Hill rises with impressive climb

CHICAGO -- Among the most improbable storylines of the NBA draft has been the rise of Arizona's Jordan Hill. The lanky, 6-foot-10 rebounding machine shot up our Big Board with a breakout junior season at Arizona.

Back in July, I ranked Hill as the 13th-best prospect in this year's draft, and to be honest, it seemed like a stretch. He was coming off a solid sophomore season, having averaged 13 points and eight rebounds, but he was perpetually in foul trouble. His NBA future looked uncertain.

Hill was determined to become the type of player who could dominate on both ends of the floor.

"Last year it was really Jerryd [Bayless] and [Chase Budinger's] team," Hill said. "I was just trying to support them in whatever way I could. But after Jerryd left for the NBA I knew it was time for me to be a leader."

Hill enrolled in Amare Stoudemire's Nike Skills Academy in Phoenix and spent the summer working out against guys like Blake Griffin, DeJuan Blair and Stoudemire himself.

"It was a great chance to play against the best and take my game to the next level," Hill said. "I needed the challenge and the confidence playing against the best brings."

The results have been significant. Hill upped his per-game scoring average to 18.3, upped his rebounds to 11 and averaged 1.7 blocks per game to boot. He was the best big man in the Pac-10, and by the end of the year he was ranked by virtually every NBA team as the second-best power forward in the draft behind Griffin.

As improbable as Hill's rise to a potential top-five pick is, it takes on more significance when you hear the rest of the story.

Hill's mother died when he was 3 years old. His father, a truck driver, had to give up his job to take care of Hill and his brother and sister. They were poor, life was unstructured and Hill found himself in trouble at an early age.

When Hill was about to start ninth grade, his family moved from South Carolina to Atlanta. That's where Hill got the basketball bug. Growing up, Hill was a baseball pitcher (think a dreadlocked Randy Johnson). But he grew out of the game and by the time he landed in Atlanta, he knew it was time to switch sports.

Hill made the varsity as a freshman and worked his way into the rotation as a sophomore, but his basketball career almost ended as a junior. Hill had let his grades slip and had to forgo his junior season to focus on getting his academic responsibilities back on track.

By the end of his junior year, Hill was a virtual unknown to scouting services and colleges. However, the summer before his senior year he joined the AAU circuit and had his coming-out party there, averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. One of the coaches in attendance was Lute Olson. Olson loved Hill's energy and made Hill a dream offer.

Hill spent his senior year at the Patterson Academy in North Carolina playing alongside several top college prospects, including former USC standout Devon Jefferson.

But the Wildcats didn't expect a whole lot from him as a freshman. Much to Arizona's surprise, Hill was an immediate contributor, using his boundless energy to make a real difference off the bench.

Fast-forward to the end of his junior season for Hill's defining moment -- a late February road game against Washington. Hill went down with a bad ankle injury in the second half of the game but came off the bench for the last four minutes to try to will the Wildcats to victory. Limping, Hill scored six points in the final four minutes. Arizona lost the game, but a number of NBA scouts walked away convinced that Hill was the real deal.

"I was just in that much pain but when I heard the crowd get into it, the adrenaline started flowing and I was like, 'Oh man, it's time for me to go back out there and help my teammates out,'" Hill said after the game. "So I just taped my ankles tighter and went out there and tried to handle my business."

Hill has spent the last month working out at Tim Grover's Attack Athletics gym. He's gotten stronger and has had a chance to really polish some of his skills in the low post. He looked terrific when I dropped by the gym Wednesday.

Under the direction of Grover's lead trainer, Mike Procopio, Hill was showing off his length, quickness, athleticism and … his jump shot. Hill isn't going to win any 3-point shooting contests in the NBA, but he showed good mechanics from 18 to 20 feet and consistently was draining shots from his favorite spot near the top of the key.

Hill also showed off a nice running jump hook, excellent speed running the floor and the ability to get up off the floor repeatedly with excellent explosion.

One-on-none drills, however, aren't really where Hill shines. After about an hour of big-man work, Procopio began putting the players out there in 2-on-2, 3-on-3 and 4-on-4 scenarios. This is where Hill really shined. While Hill is still developing fundamentally, he has a great feel for the game and an excellent nose for the ball. He's quick, active and knows where to go on the floor to be in the middle of the action.

During one set, he caught the ball on the block and made a beautiful no-look pass to a cutting Jonny Flynn for a layup. In another sequence, he caught the ball on the left block, spun to the middle and hoisted a beautiful, soft 10-foot fadeaway jumper over the outstretched arms of his defender. A third time he spun baseline and dunked in traffic.

On the defensive end of the floor his lateral quickness gives him the ability to guard players on the wing. He was able to slow down Syracuse's Paul Harris on several switches and when guarding the pick-and-roll.

As the session wore down, Hill was all smiles. "I just love to play," he said. "I have the best job in the world."

Hill's enthusiasm and energy, both on the court and off it, should make him a popular choice on draft night.

"I think Jordan Hill's game is all about heart," one NBA executive said. "He has a great presence on the floor. He's a hard worker. He's an unselfish player. And he really is talented. We think about defense and rebounding. But I think he can be a force on the offensive end as well."

The question for Hill now: Where does he go? I think his range starts at No. 3. The Oklahoma City Thunder have scouted Hill extensively and have a need for his length and energy. If Hasheem Thabeet is off the board and the team decides that Russell Westbrook, not Ricky Rubio, should be their point guard, it will likely be a decision between Hill and James Harden.

The Wizards also will take a strong look at Hill with the fifth pick. The team has Antawn Jamison and Andray Blatche, but neither guy has the grit nor defensive abilities of Hill.

His floor? It's hard to see his slipping past the Bucks at No. 10. Most likely they lose Charlie Villanueva to free agency this summer and Hill's blue-collar game would be a nice complement to Andrew Bogut in the front line.

Click here to read news and notes on mock draft feedback, potential draft trade scenarios and a workout with Hill's teammate, Chase Budinger.

Next stop on the tour: Syracuse's Jonny Flynn

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.