Hill Climbs Back into the Rotation
Solomon Hill's season journey has taken him from the depths of the roster, where DNP-CDs are the norm, to a quasi-starting position, where double-figure minutes are the norm. From virtually invisible to virtually essential.
There's a lesson in that for players (and their parents) everywhere who might be frustrated over playing time. Glenn Robinson III, for example.
Back in November, and at various other points in the season, Robinson played and Hill watched. Back in Game 10, for example, in a win over Minnesota, Robinson played more than 21 minutes and Hill watched from the bench. Back in Game 44, at Sacramento, Robinson started and played 10 minutes and Hill watched from the bench.
The roles are reversed as the Pacers hit their stretch run for the postseason. Hill is playing – more than 33 minutes in Thursday's overtime loss to Toronto. Robinson is watching – just two garbage-time minutes in the last 15 games. But he's still learning.
"I'm not going to lie and say it hasn't (been difficult)," Robinson said following Thursday's practice at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. "It definitely has at times, but I went through it all last year as far as playing. I just have to know I'm still young and have a lot of years and opportunities yet, hopefully. Just growing, developing and learning, even though I'm not playing."
He gets that attitude from Hill, who displayed it during his time in exile. Hill played all 82 games last season and started 78, but found himself behind Robinson and Chase Budinger when this season began. The Pacers had traded Damjan Rudež for Budinger in the offseason, and Budinger had been a standout in the September scrimmages. Robinson was the second-leading scorer in the preseason, offering an intriguing example of his potential.
So Hill sat. He played just 1 minute, 56 seconds in the first 10 games, and sat out 23 games entirely before his patience and performance – and circumstances – allowed him back in the rotation. He's played in each of the last 16 games for an average of 16.9 minutes, putting on clinics for intangibles and defense.
"Solo's just a great energy guy," Paul George said after the loss to the Raptors. "He's just a glue guy for us. You stick him out there and he does everything. He's one of our most complete players."
For a player who ranks 13th on the team in scoring, averaging 3.4 points, Hill is increasingly valuable to the Pacers because of his versatility and maturity. He can guard at least four positions, five when the opponent goes with a small lineup. He makes defensive plays, such as the strip of Kyle Lowry on Thursday that set up Monta Ellis drawing a foul on a fastbreak layup with 14.2 seconds left. He makes hustle plays, such as in the seven rebounds he grabbed. He makes mature plays, such as on the assist he made to Rodney Stuckey at the end of the third period after the offense broke down.
And he's increasingly making shots. He's hit just 26 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but has hit 37.5 percent in the last 16 games. He hit a big one with four minutes left against Toronto, giving the Pacers a two-point lead.
Call it a just reward for good mental attitude.
"He just plays hard," C.J. Miles said. "He doesn't try to go through everything in one or two plays. He turns two minutes into eight, turns eight into 16, and then he's allowed himself to show everything he can do. Once he gets to 16 he doesn't have to think about eight, five, two or one again because of how hard he plays."
Hill's demeanor has been well-established in this corner of cyberspace, but it's particularly relevant now that he's made himself indispensable to a team trying to hang on to a playoff berth. He could have pouted. Truth is, he did vent in small ways on occasion in practice, requiring a brief pep talk from a coach. But he was never disruptive, and usually instructive.
"In those situations, you see guys waver," assistant coach Dan Burke said. "Some days they're tired of it. They think they deserve a chance. Then they get back to a high level. He's stayed pretty steady in his approach."
The best comparison for Hill's situation this season probably is Chris Mullin, who started for two seasons under Larry Bird, then moved to the bench in deference to Jalen Rose in the 1999-2000 season. Mullin maintained a positive attitude, tutored Rose on many occasions, and turned out to be a vital element to the only Pacers team to reach the NBA Finals.
Mullin, however, was nearly 37 years old at the time and just one season shy of the end of his NBA career. Hill turned 25 on Friday and is in a contract season. Sitting it out would have been costly to his future in the league, perhaps even fatal.
Friends back home wondered what was going on, but he says he never asked for a trade when he wasn't playing in November.
"My motto here is, Nobody owes me anything," he said. "What I did last year was last year's team. Was last year's minutes, was last year's points. Coach didn't owe me anything this year, Larry didn't owe me anything this year. Everything has to be earned. I'm still basically in my second year in the NBA (after playing in just 28 games as a rookie). I just have to keep fighting. Being in the NBA is a blessing. I have to be thankful for this opportunity. I have to think more about that than stuff I can't control."
It helps that Hill came into the league without fanfare. He had to play four years at Arizona to set himself up for the draft, and then was taken with the 23rd pick in 2013. He's had doubters at every level, and never felt he had it made. Even when he was sitting behind Budinger and Robinson, he tried to maintain perspective. Maybe it would work out with the Pacers, maybe it would have to work out someplace else.
"The circumstances don't always have to be here," he said. "Maybe it's not in the cards for it to work out here. If Chase was to get going, or Glenn was to get going, I'd hope the best for them. I don't want for someone to do bad for an opportunity for myself. I understood. This is a business. Nothing's owed to me. If the coaches or the people upstairs see something they want to try, want to give it a go, I'm all for it."
The circumstances swung Hill's way when Budinger and Robinson failed to take advantage of their opportunities, and he did. While they relied primarily on scoring to establish themselves, he relied on everything else. And he was confident it would happen. Eventually. He had experience and he had the kind of game coaches love.
"I just knew my flexibility would come in handy," he said. "It was on me to be ready. I'd rather play at the end of the season than the beginning. I was joking earlier this year, they're resting me for the playoffs."
It seems all successful playoff teams have someone like Hill. A versatile, energetic player who gets things done without fanfare, a Doberman type who doesn't have to score 20 points or look pretty to make an impact. Burke compares him to Boston's Jae Crowder, Toronto's DeMarre Carroll, or even Golden State's Draymond Green.
"Solo's the closest thing we have to that," Burke said.
Which brings us back to Robinson, who's still trying to latch on to a place in the playing rotation after showing flashes of brilliance early in the season. He's had tastes of playing, even starting, this season, but didn't do enough to stick.
He has a role model for how to go about it, at least.
"Earlier in the season, when he was going through (not playing), he stayed confident," Robinson said. "We got in the gym together, got up extra shots, created a brotherhood. I really look up to Solo, he's taught me a lot. Especially what he's doing now late in games – how to get stops, how to go into games fearless and take on whoever he has to.
"I'm just continuing to learn from him, and I learn from him off the court as well."
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