Unsung Sidekick: George Hill

George Hill has never been capital-letters The Guy. He never will be either, but that’s because he’s not supposed to be. There are many other guards putting up bigger and better stats and making flashier or more athletic plays. That’s fine. Hill doesn’t need to do that. He’s as good as any of the other point guards at managing a team and keeping things running smoothly. He just does it in his own, unspectacular fashion.

His traditional counting numbers won’t impress most fans. His points per game is firmly entrenched in the teens, he’s only averaged five assists per game in one season, and he doesn’t really rebound or get to the free throw line all that much. But looking at him differently and finding context about his teams and teammates show just how important Hill has been his entire career.

For George Hill it’s the end result that matters, not the playing style that gets there. And the end result is this: his teams are always much better when he’s on the floor. Even in his first season in Utah, which already had their two core stars in place – Gordon Hayward and Rudy Gobert – Hill has the highest plus/minus on the team at 7.7. Gobert and Hayward are a ways back with 5.2 and 4.6, respectively. If you prefer to go by possession Hill has you covered there, too, with a Net Rating of 14.2. Gobert and Hayward are at just 8.9 and 8.0.

Those numbers could be in question because of Hill’s missed time. He’s appeared in just 29 of Utah’s 52 games, so he’s working with a small sample size that could level out some with more minutes. But he’s averaging over 30 minutes in the games he does play, and of all players who’ve hit the 29 game threshold this season, Hill is still the 8th highest. (Remove JaVale McGee and Zaza Pachulia from the list due to lack of minutes and he’s behind only Chris Paul and the Warriors’ Big Four. Golden State really has no chill when it comes to Net Rating.) Among those who’ve been trusted to appear in 29 games, with big minutes or not, Hill is near the top.

If you still remain unconvinced, we can go back in time. Net Rating is just a statistic, not a universal truth, but it’s a fine marker of overall effectiveness that’s easy to weigh against whatever noise you see from other numbers. From 2012-14, the two years the Pacers met the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, Hill’s Net Ratings were 8.7 and 6.2. The next year he missed 39 games (this was also the season Paul George tore his ACL, leaving Indiana depleted) and the Pacers lost went 12-27 in his absence. They went 26-17 in games Hill played in, and his Net Rating hit 7.1.

Many NBA fans may have forgetton about George Hill from that season and the most recent one in Indiana. Last year, armed with a mismatched roster with gunners the likes of Monta Ellis, CJ Miles, and Rodney Stuckey, all of whom had a higher usage rate than Hill. How are you supposed to lead a roster when everyone takes your touches and shots? Add in the order from Larry Bird to player a faster pace and Frank Vogel’s imminent departure, Hill didn’t stand a chance. He still managed to reach a 2.5 Net Rating. It was in lowest since limited playing time his rookie year in San Antonio, but still positive. It’s a testament to what he provides to a team; no matter what the circumstances, Hill will always do less harm than good.

(It was also a testament to great hair, as perhaps the most memorable thing was his switch to blonde for most of the season. Even Popovich was on board.)

This may be Hill’s gift and curse: he has always been overshadowed and probably always will be. On one hand, he’s a better basketball player working alongside stars rather than being one. On the other, he’s never fully appreciated for what he can actually do. He had to grow accustomed to this quickly in his first three seasons in San Antonio. Playing with Tim Duncan and under Gregg Popovich can humble you pretty quickly. But he also quickly earned his coach’s trust (Popovich called Hill his “favorite player” and still calls him “Georgie”) and made one of Pop’s best decisions one of his hardest ones: trading Hill to Indiana in 2011 for the pick that would become Kawhi Leonard. The deal that possibly, allegedly, made the statue-like Popovich cry.

This deal later helped push Hill deeper into the shadows, as the league watched Leonard transform into an MVP candidate and Hill became “the guy who got traded for an NBA Finals MVP.” It’s not fair, obviously, as the Pacers already had Paul George (and Danny Granger, which I promise made sense at the time) and no use for another wing. Hill completed that roster, but in his own quiet fashion. That trade was also a homecoming for Hill, who was born in Indianapolis and played four years at IUPUI. The pressures of being the hometown kid are brutal, just ask Derrick Rose. But Hill never had Rose-level expectations on him in Indiana.

He was no longer overshadowed by future Hall of Famers, but by rising stars who were getting noticeably better, in part because Hill was making them better. Paul George was obviously the star, but it’s not hard to conclude that Hill either made or extended the careers of Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson, and David West. All, for reasons good or bad, were more noticeable than Hill at times. But they all worked together and gave the LeBron-era Heat all they could handle for two straight years. Those were two of the best playoff series in recent memory, and we can at least in part thank George Hill for that.

Okay, so you know by know that George Hill gets results, but what exactly does he do? It varies, but it just so happens you can see everything he does in one recent game: February 6 at Atlanta. His final stat line was 22 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, and 1 turnover. It may have been the quintessential George Hill game. You saw his ability to play both on and off the ball, his shooting ability, his defense, his teamwork. Nearly everything he’s capable of took place in just the first half.

As a point guard, he increases his flexibility within the team with his ability to play both with and without the ball.

Like most point guards, Hill can take his defender off the dribble and create space for himself. He’s unique, however, in that he doesn’t speed at the hoop in a straight line like a Russell Westbrook or break ankles with dribble moves like a Kyrie Irving.

He’s much more patient, plotting and scheming while waiting for the right moment. If he gets a little space thanks to a screen or a help defender makes a mistake, he’ll find the open space and convert the bucket.

This isn’t to say that he can’t attack the paint with urgency. When Hill does that, it often turn into points for his teammates.

His drives vary in speed and style, both each kind can either create the space he needs for himself or suck in defenders so he can deliver to ball to his open teammates. That was just one of 8 assists this game. His average his usually just 4, which seems small for a point guard, but it makes sense for Hill.

That’s because he doesn’t need the ball in his hands. You can often find him behind the 3-point line on the right side of the court. Oddly, he takes more shots and shoots better from the wing than the corner, but the idea is the same. Force the defender to either help inside and leave the 40% 3-point shooter open, or stick to him and leave the paint unguarded.

Here, Dennis Schroder goes to help, so Joe Johnson dishes it off to Hill for an easy corner 3.

Schroeder tries it the other way this time and that doesn’t work either. Scared of leaving Hill, he doesn’t help on the driving Derrick Favors and he puts in the easy floater.

This adaptability must be the main reason for Hill’s overall effectiveness. What he contributes to the offense changes quarter to quarter, game to game, season to season.

During Indiana’s season without Paul George, his Usage Rate skyrocketed to nearly 25%. Same thing this year. Only Gobert has played in all 54 of Utah’s games. When other playmakers are out, he’s perfectly capable of filling those duties himself. In both those seasons, both his shooting efficiency and assist/turnover ratio actually went up from the year before. Even with more responsibility, his game won’t change and his efficiency won’t either.

Offense is just one half of the game, though. You don’t get a massive Net Rating without a tiny Defensive Rating. Hill’s DRating has never reached 103 and has been below 100 since in his first year in Indiana with the exception of last season, where it jumped all the way up to 100.3.

He doesn’t get those numbers by generating a lot of steals, but he can get them, of course.

This is how Hill and his teammates have structured their defense since the Pacer days with peak Roy Hibbert. Hill is quick and strong enough to go over screens, knowing his center (now usually Gobert, he’s been blessed with defensive centers) is waiting behind him. This leaves the opposing point guard, Schroeder again here, in limbo. He doesn’t want to go straight at Gobert but can’t pull back easily because Hill stayed on his hip. Schroeder panics and tries to slip it to Dwight Howard, but it goes straight to Derrick Favors instead.

Hill doesn’t rely solely on his centers on defense, but he’s smart enough to know where they are. He uses them as a safety net. If his man is going to penetrate, Hill will make sure that he’s heading straight for someone a foot taller than him. Most guards don’t want to do that, so they’ll try to back out and do something stupid.

Malcolm Delaney didn’t want anywhere the paint, so he tried to create space with an elbow. Since Hill stayed in position, it’s an offensive foul. Jazz ball.

George Hill really can do it all.

You can argue that for all his success in Indiana that the Pacers would have been better with Kawhi Leonard instead. You could say that Hill’s impressive numbers come from having excellent teammates around him. Perhaps you think he got lucky that his only coaches in his first eight seasons were Gregg Popovich and Frank Vogel. You’d be lame and kind of a jerk, but you could do it. Here’s the deal though: George Hill can’t control those things.

What he can control is playing good, smart basketball while he’s on the court. He can take control when he has to and help his teammates excel when they can. He can always handle his defensive assignment. He can do all the things that create a winning team without being a superstar or even an All-Star. George Hill isn’t either of those things, but he doesn’t have to be. He’s just going to win basketball games.

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