George Hill staying steady with bigger role, looming payday

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“When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”

-Jacob Riis

Gregg Popovich has made that quote, the Stonecutter Credo, a mantra for the Spurs. Six years after he left San Antonio, George Hill has not forgotten it.

“One thing that Coach Pop really taught me when I first got to the NBA is keep pounding that rock, no matter what,” Hill said. “When times get rough or you got goods and highs and lows, never get too high. Never get too low. But always stay subtle and humble and keep getting better.”

Hill has followed Popovich’s keep-pounding-that-rock advice. In a more literal sense.

A combo guard with the Spurs and mostly an off-ball point guard with the Pacers, Hill has carried a bigger load for the Jazz this season as a true lead guard who pounds the rock – dribbles – to create offense far more frequently. He’s averaging a career-high 17.2 points with 4.1 assists per game while playing his usual staunch defense. Utah has outscored opponents by 10.3 points per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor, a net rating that would trail only the Warriors (+11.6) among teams.

“We anticipated it being a good fit,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said. “But he’s exceeded that.”

Here’s the secret of Hill’s “breakout season:” He has done this before.

In 2014-15, with Paul George injured and Lance Stephenson in Charlotte, the Pacers gave Hill a larger role. Like this year, he excelled in it.

The 2014-15 and 2016-17 seasons are Hill’s only two in his nine-year career with an above average usage rate. They’re also the two seasons with his highest effective field-goal percentages and lowest turnover percentages.

Long perceived as a limited player who’d wilt with too much ball-handling responsibility, Hill has been even more efficient in bigger roles.

“I think I’ve established myself now and showed everybody what I can do,” George declared in 2015. “There’s no turning back now.”

Indiana had other ideas. George got healthy, and the Pacers signed Monta Ellis. Hill’s offensive role shrunk last season.

“It’s humbling,” Hill said.

Hill insists him spacing the floor off the ball was best for Indiana last season, that he accepted that role.

But it’s also clear he hungered for more – as did the Pacers. They traded him last summer to the Jazz in a three-team deal to land the, seemingly, more offensively dynamic Jeff Teague.

“I just thought it was a great opportunity for me to go to a place where you know you’re wanted and who’s going value your play and use you the right way,” Hill said.

Hill, an Indianapolis native who played collegiately at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), returns to Indiana for tonight’s Jazz-Pacers game with the same mindset that helped him reach this point.

“Don’t get too high. Don’t get too low,” Hill said. “It’s just another game for us.”

It’s the same mindset Hill keeps as he heads toward his first unrestricted free agency.

After the Jazz make their first playoff appearance in five years and likely win their first playoff game in seven years, they’ll have to evaluate the value of the point guard who helped get them there.

Likewise, Hill will face major decisions about his priorities.

He and Utah were eligible to sign a renegotiation-and-extension that could have paid him $88,684,652 through 2019-20, but they didn’t strike a deal by last month’s deadline. Now, Hill could land a much bigger contract – having a projected max of $177 million over five years if he re-signs or about $132 million if he leaves.

Will anyone offer that much to a 31-year-old who has missed 27 games this season? The Kings, Knicks and 76ers are desperate for point guards and could have major cap space. At minimum, Hill could use those teams for leverage.

Will the Jazz pay up? Would he actually leave Utah for a cellar-dweller? Will another good team court him?

Hill has never dealt with these questions before. The Spurs drafted and traded him. He was a restricted free agent when he re-signed with the Pacers, who traded him to Utah. He’ll have unprecedented freedom next summer.

A renegotiation-and extension could have kept him off the market, giving him security with a team that uses him well. But Hill isn’t dwelling on it.

“It’s over. There’s nothing we can do about it now,” Hill said. “But I’m here to help the Jazz win basketball games. I’m not focused on a contract right now. We’ll get to that when the season is over, but right now, our main focus is to win basketball games and me to play my butt off.”

Why should George fret? Whenever he’s granted more leeway, he thrives.