Among the Kings’ offseason free agent acquisitions, George Hill was thought to be the real catch, a cerebral, veteran point guard still in his physical prime and presumably comfortable with the somewhat unconventional job description.
For three years and $57 million – with the third year partially guaranteed – Hill signed on to nurture rookies De’Aaron Fox and Frank Mason III, demonstrate how to play the NBA’s most demanding position and help choreograph phase one of a massive rebuild.
In theory, that sounds great. In practice, this has been a complete mismatch.
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As the Kings season descends into outright bizarro-land, with double-digit losses to weak opponents from Memphis, Phoenix and Charlotte squeezed around an impressive victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Hill too seldom has been that steady hand, the consistent floor leader who calms and inspires, most notably in the worst of times.
Coming off an excellent season with the Utah Jazz, the nine-year pro’s scoring average declined from 16.9 points per game to 10.1 and assists from 4.2 to 2.7, with additional dropoffs in advanced metrics such as player efficiency and true shooting percentage. Most revealing, perhaps, is the on-court demeanor. He often appears disengaged, dispirited, a half-step slow.
And before anyone starts screaming into the Twittersphere, Hill says it himself: This is not George Hill.
“Very frustrating,” he said. “I’ve never been through anything like this, not ever. It’s not what I expected, a little more difficult than I anticipated. I think as a team we all get along. We like being around each other, like doing things together. But we’re still trying to learn each other, and it’s a different style of play. I’ve just got to figure things out.”
Throughout most of his career, Hill has been a versatile combo guard on squads that featured one or more primary scorers. He played his first three seasons in San Antonio with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, teamed with Paul George for the better part of five seasons in Indiana, and spent last year alongside Gordon Hayward, the All-Star forward who bolted for Boston after the playoffs.
In Sacramento, the long-limbed, 6-foot-3 Hill has been asked to play both guard positions and adapt on the fly to frequent lineup changes and contrasting combinations.
“Whatever they ask me to do is fine,” Hill insists. “We’re trying to develop the young guys, get them on the court. You’re going to have bumps and bruises when you have so many young guys with only one year of experience or less. My thing is, when you play a team like the Spurs, learn to play the right way. They commit, they talk, they screen hard. They get into their man. Become better by learning.”
All of that is true, as is this: The Kings are young, overloaded with shooting guards and big men, short on small forwards, short on elite talent overall. Progress this season will be measured in baby steps, by effort, improvement, individual development. But none of that explains the Kings’ low energy level on recent nights, and particularly of late, a stunning lack of interest in defending the perimeter or the interior. Against the offensively challenged Hornets on Tuesday, for instance, the Kings forced a mere three turnovers and scored exactly three fast-break points.
“When you play a little faster,” said coach Dave Joerger, “and you hear me all the time, ‘Go, go, we gotta go, we’re just too slow.’ There are times as a young team where we score then we relax defensively, or we’re playing faster and we relax defensively. It’s like, ‘Your turn, our turn, your turn, our turn.’ We just started out too slow (Tuesday).”
Therein lies at least a clue to Hill’s uneven performances. Kings general manager Vlade Divac is starting to assemble a roster designed to flourish in today’s NBA game of pace, ball and body movement, slick-shooting wings and mobile forwards. But this is only the beginning, and even in his early years, Hill was never one for a freewheeling game.
“George is more of a methodical player,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, “and he likes execution, likes people to be in the right spots. He wants continuity and control. He’s not a seat-of-the-pants kind of player. But he is more than capable of playing faster, though I don’t think it’s his natural inclination. And he plays hard. He admits when he screws up. He is selfless. There is nothing not to like about him. I only traded him (for the rights to Kawhi Leonard) because we had Tony and Manu, and we needed to get bigger.”
Hill, 31, still sips from the Spurs soda can. He speaks in almost reverential tones of his former mentor and effusively praises Jazz coach Quin Snyder, a Popovich disciple. “My adjustment in Utah last year was very easy,” he continued, “just because of my relationship with coach Quin. He is like coach Pop, very precise, very strategical. We had a great team, and I wish we could have stayed together. But it’s a business.”
So about the trade talk that persists despite Hill’s unfavorable (this season anyway) contract terms. As in the past, he remains unfazed by the chatter while acknowledging the transient nature of his chosen profession. It doesn’t sound as if being traded to a contender would break his heart, either.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you have to keep your bags packed,” he added. “You never know. If it happens, it happens. But I’ve made great relationships in this locker room and with this club. If I leave, I’ll look them in the face, shake their hand and thank them for the opportunity.”
As he walked out of Golden 1 Center after the latest loss, he forced a smile. He hugged his son and his wife, and then left to make final preparations for the birth of the couple’s first daughter, who is due any day.
“That has me excited,” he said. “Hopefully that can help us start the new year off better.”