $18 million deal over the summer, a contract immediately viewed as valuable trade fodder given the team option for 2015-16. 

This version of Hill is different. More refined.

More mature.

“It was that time to step out of my old ways and to grow up,” Hill said ahead of this season, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina. “Now I feel really, really good."

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His mindset has since translated into another career year.

Hill has easily been the Lakers' second-most productive player early in 2014-15
Hill has easily been the Lakers' second-most productive player early in 2014-15Allen Einstein/Getty Images

Some of the advanced stats won't show it. The Lakers are being outscored by 11.8 points per 100 possessions when Hill is on the floor, and they're putting up better offensive and defensive numbers when he's on the bench.

Then again, that's true of the entire starting lineup. 

Fellow starters Bryant, Carlos Boozer, Jeremy Lin and Wesley Johnson are all a minus-11.1 or worse for the season. Hill's performance is right in line with their numbers and most definitely the offshoot of playing within the league's third-worst lineup among five-man combinations that average at least 10 minutes together per game.

Individually, though, he's thriving. He's averaging career highs in minutes (30.9), points (13.7), rebounds (9.5), assists (1.6) and player efficiency rating (19.8), effectively dispelling the notion that past success was the product of sporadic playing time.

No, the Lakers are not a good basketball team. They rank as the league's worst defensive group by a wide margin, and the Western Conference gauntlet will swallow them whole at some point.

But Hill is leading this bad team in win shares (1.5). He's amassed nearly four times as many as Bryant (0.4) and represents exactly 30 percent of the Lakers' first five victories. That's not insubstantial, even in this situation. It's not an anomaly either. Hill finished second in win shares on last year's Lakers squad. He's merely building upon 2013-14.

And he's doing so by excelling where he's always excelled: on the glass, as someone who relies on effort more than skill.

Few NBA players could flirt with nightly double-doubles when they're not having plays called for them. The Lakers offense is not built around Hill. His usage rage (19.3) is actually lower than last season (19.7). He earns his keep by slashing and creating second-chance opportunities for himself and his teammates.

Not only do his four offensive rebounds per game rank third in the NBA, but he's grabbing 13.7 percent of all available offensive rebounds when he's in the game. Only Andre Drummond (14.2) corrals offensive boards at a higher rate among players logging north of 30 minutes per game.

Many of Hill's rebounds in general aren't coming easy, either. More than 49 percent (49.2) of his boards have come when an opponent is within 3.5 feet of the action. That's the eighth-highest contested rebound percentage among the 49 players who are bringing down at least seven boards a night. For added context, it's also identical to that of Anthony Davis.

Yet, it's not just Hill's motor and rebounding acumen that has him in Byron Scott's good graces. He's expanded his once severely limited offensive game as well.

"Moreover, he has added something to his arsenal," Bleacher Report's David Murphy wrote in November. "The big man has become a bit of a shooter of late—often stepping out beyond his traditional painted territory and sinking mid-range set shots with aplomb."

Most of Hill's made baskets (59.2 percent) are coming off assists, so he hasn't suddenly mutated into a self-sufficient bucket-bomber. But his jumper has never been more efficient—or prevalent for that matter.

Although he's shooting 37.9 percent on mid-range jumpers, he's been money between 20 and 24 feet. He's shooting 9-of-15 from that area overall (60 percent); he made just five shots from that same range all of last year. Carlos Boozer, who founded his once-sterling reputation upon being able to hit jumpers, has yet to convert a shot from that distance this season.

Last year's five field goals between 20 and 24 feet were actually a career high for Hill. He's nearly doubled that number this season and is on pace to completely shatter it before 2014-15. And while he falls well short of a distance-shooting marksman, Hill's newly available jumper was put in valuable context by Medina last month:

Mark Medina @MarkG_Medina

Jordan Hill is becoming the player Mike D'Antoni had hoped he'd become

To be sure, Hill isn't the most polished player. His shooting percentages are down in other areas, and he remains a defensive liability who can neither deter dribble drives nor protect the rim.

Opponents are shooting 57.1 percent at the iron when guarded by Hill. Of the 68 players facing at least five shots at the rim every night, Hill's protection ranks 57th.

Still, this season has been more about what Hill can do as opposed to what he can't. The Lakers have very little to play for and will inevitably contend for one of the West's worst records. And during that time, as Bryant chases and passes Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list, they can only hope to find further distraction and refuge in player development.

Somewhere on this roster of contractual placeholders and NBA journeymen, there lies a piece or two who could become an integral part of their rebuild. Hill, despite a contract conducive to trade rumors, might be one of those pieces. At the very least, he's in the conversation.

Only five other players are averaging at least 13 points and nine rebounds on 49 percent shooting this season: Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, Marcin Gortat, Nikola Vucevic and Davis. When next season rolls around, Davis will be the only one of those players earning under $10 million annually, and that's merely because he's still on a rookie-scale contract.

While Hill's pact—which can essentially be considered an expiring deal—is trade-deadline friendly, the Lakers will be hard-pressed to find someone next summer who can replace his production and takes home under $10 million. Roughly one year away from an expected salary-cap eruption in 2016, it may be impossible.

Hill has played so well, he may will himself into Los Angeles' future.
Hill has played so well, he may will himself into Los Angeles' future.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

At some point they'll have to weigh the luxury of additional cap space against the season Hill is having. He's earned that much consideration, answering the call to arms at a time when the Lakers are light on capable weapons and bodies.

Retaining him will cost flexibility, significantly handicapping their capacity to sign another superstar. But renouncing the rights to Hill and going star-gazing would be a risk in itself.

There is no guarantee the Lakers land a Goran Dragic or Marc Gasol. There is no guarantee whomever they sign—be it a star or mid-level talent—lives up to his deal. They know what they have in Hill, and that's an asset worth considering as they push forward with the hope of beginning an era defined by something other than transition and volume losing.

"I got the minutes," he said, per the Los Angeles Times' Mike Bresnahan. "This is what I've been waiting for."

With the wait finally over, and Hill finally validated, the onus is now on the Lakers to decide whether this particular stopgap has played his way into a larger, more permanent role.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com unless otherwise cited, and are accurate as of games played Dec. 3, 2014. Salary information via ShamSports. 

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