Popovich's favorite could have tough choice in near future
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has openly said George Hill is his favorite player
The guard from IUPUI has filled holes with injures to Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili
But he may have to decide if he's content to be a backup, or if he wants to start
Asking a coach to name his favorite player is almost like asking a parent to name their favorite child. Even if they have one, they likely won't say it out of respect for the rest of their kids. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, however, has no problem singling out one player on a roster led by Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, as his favorite.
On more than one occasion this season, Popovich, who doesn't normally warm up to young players, has singled out Hill, the second-year backup point guard out of IUPUI, as his favorite player on the team.
"I just like him, personally, better than the other players," Popovich said jokingly Sunday night. "I don't really like the other ones as much as I like being around him. That's why I say he's my favorite player, because he is."
As much as he loves Hill's work ethic, selflessness and versatility, Popovich seemed slightly stunned when a reporter actually wanted to do a story on the unsung player who has almost doubled his scoring average from 5.7 points per game last year, to 10.7 this season.
"Are you related to him? He's not that good," Popovich teased. "A skinny little kid, you know, second year in the league, it's not like he's LeBron or something. I told you he's my favorite player, I like him on both ends of the floor, I play him at three positions -- what else can I say? He laughs at my jokes. He's a good kid. Timmy doesn't laugh at them anymore so I had to find someone new."
Hill has done more than just laugh at Popovich's jokes to win over his confidence and rank fourth on the team in scoring and third in minutes per game. Not only has he refined his game, routinely hitting open jump shots in transition (shots he passed up on last season), but has become a tenacious defender and someone the Spurs lean on to disrupt the opposition's best scorer.
Against the Bucks, for example, Hill, who is 6-foot-2 but has a 6-foot-9 wingspan, was given the task of shutting down Brandon Jennings, who had recently gone off for 55 points against Golden State and 29 against Charlotte. Hill forced 6-for-21 shooting and only 12 points from Jennings, while finishing with 14 points and two blocks himself.
"When you have someone like that come off the bench who can play multiple positions and be a very good defender, it's huge," said Duncan. "We've asked him not only to play the point guard position, but also be a stopper for us against certain individuals. He's really played a huge role for us."
After the Bucks game, and following most games at home, Hill went straight from the court to the weight room, continuing a ritual that began his rookie season. In his first year, Hill was required to hit the gym after games since San Antonio's strength and conditioning coach, Mike Brungardt, made those who played less than 15 minutes a game put in extra conditioning work. And even though Hill averages close to 25 minutes a game this season, he still makes his usual trip to the weight room.
"I want to be great; I don't just want to be good," said Hill, who turned down scholarship offers from Florida and Indiana to play at IUPUI and be close to his dying great grandfather. "I want to get better each year, and I think that goes with watching Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and how they've been so successful. They're in the gym all the time, and that goes through everybody on our whole team. Even if I play a lot I always want to be better at something and be the greatest."
With Parker and Ginobili out with injuries, Hill started four games at the start of the season, playing both guard and small forward. Though his versatility came out of necessity, Hill said he still enjoys the flexibility it has given him now that everyone is healthy. Such was the case Sunday in a 115-90 rout of the Clippers in L.A., Hill finished with 11 points, his third straight game scoring in double figures and 11th of the season
"He's just keeps getting better," said Spurs guard Roger Mason. "He's a talented kid and I think knowing what Pop wants from him day in and day out, he's evolving into the point guard that he knows he can be. He's very mature and he listens. A lot of young guys, when they come into the league, for whatever reason, they think they know more than they do. George has a humble approach and he's willing to listen to older guys, especially Pop. And whatever Pop asks of him, he does."
When Hill, the only player from IUPUI to play in the NBA, was selected by the Spurs with the 26th overall pick in the 2008 draft, most fans and league executives questioned the Spurs' thinking. With Mario Chalmers and Chris Douglas-Roberts on the board, the Spurs went with a player who wasn't projected to go until the mid- to late-second round.
But the Spurs track record should have warned the skeptics. In the past 10 years, the Spurs have picked Ginobili, Parker, Luis Scola, Leandro Barbosa, Beno Udrih, Hill and DeJuan Blair. And none of them were selected higher than 26.
"We're just looking for a good player," said Popovich. "The work starts now, so when you're in that position [late in the first or in the second round], you have some options of guys other people might have missed and who you think will fit into your program. We've had some pretty good success with that."
While Hill, 23, has shown he would likely flourish as a regular starter, he's content to back up Parker, 27, and fill in for Ginobili, giving the Spurs an added dimension on both ends of the court. There may be a time in the near future, however, when Hill must decide if he's happy simply being Popovich's favorite backup on a championship contender, or if he's willing to take a chance and become a starter somewhere else.
"If the time comes when I can be [a starter], yes, I'll be willing to take the opportunity," Hill said. "But at the same time, I just want to win and be a part of an organization like this, wherever it takes me it takes me. I don't want to say, 'Yeah, I want to start over Tony Parker,' because that's not the deal, I just want to be a great NBA player and have a long, 15-plus-year career and be one of those players who will be remembered as a great player during his time."
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