It’s a cold morning on the campus of UMass-Boston in early March. All is well for the Indiana Pacers, who have had their shootaround moved to Dorchester because of a Boston Bruins game. The only question heading into the night’s game against the Boston Celtics is whether or not George Hill will play.
Hill, the starting point guard by label only, landed awkwardly on his shoulder in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks two days earlier. He attempts several jumpers and discusses plays with Frank Vogel on one side of the court, while Indiana’s big men gather on the other end. He seems healthy enough, but the training staff will soon decide to keep Hill on street clothes as a precaution.
The decision makes sense given that the Pacers went into the March 1 game at 44-13, two games ahead of the Miami Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Hill also sits the next day at home against Utah Jazz, but Indiana still wins both games.
As shootaround winds down a handful of players are still hoisting shots, but Hill strolls over to take a seat. After a few reporters gather information about his shoulder and status, it is proposed to the six-year veteran that a story is been written centered around him.
“On me? Why me? I’m not the guy here; you want to talk to Paul [George] or Lance [Stephenson],” Hill responds.
The truth is, while the Pacers have two All-Stars in George and Roy Hibbert, the front office and coaching staff have constructed a roster and put together a game-plan with a team-centric approach. Paul George was an MVP candidate early in the season and averages 21.7 points, but Indiana has five players averaging at least 10 points and eight shot attempts (six if you include Andrew Bynum).
“George is very low-key, but he’s a big character too,” Hibbert said of his teammate. “Don’t let him fool you though, he’s a funny dude, but he’s incredibly selfless.”
Hill has seen his shot attempts decrease over the last year in conjunction with Stephenson’s improvement, but has still been the most efficient offensive player on the floor for the Pacers, who have struggled on that end. He has the highest oRTG (115) among rotation players, while Indiana ranks in the bottom third (103.8) overall.
George, Hibbert, Stephenson and even David West may garner more national attention, but Hill is vital to Indiana’s chances of upending Miami in the postseason.
“That’s who he is and that’s kind of who our whole team is,” Vogel said when told of how Hill reacted a lengthy-interview request. “We have a ton of team-first guys and guys that don’t want the individual spotlight. They want to be part of a true team. If it’s a difference-maker when you have evenly talented teams, how well you come together and show positive culture and chemistry. George is definitely one of our leaders in that regard.”
The Pacers, despite their recent struggles, have cemented themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA and they should remain so for at least the next few years. Hill, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal in July 2012, has done wonders to help organization on and off the floor.
Hill, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, has helped bring fans back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which was nearly abandoned in the years immediately following the sub-.500 finishes and off-court issues that plagued the team in mid-to-late 2000s. His workmanlike approach and clean-cut lifestyle appeal to the club’s working class fans.
“I grew up during the Michael Jordan days, so he was one of the players that I looked up to and watched, but at the same time I was a huge fan of the Pacers,” he said. “I really couldn’t afford to get tickets or things like that, but I always kept tabs on them as far as watching them. I’d see them in public and certain places. When I was able to go to games, I certainly rooting for them.”
Hill went on to star at Broad Ripple High School, where he earned 11 total letters in basketball, baseball and soccer. As a senior, he led the state in scoring (36.2), the fifth-best average in the history of the basketball-crazed state.
When the time came for Hill to choose a college, he put his family over the spotlight, committing to IUPUI so he could be closer to his ailing great-grandfather despite an offer from Indiana. The Jaguars were 61-30 in his three seasons (he was forced to redshirt in 2006-07 because of an injury). He left IUPUI fifth on the college’s all-time scoring list despite leaving with a year of eligibility remaining. Hill remained at IUPUI despite the unfortunate passing of his great-grandfather soon after he made his verbal commitment. He had a chance to change his mind, but passed on greener pastures yet again.
“It was the commitment I gave coach [Todd] Howard and coach [Ron] Hunter,” Hill said of his decision to remain at IUPUI. “I gave them my word that I would start my career there and help try to put IUPUI on the map. I feel like things happen for a reason, so I stuck with my decision and it turned out well.”
Hill, who is a few classes shy of his degree, has a lot of basketball left in him, but having that diploma in hand is a goal that rivals winning an NBA title on his list of desires.
“I have 12 credit hours that I have to finish,” he told me. “I’ve been talking to the dean of the school about coming up with different plans that best fit my schedule and best fit their schedule to get my degree. That’s one of my goals in life.”
IUPUI helped propel Hill to the NBA, but The Summit League isn’t a huge breeding ground for basketball talent. Before Nate Wolters landed with the Milwaukee Bucks this season, Hill had been the only alum of the conference in the NBA for decades.
“Going to IUPUI, they always said ‘you never can make it to the NBA from there, it’s a small school,’ and things like that. I’ve always been a guy that likes to be the underdog. No one can tell me I can’t do something; I’m going to try to prove them wrong,” Hill explained.
“In the NBA, it doesn’t matter where you are, if you can play they’ll come and find you. Knowing that and me being close to Conseco [Fieldhouse, now Bankers Life], I’d go down there and meet with guys like Ron Artest and play with them during the summer. That was one avenue that allowed me to open doors. People could see me playing with them at open gyms. I knew if I just continued to do what I had to do, I’d be fine.”
Hill was rewarded for his loyalty and conviction. Despite being projected by some as mid-second round pick and being completely left off the board on other mock drafts, the San Antonio Spurs selected Hill with the 26th overall pick in 2008.
In three seasons as Tony Parker’s backup, Hill averaged 9.9 points, 2.4 assists and 2.4 assists in 24.6 minutes over 231 games. He also started 55 games for the Spurs, who gave him the ability to gain valuable postseason experience. In 20 playoffs games with San Antonio, Hill saw increased minutes and boosted his numbers accordingly -- 11.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists.
“How to be a winner and a positive teammate,” Hill said when asked what he learned from his time with the Spurs. “How to conduct myself on and off the court. There are things that I learned there that I’ve carried with me to this day. They’ve helped make me a better player here in Indiana.”
Hill spent the summer prior to the 2010-11 season working on his point guard skills with Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland and assistant Chad Forcier. The duo pushed him to the brink physically, while suggesting that he work on both his three-point and teardrop shot. After hitting just 32.9% of his threes as a rookie, Hill has hovered around 37% since. He hasn’t been an elite shooter with the Pacers, but a consistent one nonetheless. Over the last three seasons, his basic shooting percentages haven’t deviated by more than a tenth of a percent.
“Everybody has to play to their strengths and who they are. He wasn’t raised through grammar school and everything as a pure point guard, a setup guy,” Vogel said when asked about the label of ‘point guard’. “He’s a score-first guy, but he’s pretty good at setting people up too. He’s a good leader. He runs the point guard position for us in his way and does a good job of it.”
Looking to fortify the roster with a respected, seasoned player, Larry Bird and then-general manager David Morway swung a deal with the Spurs for Hill on draft night in 2011. The Pacers selected Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick for San Antonio and shipped him southwest for Hill. Less than three years later, the trade has been a rare win-win.
Popovich called Hill that night to inform him of the trade. When the coach had a hard time communicating with one of his more-trusted players, Hill knew his time with the Spurs had come to an end.
“I do things in the summers for little kids, as far as camps and things like that, and I was actually going to a radio show to promote an event I was having when I got the call from Pop,” Hill remembered. “When he actually couldn’t talk easily with me, I knew something was up.”
Hill was headed home, which made the news a little bit easier to digest, especially for his family.
“They were very excited to have me come back home where it all started. I get to play in front of my family and friends in the city I grew up in, it’s something that you can only dream about. It was probably one of the happiest days of their lives,” Hill said with a smile.
He was heavily involved in the community during his three years in Texas, but the trade that brought him back to Indianapolis has allowed Hill to give back to the community that helped make him the player and man he has become. He has help fund and create several leagues and tournaments for the youth of Indianapolis. Hill also supports young dancers (G3 Steppers), veterans (Wish for Our Heroes) and the fight against poverty (Kids Against Hunger).
Along with Paul George, Hill formed the G2 zone, which rivals Hibbert’s Area 55 as the loudest section at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. His presence in the community has been a breath of fresh air.
“That’s something I build on. I said when I made it to the NBA; I would give back to the community and be a positive role model in my community, which is on a downfall right now as far as homicides and things like that,” Hill said. “I’m trying to be an outlet for kids and ensure them that no matter where you come from, or where you are, anything can happen if you put your mind to it. Since my rookie year I’ve be working on that. I started my AAU program -- George Hill Rising Stars -- and I’m on the board for Wish for Our Heroes and going to Haiti with Kids Against Hunger.”
The Pacers were on the upswing when Hill arrived, having ended a four-year playoff drought the preceding spring when they gave the Chicago Bulls all they could handle in the first round, but they really took off during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Since Hill was acquired and West signed, Indiana was won 17 playoff games. If they are able to cure their late-season woes in time for the postseason, they’ll add to that impressive total.
“When I first got here Larry said he wanted to revamp this team and bring in high-character guys,” Hill said. “He wanted guys that wanted to be here, wanted to turn a program around and wanted to win. Knowing that, that he believed in me I’ve told him I won’t let him down, I’ll try to be the best player that I can on the court and the best guy off of court by leading and showing the young guys how to be professional.”
Hill is a good free throw shooter, but he doesn’t get to the line often. This season, almost half of his shot attempts have come from behind the three-point line. That appears to be by design.
“He’s a floor general for us. He spreads the floor and makes the right play every possession,” Paul George said. “He’s probably one of the best defenders at his position as well, so he’s tied to what this team is all about.”
Hill isn’t having the best offensive season of his career, but the Pacers need him to score or facilitate to help an offense that has sputtered lately. After averaging 98.5 points through the All-Star break (52 games), the Pacers are scoring just 92.9 points in 26 games since.
Indiana scores 4.6 more points per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor than they do when him on the bench. He’s also underrated defensively, using his huge wingspan to hamper opposing guards.
“He’s solid for us, and always makes play for us,” West said. “He’s been holding steady at the point guard position. He does his job and does it well. We need him.”
The Pacers have known all along that they need Hill, but that has never been more apparent than now. He won’t receive any votes for an individual award, unlike many of his teammates, but that’s just fine with Hill, who would rather blend into the surroundings than find himself at the forefront.
“I don’t do this for attention,” he said. “I just do this because I love it and I want to win. I never do anything for personal gain and to flaunt it. That’s why I said ‘Why me?’ I’m just a low-key guy at the bottom. I just want to help this team win.”