Spurs' George Hill Is NBA's Most Improved Player

Robert Kleeman@@RobertKleemanSenior Analyst IApril 1, 2010

SAN ANTONIO - JANUARY 22:  Guard George Hill #3 of the San Antonio Spurs at AT&T Center on January 22, 2010 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Mere minutes after the San Antonio Spurs selected little-known IUPUI off guard George Hill with the 26th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, Coach Gregg Popovich made some stunning predictions about his team's newest acquisition.

He told the San Antonio Express-News  Hill would become the team's backup point guard and improve the roster's athleticism immediately.

Hill then abused the rims at the Las Vegas Summer League, clanging 23 of his 25 attempts. He connected on a paltry 21 percent of his threes at the Rocky Mountain Revue.

His 8 percent shooting in Vegas left more than few in the organization feeling queasy.

Less than two years after Popovich played the role of a soothsayer on that June night, Hill has made his boss on the bench look like a certifiable genius.

Even Popovich could not have predicted his favorite player would be as good as he was Wednesday night against a banged-up Houston squad with unflappable winning aspirations.

Rockets Coach Rick Adelman started another leading candidate for most improved player in Aaron Brooks. Unfortunately for Adelman and company,the Aaron Brooks show was stolen by George Hill.

Brooks started the game in scorching fashion, converting his first five jumpers. Hill was close enough to Brooks on three of those makes to do some nose picking.

The Rockets trailed by only five at the half, 94-59, thanks to Brooks' smooth stroke and 12 points from rookie Chase Budinger.

Behind Hill, the re-energized Spurs emerged from the locker room and crushed the exhausted Rockets.

Hill scored 11 points and swiped three passes in the decisive third quarter. He finished with a career-high 30 points, seven assists, five steals, and a block.

He boasts the highest scoring jump of any sophomore, ranks 18th in the league in three-point accuracy, and has filled in admirably for the injured Tony Parker.

Some players improve because their minutes have increased. If the Spurs played last year's version of Hill 38 minutes, they might reside in the lottery.

He has elevated every aspect of his game, from on-ball and off-ball defense, to perimeter shooting, to free throw shooting, to his ability to finish in traffic.

Last season, the coaches delivered some sobering news to Hill days after the Mavericks had ousted the Spurs in the playoffs.

"You're one of the worst open jumpshooters in the league and you're not good enough to man the point on any team," they said.

Taking those realities to heart, Hill asked the coach who had remade Parker's shot to do the same with his. The results of Chip Engelland's tutelage are undeniable.

His three-point percentage jumped from 32 percent to 40 percent. He has started to own the corners the way Bruce Bowen did.

Hill spent the rest of his summer free time dribbling in a gym, determined to show he could learn the NBA's toughest position.

No one can replace Parker's trademark explosiveness. He gets to the rim as well as anyone his size ever has.

Give Hill some kudos for doing a respectable impersonation. A two guard throughout high school and college, he has survived as a starter at the one spot.

Know any other makeshift point guards who would dare to cover Kevin Durant, Rajon Rondo, Ray Allen, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James in the same season?

He has been torched, but never embarrassed.

His menacing length allows him to guard a variety of athletes positions one, two, and three. In fairness, no one can stop James, Bryant, or Durant on a consistent basis.

The Rockets could not handle Hill on Wednesday. One play illustrated his newfound confidence as an NBA rotation cog.

With the shot clock winding down and Brooks shadowing him, he stepped behind the right corner line and drained a contested trey.

Those who still do not buy Hill as the MIP should know this: He has not flourished because Popovich handed him more playing time. The Spurs owe much of a 12-5 March, their best month by a mile, to his earning those extra minutes.

The rest of the credit, of course, goes to Manu Ginobili.

Many of the other candidates for the award either thrived in an increased role that better highlighted what they could already do or lived up to long-held expectations.

No one asked Andrew Bogut to learn a new position in his second year in the pros. Can you reward a No. 1 pick for looking like a top pick?

Bogut, Andrea Bargnani, Chris Kaman, Joakim Noah and the other much improved former lottery selections were supposed to be great.

Would you give an award to a CEO selected for his profit-turning abilities if the company turned a profit in his fifth year at the company's helm?

Hill was a crapshoot, a risky roll of the dice. Popovich and R.C. Buford hit the jackpot late in the first round, picking a player on a single digit number of draft boards.

More 26th picks become career D-Leaguers and overseas benchwarmers than NBA contributors.

The MIP should reward players who defy the odds and exceed expectations.

This time last year, Popovich had this to say about Hill's grip on a rotation spot.

"These playoffs probably aren't for him."

Hill is the NBA's most improved player. He doesn't need a trophy to prove it.

The numbers, for once, speak for themselves.

A Word on Shaughnessy's Controversial Column

Boston Globe and Sports Illustrated columnist Dan Shaughnessy authored one of the worst pieces of junk I have ever wasted three minutes reading. This garbage surfaced the morning after the Spurs slammed the Boston Celtics 94-73.

His Monday rebuttal of an earlier Joe Posnaski column on Tim Duncan's mysterious greatness refuted the mentioned-in-passing notion of the forward as one of the 10 greatest to ever play.

Posnaski's point was probably this:

"Has American sports ever had a player all at once so great and so unknown?"

Shaughnessy, of course, did not comprehend his colleague's sweeping message.

Instead, the renowned sports writer listed at least 20 players he would rank ahead of Duncan on an all-time list and then proceeded to question his own credentials to make that argument.

I loved these lines.

"Somehow, I've missed Duncan's greatness."

"I'll admit that the more I scour Duncan's numbers, the better he looks."

He missed Duncan's greatness because the Celtics sucked for most of the 2000s, and he's a baseball specialist.

I'm not blasting Shaughnessy because he dissed my favorite player. I'm blasting him (and SI's online editors) because he admits he hasn't watched Duncan enough to form a justifiable opinion.

Rule no. 1: be firm and persuasive with your opinion. Shaughnessy convinced me to take his with a grain of salt.

A veteran columnist should know better than to contradict himself three paragraphs after making a controversial declaration.

I wouldn't watch an NHL match one Sunday afternoon and then type insulting statements about one of the team's stars. I don't watch hockey.

Why, then, did a guy who should be focused on spring training and opening day own the featured story on a major sport's Web site's NBA page?

Shaughnessy has written some terrific columns for the Globe. Last week, he found a way to stink up Boston more than the Celtics did in their worst loss of the season.