Solomon Hill: The Brightest Light in a Bleak Season

Dec 20, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Solomon Hill (44) during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 20, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Indiana Pacers forward Solomon Hill (44) during the game against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports /

There hasn’t been much to celebrate for the Indiana Pacers this season. Whether it’s the Lance Stephenson hangover, the prolonged and painful absence of Paul George, or an injury report as long as Frank Vogel’s suit-pants, Indiana’s first 37 games of the 2014-15 season have been an utter slog.

It’s not just that the team is 14-23. It’s more about the way they’ve played: slugging it out on defense and staggering on offense with a group composed mostly of NBA journeymen who don’t project as long-term members of the franchise.

It’s hard to tell exactly where Hill is with his development, but with his strong attitude and underrated athleticism, it’s exciting to imagine the part he can play when this team is at full strength.

Enter Solomon Hill, the Pacers’ first-round pick from the 2013 draft and the most promising thing happening to their 2014 season.

When Indiana selected the forward from the University of Arizona with the 23rd overall pick, fan reaction was tepid. Well-known players — like Tim Hardaway, Jr. — had slipped in the draft, and Hill was projected as a second-round pick. Reaching for him when other talent was still on the board was a tough sell, especially when Hill wound up being a non-factor — even as the bench struggled to produce anything. He spent his season bouncing back and forth between the D-league and rarely seeing the floor.

But in Hill’s second season in the league, he has become the Pacers’ most exciting player, both in terms of play and potential for development. He has played in every game this season and started all but one, leading the team in minutes played while beginning to grow into the versatile wing the Pacers’ front office hoped he would become.

In a recent feature about Hill’s development by Ericka Sanders of Sports Illustrated, Indiana executive Donnie Walsh spoke on what he saw then and what he sees now in Hill.

"“”I thought he had a very mature game [at Arizona] and he knew how to play. He was strong and he could defend. He had a lot of aspects to the game,” Walsh said. “He’’s played very well. He’’s asked to guard the best player on the other team, which for a young guy coming in is very hard to do because there are a lot of factors that you can’’t teach. But, he’’s smart enough to do that.””"

No doubt, Hill’s defense has been the strongest aspect of his game. As Walsh said, he’s been tasked with the Paul George job — guarding the other team’s best perimeter scorer. And Hill has been enthusiastic about it.

How Solomon Hill Defends

Solomon Hill is at his best as an on-ball defender. In such situations, he moves his feet well and isn’t afraid to challenge ball-handlers with his 6-9 wingspan and strong hands. He is still a work in progress, however, when it comes to fighting through screens, especially when he’s chasing his man off the ball. Here, he is still learning the best angles and methods for staying close to shooters.

While Wednesday night’s game against the Golden State Warriors was perhaps Hill’s best game of the season at the other end of the floor (he scored 21 points), Klay Thompson gave him the runaround on defense. Thompson, who scored 40 points, made Hill look like Wile E. Coyote on a few of the biggest buckets in the second half.

This is a bit of an unfair standard by which to judge Solo, since these plays involve one of the league’s best shooters, one of the league’s best screeners, and one of the league’s best-run offenses. But both of the 3-pointers in the clip above were crucial baskets.

The first one came when Hill inexcusably fell asleep, and Thompson’s corner 3 kickstarted a 10-0 run by Golden State to open the third quarter. The second mistake by Hill came at the end of the period, after the Pacers had closed their deficit to 5 points. Needing a stop, Hill allowed Thompson to stray too far, took a bad angle, and got screened into the bench by Andrew Bogut. The result: Thompson hit another 3 to extend the Warriors’ lead to 8 heading into the fourth. Indiana wouldn’t get this close again.

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Underestimating these types of tone-setting moments, as well as getting lost off the ball, are classic mistakes for a young player, and they show that Hill is still learning, even at the defensive end.

Typically, though, Hill gives great effort on defense, and he projects as an upper-tier wing defender if he continues his hone his skills. In today’s game, all players who lack experience have tons of lapses, large and small. But Hill has shown an aptitude and willingness to continue to learn the small things and ingrain the correct tendencies that turn a very-good defender into a top-tier menace.

His on-ball instincts and techniques are already showing show just how hard he works and how well he has learned technique, angles, and ways to use his body to disrupt ball-handlers. When the game further slows down for him and he is able to fully grasp Frank Vogel’s schemes and learn the other nuances of defending world-class scorers, there is no reason he can’t improve by leaps and bounds.

Even if he makes no progress in any other areas, his on-ball ability alone is enough to make him a useful rotation player. And that isn’t even taking into account the offensive abilities he has shown of late that may allow him to dramatically exceed the expectations of a player taken with the 23rd pick.

How Solomon Hill Scores

While Solomon Hill’s defensive progress has been encouraging, it was expected. His size, physicality, and sneaky athleticism is why the defensive-minded Pacers drafted him. So what has been a nicer development this year has been his offensive repertoire.

In the same way that the absence of Danny Granger allowed Paul George to step up and become an All-Star, George’s own absence this year has allowed Hill to take on responsibilities he never would have had otherwise. The results have been uglier than PG’s–– — Hill is shooting a lowly 39% from the field and 31% from 3-point range — but Hill has shown some promise.

Frank Vogel said the following in the Sports Illustrated piece:

"“”He’’s been given an opportunity to grow, make mistakes and play through those mistakes and learn,”” Vogel said. “”He certainly has shown he has the ability to be an elite defender and we’’re putting the ball in his hands too, which is a welcome surprise.””"

Hill’s usage percentage has jumped to 17.2% this year from an almost-nonexistent 11.4% in his limited action last season, according to Despite that significant jump, his turnovers per 36 minutes have actually dropped from 2.1 to 1.8. Such results are surprising.

Now, instead of worrying about him making mistakes, the Pacers have been able to benefit from the flashes of creative penetration he shows, driving off hard closeouts and even doing some nifty work in the pick-and-roll.

Once he gets to the rim is when Hill runs into issues, however.

He can look a bit tentative in the lane and that has led to serious finishing problems. Hill has taken more than one-third of his shots inside the restricted area, for example, but he has made just 43.5% of them, per Basketball-Reference.

The Pacers have been able to benefit from the flashes of creative penetration Hill shows, driving off hard closeouts and doing some nifty work in the pick-and-roll.

This is unfortunate — and something he must improve if he wants his canny cutting abilities and increasingly astute ball-handling to help the team. Hill’s ability to get to the rack doesn’t mean much if he can’t convert.

There is hope, however, as he has flashed the kind of fearlessness while attacking the basket that eventually bodes well for results. That version of Solo comes and goes, and his signature move seems to be trying to dunk on anyone he can, which often doesn’t work out.

He is learning, though. Look at these feeble attempts against Miles Plumlee and Alex Len of the Phoneix Suns earlier in the season.

Now, compare that to this savvy double-team split that allowed him to get to the rim against the best-in-league Warriors.

And watch here how Hill attacks Andrew Bogut, one of the league’s best defenders, and makes enough space to get the layup to go.

Since Solomon Hill has shot well from midrange (44.8% on attempts from 10 to 16 feet), and he is improving from 3-point range as the year goes on (hitting 13-of-34 in his last dozen games), Hill’s inability to complete plays at the rim may be the most concerning thing about his offensive game right now. However, he has shown finishing flashes, and he’s increasingly found his way to the free-throw line (averaging 5 attempts from the stripe per night over his last six games).

How Solomon Hill Brightens the Future

Solomon Hill’s continued development would be a windfall for a number of reasons. He has played at shooting guard 40% of the time this year, per Basketball Reference, and recently begun to show a soft touch from 3-point range. This bodes well for him filling the Lance Stephenson vacancy on the perimeter once Paul George returns, and allowing C.J. Miles to take on his more comfortable role as sixth man. Hill has also shown that he could become a strong rotation player on a rookie contract, which is valuable to a capped-out team trying to retool for another championship run.

With how undermanned the Pacers have been this year, it’s hard to tell exactly where Hill is with his development, but with his strong attitude and underrated athleticism, it’s exciting to imagine the part he can play when this team is at full strength.

Hill offered some perspective on his first year of actually getting minutes in the SI piece:

"“The most important thing to me is winning, which is one of the reasons this year is a little different,”” he said. “”Even though I’’m playing, I would definitely sacrifice minutes to have more team success. One thing I learned from [Arizona coach Sean Miller] is team success drives individual success. You can get everything you want if you’’re on a winning team. That’’s how I play basketball; I don’’t have to be the guy you see all the time.””"

Those are the kinds of quotes coaches and fans alike love to hear, and they encourage hope that Hill can fulfill his promise. He obviously still has aspects of his game that need to be improved, but he has shown that he’s willing to put in the work to get better, and he wants to contribute in all areas of the game — no matter if he’s scoring or not.

Those are the types of guys you need to contend for a title.

Larry Bird has always shown an eye for talent, even when people have questioned his draft choices. Solomon Hill might be the latest addition to that list.