- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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Jordan Hill missed nearly two-thirds of the Los Angeles Lakers' 2012-13 season, 53 games to be exact, mostly because of his back and hip. But Hill also was absent from other games when the 6-foot-10, 235-pound energy force simply wasn’t given a chance.
While Hill was unable to go for a significant portion of the schedule because of a herniated disk in his lower back and surgery on his left hip, what about those three consecutive games in December when he didn’t play even though he was perfectly healthy?
This hardly received the same attention as when coach Mike D’Antoni didn’t play Antawn Jamison for seven straight games later in the season and Jamison spoke up about it. Hill, who would tie Steve Nash for the unofficial but all-important Most Supportive Teammate award, kept quiet.
When the season was over, however, Hill asked D’Antoni -- who coached the player in New York before the No. 8 pick was shipped out of town just months into his rookie season -- what he needed to do to stay on the floor next season.
“He talked about what I need to work on for this coming summer,” Hill told ESPNLosAngeles.com. “My jump shot -- he definitely wanted me to work on my outside jumper.”
The experiment to turn Pau Gasol into an outside-oriented big man blew up in D’Antoni’s face last season. But in Hill, who has played eight fewer seasons in the league than Gasol, the coach found a much more malleable subject.
“That’s mostly what I’ve been focusing on this whole summer, not so much the post work because I know I can go down to the block and easily get an offensive rebound and putback,” said Hill, who ranked sixth in the NBA last season in rebounds per 36 minutes (among players who played 25 games or more), according to BasketballReference.com. “We got Pau Gasol that can focus on the paint and we got Chris Kaman that can focus on the block. So I just want to be a stretch 4. Just try to spread the floor a little bit, just show a little range. I’ve been working on it the whole summer, trying to focus on that, on my 3-ball. It got a lot better. I’m just ready to put it all together and showcase it.”
Hill, who shot 61.8 percent inside of 5 feet last season en route to a career-high 6.7 points per game average, did not fare as well the farther away from the basket he went. According to NBA.com Stats Cube, Hill shot 35.7 percent from 5-9 feet last season and 30.8 percent from 15-19 feet. And he missed the only two 3-point shots he attempted (in fact, he’s 0-for-9 on 3s for his career). However, there was signs of promise. He shot 50 percent from 10-14 feet and 42.9 percent from 20-24 feet, but the opportunities were limited (fewer than 10 attempts during the season from each of those spots).
Hill has traded Mikan drills around the basket for ballhandling exercises meant to help him develop a one-dribble, pull-up jumper. He's also practiced the footwork required for pick-and-rolls. Not just playing the part of the man setting the screen and diving toward the hoop, but also flaring out in pick-and-pop scenarios, and even working on curling off the pick as a screen-recipient rather than a screen-setter.
"I’m just trying to do a variety of stuff that will help me spread the floor and get great shots," Hill said.
The location of Hill’s offseason home is helping his outside improvement. It just so happens that Hill spends his summers in Atlanta, the same place as teammate Jodie Meeks. The sharpshooting Meeks, who was third on the Lakers last season with 122 made 3s (behind Metta World Peace’s 141 and Kobe Bryant’s 132), doesn’t necessarily coach Hill’s shot, but he does motivate Hill.
“Jodie’s not him telling me I need to follow through, but we always have competition shooting,” Hill said. “He’s definitely going to win a lot, but I’ve definitely won a couple. So when I do competition shooting with him and I win, I get the confidence that, ‘OK, my shot’s falling now. I can shoot better now.’”
The key to survival is adaptation. Hill is trying not only to carve out a niche within D’Antoni’s system but also to expand his game in hopes of extending his career.
“Now, in my head, it’s just like, ‘Man, I just got to try to keep my body healthy,’” said Hill, who has appeared in only 187 of a possible 312 games in his four-year career.
After returning for a brief stint in the playoffs less than four months after undergoing hip surgery that was supposed to sideline him for six months, Hill said he feels 100 percent as he tries to teach his body new tricks on offense.
"I feel great," Hill said. "I feel good on [the hip]. I’m walking around with no pain. I’m jumping, I’m strong. I’m doing spin moves. I’m doing everything right now that involves my hip, and no problems."
Nor does Hill have any problem recognizing the true value he brings to the Lakers. No level of offensive ascension that Hill achieves will cause him to sacrifice his dedication to defense. It remains the priority.
“Oh man,” Hill said, between two audible sighs, when asked what went wrong with the Lakers’ shoddy pick-and-roll defense in 2012-13.
For Hill, the first step in neutralizing the opponent is recognizing where the biggest threat lies. The crop of point guards controlling the ball in today’s NBA might be the best collection of talent the league has ever seen at that position. Meanwhile, you can count the number of game-changing centers playing today on one hand. It is the responsibility of the big men to help their guards.
“They got to go up against guards like Chris Paul. They got to go up against these guys every night so it’s definitely going to be a tough battle,” Hill explained. “There’s definitely going to be some ankle breaking, going to the rim, so we definitely need to contain our guys more and help on defense a lot more. Guys are scared to get off their man. We’re always hugging up on our man, instead of staying in the middle of the floor, and then the guys go right to the rim. It was definitely hard seeing that, especially when I couldn’t do nothing about it.”
As much as bad chemistry poisoned the atmosphere surrounding last season's Lakers, their lack of execution on defense spelled their demise as much as anything. Hill is behind what the Lakers have done to try to address that.
“Now we got Kurt Rambis, so that’s a big A-plus,” Hill said of L.A.’s defense-minded assistant-coaching hire. “We got Mike D’Antoni for the offense. We got the guys to put the points on the scoreboard. We just need a guy who will help us stop our opponents from putting points up on that board, and now we got it. I feel it’s going to be good. We just got to go out there and buckle down and do what we got to do.”
It will still be up to D’Antoni to decide who will get the chance to go out there and how often. The coach recently told ESPNLA 710 that he plans to expand his rotation, which was only eight players deep for much of last season, and use 11 guys.
“It gives a lot of people confidence that you’re going to play,” Hill said when asked about D’Antoni’s stated plan. “We got older guys that got a lot of age on them, got a lot of years on them, that they definitely need rest. Steve and definitely Kobe, coming off his injury, these guys are definitely going to need rest, and I hope it works. If that’s what he wants to do, we just got to make it work.”
And while a deeper rotation should help maintain some of the more senior members of the Lakers’ roster, Hill and the rest of the younger players on the Lakers can learn the art of longevity in the league from the old guys.
“Age doesn’t get to me, I’m not really focused on that,” said Hill, who turned 26 in July. “I mean ... look at Steve [Nash]," Hill joked. "Steve’s almost 50 and is still out there giving the business. It’s all about taking care of your body. That’s all I have to do for the rest of my career, and I think I’ll feel great."
3dMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne