Posted Mar 10 2010 10:03AM
So far, George Hill has been good.
Now he's got to be better.
Every time he's stepped onto the court for a practice or a game, Hill has steadily, relentlessly inched his way up the ladder of improvement.
Now he's got to start climbing it two and three rungs at a time.
Tony Parker goes down with a broken bone in his right hand, and you have to start wondering how many times the San Antonio Spurs can keep bobbing up to the surface in a season that's been nothing but deep, deep roiling water.
Now as the Spurs hit the top of the home stretch in the regular season, Hill will have a lot to do with whether they sink or swim. It is the second-year, 6-foot-2 guard who again steps into Parker's starting job at the point as San Antonio uncharacteristically scrambles for playoff position in the lower half of the West playoff race.
"At this point, I like to think I'm ready for just about anything that comes up," Hill said.
With the Spurs this season, just about everything has come up. Parker had already missed games with sprained ankles, plantar fasciitis, a strained hip flexor and food poisoning before breaking his hand. Manu Ginobili took more than half the season to chip off the rust and find his rhythm following an offseason of surgery and inactivity. Richard Jefferson has been a round-peg-into-square-hole fit since Day One.
All of that had already left coach Gregg Popovich sifting through 20 different starting lineups in search of production, but learning along the way that Hill was definitely one part of the lineup he could count on.
"George has been fantastic," Popovich said. "His improvement has been better than anyone I've had from one year to the next at both ends of the court. Shooting, pick-and-roll offense, understanding, defense. He's been wonderful.
"I didn't see it coming. No. It's been a real slow but steady progression for him. The more minutes he's gotten the better he's played. It wasn't like -- boom! -- all of a sudden it's the playoffs and this guy is playing his ass off."
A year ago on the cusp of the postseason, Popovich had evaluated his then-rookie out of IUPUI and declared, "These playoffs aren't for George."
But while the Spurs were bounced in the first round by the Dallas Mavericks, Hill got enough playing time to get a taste of the next level and give a glimpse of where he could go.
"I didn't get as much experience as I hoped, because we got put out in the first round," Hill said. "But after getting into those games, I just wanted to come back this year and show them that not only was I better player, but I was also someone who they could see was ready to work to keep getting better still.
"I spent a lot of time in the gym last summer. I think the most important thing is I got a lot of confidence by working on different things and playing with a lot of different people."
Hill has averaged 11.9 points and 2.5 assists while playing 28 minutes a game and, under the tutelage of assistant coach Chip Engelland, has improved his field goal shooting from 40.3 percent to 47.3 percent.
Parker's litany of injuries began at the start of the season and forced Popovich to rely on Hill almost immediately. He had already started 25 games this season, splitting time at both backcourt positions, before Parker broke his hand in Memphis on Friday night. Now, most of Hill's time will be at the point.
"No doubt, it's the toughest job on the court, especially for somebody who wasn't a point guard," Popovich said. "George is really a '2' at heart and we're slowly transforming him. Even when Tony was in the game, he slid over and played '2' and at some point in the game and went over and played '1.' So he's probably a little schizophrenic with the things we demand of him and ask him to do. He's in a tough spot."
It's a spot made tougher still by Popovich, who uses the touch of a wire brush to handle his point guards. He berated a young Parker so loud and so often and so harshly when he first arrived in San Antonio that the young Frenchman might have preferred being can-can kicked down the center stripe of the Champs Elysees.
"Yeah, I've heard the stories," said Hill. "I don't know. Maybe it's just that Tony and I are two different people. I can take all that stuff because my high school coach was like that and my college coach was like that, really hard on you. I'm sure if you're not used to it then, it's kind of different. It could throw you off, affect your confidence if you think, 'He's always on me.' But I'm used to it. I just put my head down and play."
Parker's hand will not require surgery, but the timetable for his return is still four to eight weeks. That puts Hill on the spot as the Spurs find themselves in a horse race with Portland to try to avoid the No. 8 seed and a likely first-round matchup with the defending champion Lakers. With a strong finish, they could even move up out of their current position as the No. 7 seed.
"A year ago, you could tell that he was a rookie, maybe wasn't up to the situation," said Manu Ginobili. "But not now. Not anymore. He's earned a lot of confidence from everybody. He's guarding the best opponent, taking responsibility at the point when Tony's not on the court.
"He's been impressive. This year he's got a different mindset, whole new perspective on the game. You can tell now that he's ready to play. George is a tough kid."
Now, with the season hanging in the balance, he's got to be even tougher.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here.
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