Montieth: Was Hill a Top Pacers Player? Definitely So

You could have made a lot of money placing bets that George Hill would begin most answers in media interviews with the words "definitely so."

It's ironic, then, that there seems to be so little about his time with the Pacers that's definite. Hill departs for Utah via the the trade that brings Jeff Teague to the Pacers as an enigmatic player, a chameleon even, who by his skill set and personality wound up being as difficult to categorize as any player in the history of the Pacers franchise.

Although he was the franchise's starting point guard for four complete seasons, two of which concluded in the Eastern Conference finals, many people did not regard him as a "true" point guard. Pacers president Larry Bird obviously was among those holding that opinion, because when I asked him about the team's point guard situation at the press conference introducing Nate McMillan as head coach, Bird said, "Obviously, I'd like to have a real point guard."

Hill invited that analysis by failing to embrace the role, always claiming to be a "combo" guard who could play either backcourt position. And yet, he qualified as a quality point guard who was one of the best the Pacers have ever had, all things considered. In the last four seasons, when he started every game for which he was healthy, he averaged 12.8 points while hitting 38 percent of his three-point shots, 3.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.4 turnovers.

That assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3-to-1 falls into the good-but-not-great category, paling in comparison to Mark Jackson's 3.5-to-1 ratio, but Hill was playing in a different offense with different teammates and asked to do different things. Hill was a better shooter and scorer than Jackson, and by far a better defender. The same comparison could be made between Hill and Jamaal Tinsley.

Here's the best bottom-line stat, though. The Pacers' record with and without Hill in both regular season and playoff games should be eye-opening to his doubters: With him, the Pacers were 253-180. Without him, they were 25-32. Can't be all a coincidence, can it?

So, yes, the argument could be made that Hill is the best point guard in the Pacers' NBA history. (It's difficult to make comparisons with Freddie Lewis, the captain of the Pacers' three ABA championship teams because the game has changed so much since then.) Yet Hill has been perhaps the Pacers' most criticized player in recent seasons, a puzzling fact to many knowledgeable fans.

The most common complaint was that he wasn't assertive enough, a critique Hill enhanced by his laid-back nature. He tried to avoid media contact and never presented himself as a coach-on-the-floor guy along the lines of Jackson. Don't look for him on network television when his career ends like so many other former Pacers, because that's not his personality.

Privately, though, he was an effective leader. It wasn't unusual to see him giving on-court instruction to a younger point guard after practice, or talking with a teammate in the locker room after a game. He spent much of last summer in San Antonio working with Ian Mahinmi, teaching the finer points of executing and defending pick-and-rolls and helping him with his foul shooting. And don't forget, he still stands as one of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's favorite players, a point worth putting on a resume.

That was part of the enigma of Hill. He had a better attitude and basketball IQ than he let on, but for whatever reason was reluctant to show it.

Those qualities worked against him at times. Hill's varied skill set and compliant nature gave coach Frank Vogel the freedom to worry less about getting shots for him and take care of others who might have rebelled. Successful teams need role players who don't have to score to be happy, and Hill was forced into that role at times because of his team-first approach. Two and three seasons ago, when the Pacers made their trips to the conference finals, Hill's job was to initiate the offense by passing to Paul George or Lance Stephenson on the wing and then run to the corner and await the possibility of a kickout pass for a 3-point shot. Often, he wouldn't see the ball again until it was time to bring it up and initiate the next halfcourt set.

For that, he was roundly criticized for lacking aggression. When George's injury and Stephenson's departure allowed – and required – Hill to be a bigger part of the offense two seasons ago, the complaints disappeared. When I asked him two preseasons ago about escaping his former place in the corner of the floor, he said, "I sold that real estate." He went on to average 16.1 points over a season shortened to 43 games by injury and led the team in assists.

He was sent back to the corner for much of this past season. After he and Monta Ellis split point guard duties early on, Ellis was put in charge of the offense. It made strategic sense given Hill's team-best 3-point shooting and Ellis' drive-and-kick nature, but that was Hill's reward for being coachable, just as the player who accepts playing off the bench often gets left out of the starting lineup in favor of someone more selfish.

Oh, yeah, there's that thing called defense, too. People often neglect it when analyzing players, as if it doesn't matter, but then claim defense wins championships when making team comparisons.

Hill is the best defensive point guard the Pacers have ever had. He doesn't have the quickest feet, but his length and willingness make him effective. For references, contact Toronto's Kyle Lowry, who praised Hill while averaging 13.9 points on 32 percent shooting in the first-round series against the Pacers, and then went on to average 21.9 points on 43 percent shooting the rest of the playoffs against Miami and Cleveland.

Imagine if Hill had allowed Lowry to score eight more points per game in the series but scored eight more himself. He would have been widely praised, but the end result would have been the same. As it was, he averaged 13.6 points on 56 percent shooting, including 48 percent from the 3-point line, and outplayed Lowry, an All-Star guard the past two seasons.

The most curious opinion of Hill was that he wasn't committed to Indianapolis, or didn't want to live here. I don't know how anyone knows that, given the fact he never expressed it publicly and seemed awfully content living in the Geist Reservoir area. He did keep a residence and train in San Antonio in the off-season, and you did hear that it was sometimes uncomfortable for him being in his hometown because so many acquaintances from his days at Broad Ripple High School and IUPUI wanted favors from him, but that's hardly the same as not wanting to live here.

Hill might not have tattooed his devotion to Indianapolis on his body, but his actions spoke loudly enough. He won the NBA Care's Community Assist Award in October of 2013 for his humanitarian work here and abroad, and the Major Taylor Award from Black Expo for the work of his George Hill Rising Stars Foundation last September. He teamed up with Indiana Members Credit Union to donate backpacks for every free throw he made, provided tickets in the G2 Zone along with Paul George, and led a bicycle ride as part of the Pacers Bikeshare program downtown. Unless you wanted him to run for mayor, how did he fall short?

The quality of Hill's overall game escaped the appreciation of many because he wasn't a specialist. It's easy to focus on greatness in one aspect of the game and overlook weaknesses, but more difficult to recognize the complete player without glaring weaknesses. That's Hill.

Atlanta's Kyle Korver is a renown 3-point shooter, having hit .429 for his career, so people give him a pass for his deficiencies. Hill is a career .376 3-point shooter (but shot better than Korver last season), so his game isn't as well-remembered by casual fans although he's a better all-around player.

It's the same in baseball. The player who bats .270, hits 18 home runs, steals 22 bases and is good defensively probably isn't viewed as favorably as the designated hitter who bats .220, hits 50 home runs and can barely trot around the base paths. But he's more valuable.

Hill was difficult to know, but he gave plenty of reasons to be admired if you knew enough about him. He didn't trumpet his attitude and love for his hometown, but they were evident by his actions. He didn't dazzle in any particular area of the game, but accepted whatever role coaches asked of him without complaint. He wasn't a "real" point guard, but he was an effective one. He wasn't assertive about looking to score, but shot well and didn't take bad shots.

Misunderstood? Under-appreciated?

Definitely so.

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