Mike Penberthy vividly recalls the moment that was simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring.
He had just torn his hamstring in practice in the Pacers training camp in 1997, Larry Bird's first season as coach. Sitting alone in the locker room, with his right leg and his professional career on ice, Bird walked in and sat down with him.
“You can play in the NBA,” Bird told him earnestly. “Just stay after it.”
Penberthy did, ultimately following a nomadic path that took him through the CBA, Germany, Italy and, best of all, Los Angeles, where he was a member of the Lakers 2001 championship team, although he was not on the playoff roster. And now, all these years later, after playing 10 professional seasons here and there, he wound up back with the Pacers. Kind of. Reunited, distantly at least, with Bird.
Penberthy, now a professional shooting instructor who joined the staff of the Minnesota Timberwolves last week, has tutored a few Pacers the past few years. Paul George, certainly, Evan Turner briefly, and Solomon Hill most recently. His work with Hill could be crucial to the second-year forward's career, and the Pacers' season, if Hill can become a legitimate 3-point threat at small forward.
Hill hit 39 percent of his 3-point attempts as a senior at Arizona and 10-of-18 with the Pacers' Summer League team as a rookie. The reality of the NBA caught up with him, however, as he hit just 7-of-23 shots in his limited time over 28 games last season.
Shooting better was a priority even before George broke his leg on Aug. 1, and a virtual necessity afterward. Hill and Penberthy had been working together at junior college and small college gyms in the Los Angeles area in July, and the sessions took on greater importance following George's horrific moment. Nobody had wanted Hill's opportunity for more playing time to arrive so cruelly, but it had arrived just the same.
“I said, 'Look, we're both hurting about this, but this is a chance for you to make a mark,'” Penberthy recalled. “He was very receptive.”
They ultimately worked together for six weeks, five days per week, and two sessions per day for four of those weeks. Hill also worked with a personal trainer at a Gold's Gym location in L.A. to improve his body.
Penberthy (you can see highlights of his European career here) saw no need to adjust Hill's shooting release. He focused instead on his rhythm and tempo – getting his legs into the shot more, releasing the ball at the right moment, and not standing up too straight.
“I wanted to smooth him out,” Penberthy said.
“He became a stronger shooter. He used to flick the ball. He's much more rhythm-oriented now.
A lot of guys talk about using their legs, but they don't really use them. In NBA three point shooting, you have to use them. It's not about jumping higher, it's using the power in your legs. He had to time his release so that he's actually using his legs.”
So far in training camp, Hill has shown improvement.
“When he shoots without thinking and shoots in rhythm, they go in most of the time,” assistant coach Dan Burke said.
Burke, however, recalled a practice scrimmage a couple of days ago, when Hill barely missed a clean look at a 3-pointer. The next time down, he passed up a shot, then declined to penetrate when Roy Hibbert jumped out to defend him, and passed the ball.
“He froze,” Burke said. “That tells you that it's confidence. Every shot has to be in rhythm, in tempo and with confidence.”
Confidence should come with playing time, which was sporadic last season. Hill was projected for backup minutes at the start of last season, and even was in the coaches' discussions about the starting lineup early on, but failed to take advantage of his early regular season opportunities. He slid further down the bench as the season progressed, and out of sight after Danny Granger returned. He wound up on the inactive list for 27 games and drew 23 of the dreaded DNP-CDs when he was in uniform.
He showed a few flashes late in the season, scoring eight points and hitting two 3-pointers in the final eight minutes of a loss at Houston, and contributing five points and five rebounds in 28 minutes of a win at Orlando.
“If he got big minutes last year he would have really helped us, and done well,” coach Frank Vogel said. “He's not going to be as much a deer in the headlights when he gets his opportunity, because he's going to get his opportunity regularly. When that happens he'll be a big part of what we do.”
That's part of Penberthy's job, building confidence. Not through psychological voo-doo, but by making a player a better shooter. He's been instructing shooters since he was 16 years old, before he became a two-time NAIA All-American at The Master's College in Santa Clarita, Ca. He helped Andre Iguodala improve his 3-point percentage from .337 to .394 and become an All-Star in 2012. He helped Oklahoma City's Reggie Jackson improve from a .210 percentage as a rookie in 2011-12 to .231 to .339 last season. Jackson had endorsed Penberthy to George, who hit .297 from thee 3-point line as a rookie but has since hit at least 36 percent of his attempts each season.
George in turn brought Hill to Penberthy.
“I liked what was going on and I stuck with it,” Hill said.
Penberthy also spent 10 days with the Pacers last March tutoring Evan Turner, at Bird's request. And he appeared to help. Turner had hit just 38-of-132 3-pointers (.288) with Philadelphia, but hit 12-of-24 shots in his 27 games with the Pacers.
“He has a little talk-back to him, but that's OK,” Penberthy said. “That's better than ignoring you.”
Penberthy was working extensively again with George early in the summer, focusing on shooting after cutting the ball and catching the ball.
“We were really making some strides,” Penberthy said. “Man, he looked good before he got hurt.”
Hill, who is routinely one of the last players off the court after practice because of all the shots he puts up, comes across as mature beyond his years. It would be easy to mistake him for an assistant coach if he wasn't in uniform. But he admits to some immature moments as a rookie. He didn't handle his two-game appearance with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants in the National Basketball Development League well when he didn't get the playing time he anticipated, and he admittedly hit a wall early in the season when the grind built and playing time diminished.
“Looking back, I would attack every day and not take days for granted,” he said. “If someone had told me my rookie year Paul's going to get hurt, I'd think I should have done more.”
Hill won't be as likely to have to deal with the frustration of riding the bench in the upcoming season, although he'll have to contend with C.J. Miles and Chris Copeland for minutes. Hill's defense should keep him in the picture, even if his shooting doesn't improve dramatically. He's probably the Pacers' best perimeter defender, and the likeliest candidate to replace George in the role of stopper.
“He's got that ability,” Burke said. “He's got to slow down sometimes. He wants to jump in on everything. It's not always being a Doberman and attacking. Sometimes you have to use your smarts, space some guys and crowd others. Once he figures that out, he's going to be pretty darn good.”