The NBA is a league driven by opportunity. To arrive is one thing, but without a motor constantly pushing you to get better, a well-established niche, and coaches who believe you’re good enough not to get them fired, finding a way to stay for the long haul can be just as challenging. If you’re a marginal player, several factors play into which side of the fence you’ll fall on: If the guy ahead of you on the depth chart has a long standing reputation as a consistently productive player; if the system does or does not suit your strengths and hide your weaknesses; or if you’ve been jammed into a role that may or may not fit (Evans, Tyreke or McGee, JaVale), the future can either look rosy or uncertain. But if you manage to have everything fall into place, with a simple set of instructions laid out by a smart coaching staff that embeds you in a cocoon of comfort, good things can happen.
A lot of these situations are born in the playoffs, where due to the enormous stage and increased importance, small sample sizes are unjustly extrapolated. One such example is former Rockets center Jordan Hill. Taken by the Knicks with the No. 8 pick in the 2009 draft, Hill has lurched through his career with the sticky “bust” label that can hang over a player until he either shakes it off or falls out of the league entirely.
In New York he was deplorable, and with Houston he wasn’t much better. In both situations the assumption was that the big bodied Hill could maintain respectability on the glass, shuffle his feet on the defensive end, and from time to time put the ball in the hoop all by himself. None of the items on that miniature-checklist were ever marked off. (Here are a few players from his draft class who’ve grabbed more total rebounds: James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Jennings, Stephen Curry, and Jrue Holiday. All guards.)
When given a chance to shine, Jordan Hill did very little to take advantage. He had six double digit rebound performances in 32 regular season appearances with Houston this year. Then he was traded to the Lakers for practically nothing—0 minutes from Derek Fisher and a first round pick from Dallas that’s top 20 protected through 2017 (the Mavs have the 17th overall pick this year, so Houston will have to wait on the benefits of that one). At the time of the deal, Los Angeles’ main motivation for making the trade wasn’t to acquire Hill, but instead to flush Derek Fisher’s salary down the toilet and make space for Ramon Sessions, a player who could polish the rustiest part of that team.
The Lakers already had suspect garbage (Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy) serving as backups to Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, so by grabbing Hill from Houston, they were quietly improving two weaknesses at once. However, due to Hill’s prior accomplishments—or lack thereof—nobody talked about his possible importance. Somehow he’s forced himself into the conversation.
Before the playoffs began, Hill appeared in seven games for the Lakers. In two of them, he grabbed 10 or more rebounds. In 39 games with both teams, he had five double-doubles. In the five games that have been played in the Lakers first round series against Denver, he’s posted two double-doubles—both Laker victories—playing about half the game in both instances. In fact, the Lakers are undefeated this year (5-0, regular and postseason) when Jordan Hill logs more than 20 minutes. This isn’t borderline irrational, it’s complete and udder insanity.
How is it that Jordan Hill is playing so well with the Lakers—in the playoffs!—when six months ago he was a regular on the end of Houston’s bench? As a fan of the Rockets, how does it make you feel? Is it a Jeremy Lin 2.0 situation or something far less significant, hardly worth a day dream? Hill is less talented than Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, but he’s playing harder and with more fire than them both. Why is this? I couldn’t tell you.
We see it time and time again: young players who were once viewed as limitless talents are recycled throughout the league; one team’s trash is another team’s treasure, and in no instance is this more visible than the one we’re witnessing out in L.A. It’s taken him the better half of three years, but Jordan Hill is finally showing he’s worth a roster spot. If he’s smart, he’ll never leave.