George Hill, Gregg Popovich's New Favorite Player, Gets the Point

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst INovember 24, 2009

CHICAGO - OCTOBER 29: Head coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs talks with George Hill #3 during a game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on October 29, 2009 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Spurs 92-85. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

After a five-game flameout against the L.A. Lakers that was much closer than the finish indicated, the San Antonio Spurs headed into one of the most important offseasons in franchise history.

Manu Ginobili, injured after the first round and a shell of himself in the conference finals, managed a career scoring year. His 19.9 average led the team, as did his five regular season game winners.

Tim Duncan scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 15 rebounds in all five jousts with the Lakers, a signal that he was not ready to hand over his status as the league's best power forward.

Tony Parker regressed after a defining, blistering 2007 playoff run and disappeared at times when the San Antonio needed to counter L.A. most.

Still, the Spurs had been closer to the Lakers than Gregg Popovich or Phil Jackson wanted to admit.

Popovich, ever the military man, refused to allow excuses.

Defense, the trademark of the Duncan era, was not the problem.

The Spurs held the Lakers to more than 15 points below their averages after two playoff rounds.

If you held the Lake Show to an average of 91 points and Kobe Bryant to an average of six free throws per game—a far cry from the 16 he attempted per contest versus Utah—wouldn't you expect to win?

Scoring droughts, sometimes five to seven minutes in length, doomed the defending champions.

The Spurs blew a 20-point lead in Game One and an 18-point lead in Game Five.

Jackson wasn't playing rope-a-dope with his silver and black opponents.

They just couldn't score enough.

With their leading point maker and clutch postseason performer playing at 60 percent, the Spurs looked overmatched.

Brent Barry joked after the exit, "we had the 'Ma,' but not the 'nu.'"

After five outings of offensive offense, with a breezy Game Three victory the exception, it was clear Popovich needed more than a healthy Ginobili to compete for a championship.

The Lakers winced and groaned as they watched the Spurs mutilate the New Orleans Hornets on the road in Game Seven. They had every reason to be worried about a tilt with the champs, and for their part, the reigning best team in the league was good enough on one side of the ball to win the series in five.

With limited options to upgrade the roster, draft night success became imperative. Not since Tony Parker in 2001 had the Spurs struck gold on a late-round pick.

Beno Udrih, Ian Mahinmi, and a host of others fizzled. Popovich destroyed Udrih's confidence, and Mahinmi has yet to make a meaningful impact in the NBA.

With a draft projected as deeper than Warren Buffett's pockets, fans expected the front office to snag a contributor.

So, with the 26th pick, Pop and R.C. Buford selected a little-known kid from a little-known university.

An off guard from where? IUPUI? How the heck do you say that, and what does it stand for?

Who is George Hill?

Indeed, the slashing scorer failed to make most pre-draft selection boards. Only the Boston Celtics later admitted interest in Hill. They would have picked him early in the second round.

After the surprise choice, most expected Ashton Kutcher to emerge on TV to tell them they had been Punk'd.

No Nikon, no film crews, no Ashton. The Spurs' brass was serious.

They thought this "Summit League Player of the Year," would-be college senior could bequest his athleticism to the team's cause right away.

Popovich said he expected Hill to crack the rotation and become an impact player.

The decision passed in San Antonio only because of Parker and Ginobili. Finding two Hall of Fame-caliber players late in the first and second rounds allows you a long grace period.

The Hill culling seemed silly, given that Chris Douglas-Roberts and Mario Chalmers remained on the board.

Chalmers sent the national championship game into overtime with a miracle three. How could the Spurs ignore a player with such proven guts?

Ditto for Douglas-Roberts.

Fans who wanted more athleticism next to Duncan thought Texas A&M's DeAndre Jordan was an obvious fit.

Popovich presumed otherwise, and now he looks like certifiable genius.

Hill's rookie campaign was like a Katy Perry song.

Hot, cold. Yes, no. NBA-level contributor, lost 2 guard trying to be a point guard.

He littered his debut season with moments of basketball effulgence—outplaying Derrick Rose in Parker's absence, three straight 20-point games with Parker shelved, and inspired late-game defensive stints on Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash.

Now? A month into the season, Popovich still calls Hill his "favorite player" and one of the NBA's most improved.

He made the rare declaration during training camp, a stark contrast to how he handled another young point guard.

Then, Popovich treated Parker like a pinata, smacking him around until the goodies spilled onto the floor.

Hill has done enough in little more than a year to convince the coach to put down the bat, a remarkable feat.

Monday night, he showcased his well-rounded game—helping Parker hold heralded Milwaukee Bucks rookie Brandon Jennings to 6-of-21 shooting and adding 14 of the Spur bench's 59 points.

His highlight plays included a chase down of Jennings and a buzzer-beating three at the end of the third quarter with two Bucks defenders draped all over him.

Hill has guts, too.

He has played comfortably at both guard slots, with an improved jumpshot that allows Popovich to sometimes use a Parker-Hill backcourt.

In a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder two weekends ago, Hill harassed Kevin Durant with effective fronts and his long arms.

He doesn't need to dunk over three defenders like Shannon Brown to prove he has enough athleticism to match his Lakers counterpart.

Any basketball executive would be crazy now to want Brown, Jordan Farmar or even Chalmers more than Hill.

Chalmers has carved a promising niche in Miami, demonstrating a fearlessness from behind the arc that should continue for years.

Unlike so many other backups, Hill isn't reckless. He runs the show the way Popovich wants, with enough improvisational skills to force a defense's hand.

The pick who once resembled a joker now plays like an ace.

As a starter, he kept the team afloat until Parker could resume his havoc. As a reserve Monday night, his play was as steady as the wind—with Ginobili again in street clothes.

A risky bet has become a sure winner.

The Spurs wanted French forward Nicolas Batum in the 2008 draft (taken one pick earlier by the Houston Rockets), but they never settled on Hill.

They wanted him as much, and now the selection's detractors can see why.

Count me among the stunned.

Once a relative secret at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, Hill has endeared himself to a future Hall of Fame coach in the pros.

No one in San Antonio wonders about 2008 anymore.

Spurs 1, us dummies, 0.

If Udrih fizzled, Hill has sizzled.

And he's just warming up.


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