Since they acquired Steve Nash this summer, NBA narratives have been pouring out of Los Angeles faster than fingers can type them. The story of early season struggles foreshadowed the end of Mike Brown, which prefaced the elaborately dissected coaching search and the hiring of Mike D’Antoni. That whole story resulted in two spin-off yarns chronicling the Lakers’ defensive shortcomings and their troubling lack of depth. Keeping pace with all these interwoven narratives is a challenge for even the most free-time-laden observer, and it’s easy to miss some of the smaller and more subtle stories.
One such story is Jordan Hill‘s breakthrough as a consistently useful basketball player and his single-handed quest to erase concerns about the Lakers’ depth. Hill is entering his 4th NBA season, playing for his third team, and never in that time has the word ‘polished’ been used to describe what he does on a basketball court. Everything he does is built on a foundation of length, athleticism and energy level. Players who rely heavily on those attributes are common enough, and their abilities tend to manifest themselves in certain statistical categories. On the positive side of the ledger they show up with rebounds, both offensively and defensively, drawing fouls, finishing around the basket and creating turnovers. On the negative side they show up by giving away turnovers and committing fouls.
What Hill has done so far this season is a remarkable refinement of the benefits of his athletic gifts, with an equally impressive purge of the negative. Through 8 games and 130 minutes Jordan Hill has posted an offensive rebound rate of 24.3%, far and away the best in the league. That mark is nearly twice his previous career high of 14.2%. He’s also averaging 8.6 free throw attempts per 36 minutes, more than double his previous career high of 3.9. He’s also cut his own foul rate from 5.3 per 36 as a rookie to 3.9 this season, another career high. That improvement on some of the statistical margins has also bled into other areas. He’s been playing 16.3 minutes a night, a career high, and posting a PER of 18.9, also a career high. His per-36 minute averages rest at 15.8 points and 12.7 rebounds with a TS% of 53.1%, all career highs.
For players like Hill who rely so heavily on physical gifts for basketball success, the transition to the NBA can be challenging. The athleticism gap is much narrower at the professional level. In college it’s enough to simply be athletic, success in the NBA requires understanding of how to be athletic. When you watch Hill work the offensive glass this season, you no longer see a player trying to out-jump and out-reach everyone. He’s moving and positioning himself when the shot goes up, working to get inside his man, enhancing the benefits of his length and leaping ability. When he catches the ball near the basket he’s expecting contact and moving into it to draw all those shooting fouls, instead of obliviously trying to play through it as he did the past few seasons.
For all his development there are still plenty of things for Hill to work on. His offensive contributions are still almost entirely restricted to his work on the glass and catching the ball near the rim as a cutter. If he could become a more savvy screener and do a better job of finding open space, rolling off the screen, it will really open things up for him. In addition, his work at the defensive end still leaves plenty to be desired. He’s blocking 1.8 shots per 36 minutes and is doing it while committing far fewer fouls, but the Lakers are giving up 103.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s been on the floor, far higher than the 97.1 they’ve been averaging on the season.
Hill’s transformation into a useful basketball player is incredibly important for the Lakers. Depth has been, and will continue to be, a question mark all season long, regardless of who the head coach is. As the season progresses and the playoffs begin, teams will be looking to force foul trouble on Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. With the Lakers’ shaky perimeter defense those two will have to do plenty of compensating and foul problems will certainly crop up from time to time. Having a young big man coming off the bench, who provides tangible production in more than one area, is a luxury the Lakers’ didn’t appear to have just three weeks ago.