Jordan Hill Proving He's in the Conversation for NBA's Most Improved Player

David Murphy@@davem234Featured ColumnistDecember 10, 2014

BOSTON, MA - DECEMBER 5: Jordan Hill #27 of the Los Angeles Lakers before the game against the Boston Celtics on December 5, 2014 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. 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 License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Brian Babineau /NBAE via Getty Images)
Brian Babineau/Getty Images

On a team known more for losing than winning lately, Jordan Hill of the Los Angeles Lakers is quietly having a career year. In fact, he’s earning a place in the conversation for the league’s most improved player.

At 6’10” and 235, Hill doesn’t have elite size for a starting center. And, he doesn’t appear to have quite the same crash-and-burn style this season that endeared him to fans in the past. 

But looks can be deceiving. The 27-year-old big man is adding to his game by displaying a more deft shooting touch from mid-range, facilitating for teammates more effectively and still ripping down plenty of boards.

Speaking to Chris McGee for TWC SportsNet at the Lakers facility in September, Hill said: “I’ve been getting a lot of work in on the jumper. You know, I’m a banger, that’s what I’ve been focusing on since I’ve been in the league, but now it’s time to improve my game.”  

Hill’s stat line through 22 games is 13 points, nine rebounds, 1.6 assists and a block in 30 minutes per game. He has the third-most offensive rebounds for all players in the league (82), behind Tyson Chandler (99) and Andre Drummond (94), and the fourth-most double-doubles (10) for centers.

Sure, his numbers have improved from last season when he averaged 9.7 points and 7.4 boards in 20.8 minutes per game—a logical factor of increased playing time and a starter’s role. But is he actually making his team better, and how valid is a consideration for Most Improved Player when a team’s record is 6-16?

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Granted, silver linings can seem almost nonexistent for a team that has deteriorated steadily since a guy named Phil Jackson left the building.

But Hill is nonetheless having a positive effect in Los Angeles. leading the team in win shares at 1.6. Additionally, he has the second-highest player efficiency rating (PER) at 19.3—just a notch below Kobe Bryant’s 19.4. 

Dan Favale @danfavale

Interesting: Jordan Hill on pace to lead #Lakers in win shares this season. Kobe Bryant has only led them in win shares ONCE since 2008.

After one of the team’s few wins this season against the Detroit Pistons on Dec. 2, Mark Medina for the Los Angeles Daily News wrote the following:

When it appeared the Lakers could jeopardize their chances at collecting a rare victory, the team relied on a key player to close out the game they wanted. His name was not Kobe Bryant. His name was Jordan Hill, whose surprisingly consistent mid-range jumper became the Lakers’ key weapon in securing a 106-96 victory on Tuesday over the Detroit Pistons at the Palace.

Hill’s increased offensive proficiency has not been lost on his more illustrious teammate. Per Medina, Bryant observed:

Jordan worked extremely hard this summer on his mid-range jumper at the point where he’s one of the best big shooters in the league. He makes it tough for defenses to lock in. That mid-range jumper for him is dead eye.

A dead-eye shooter is a far cry from Hill’s reputation in the past.

A raw, but intensely athletic prospect out of the University of Arizona, Hill was the No. 8 draft pick by the New York Knicks in 2009. He lasted 24 games under then-coach Mike D’Antoni, collecting four points and 2.5 rebounds per game before being sent packing in a trade to the Houston Rockets.

Per Marc Berman of the New York Post, Hill later mentioned his former coach’s distaste for playing rookies.

“Where does that come from?” D’Antoni responded. “Seriously. It’s something that cracks me up. I don’t play rookies? I don’t like to play bad rookies.”

The years in Space City were only incrementally better and punctuated by injuries. Halfway through the 2011-12 season, Hill was traded once again, this time to the Lakers in return for fan favorite Derek Fisher—Bryant’s longtime pillar of support.

In that regard, the new arrival had big shoes to fill. Injured until mid-April, however, he played in just seven regular-season games plus the playoffs under Mike Brown, showing flashes of his long-promised potential.

But in an odd quirk of fate, the following two seasons brought a mismatched reunion with D’Antoni—the small-ball advocate was never Hill’s biggest champion. 

Mark Medina @MarkG_Medina

Jordan Hill: "I’m definitely not knocking coach Mike D’Antoni. He knows his offensive game. He knows his strengths. I’m just staying ready"

Last May brought yet another shift in the coaching ranks with the resignation of D’Antoni. And, summer free-agency resulted in a lucrative new contract for Hill at $18 million for two seasons, albeit a team option in the second.

The discussion of Hill’s continued amelioration with the purple and gold wouldn’t have even been possible if the former “seven seconds or less” architect had remained in his position.

Per Medina, the big man said in October: “If Mike was here, I wouldn’t be back. That’s the way it was. No disrespect to Mike, but apparently I didn’t fit his system. Why would I come back?”

The logical assumption is that D’Antoni’s preference for players who stretch the court was at loggerheads with Hill’s low-post strengths.

Yet, the former Arizona Wildcat is now expanding his game beyond the painted boundaries. According to Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times, it’s a matter of trust under new head coach Byron Scott:

D'Antoni wanted me to stand down there, just try to clean up and do the dirty work. I was already struggling for minutes with him so I couldn't do nothing but listen to him. Now I've got Byron Scott, who trusts me, and I can play my all-around game.

Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

How does Hill’s progression this season match up against some fellow tall trees around the league?

In an article in late October, an ESPN panel of experts predicted MIP candidates for the 2014-15 season.

Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons received five votes in anticipation of a breakout third season. Yet as good as he is and as hard as he competes, Drummond’s 11.3 points and 11.8 rebounds through 22 games are actually a drop-off from last season’s 13.5 and 13.2, respectively.

Bill Oram @billoram

Andre Drummond on Jordan Hill: "It was like playing against myself. ... He runs around, rebounds & plays hard. ... like a clone of myself."

On the other hand, the incredibly elongated Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks also received five votes but almost doubled his points from 6.8 during his rookie campaign to 12.2 this season.

And, Jonas Valanciunas of the Toronto Raptors nabbed one vote and has remained essentially in the same place, from 11.3 points and 8.8 boards last season to 12.1 and 8.6 to date.

So how many votes did our man Hill get? He wasn’t one of the 16 players mentioned in the article.

His record suggests he may have surpassed expectations.

MIP Candidates
Antetokounmpo5.9 RPG2.0 AST0.7 BLK12.2 PTS
Drummond11.8 RPG0.4 AST1.7 BLK11.3 PTS
Hill9.0 RPG1.6 AST1.0 BLK13.0 PTS
Valanciunas8.6 RPG0.5 AST1.3 BLK12.1 PTS

Now in his sixth season, Hill has become something of a late bloomer. But with an expanded role and positive affirmation from his coach and teammates, he is finally stepping up his game.

Ultimately, the truest form of measurement won't come through peaks or singular games. Nor will it be accurately revealed over the first 20 games or so. It’s about achievement over an entire, challenging campaign.

And this current Lakers era will surely continue to be daunting.

So far, Hill is showing that he at least deserves to be in a conversation about marked improvement.

But it’s a season-long debate that has only just begun.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and ESPN.com, and are accurate as of games played Dec. 9, 2014


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