Following a summer of rave reviews, the Pacers' decision Thursday to pick up the 2015-16 option on second-year player Solomon Hill's contract was arguably as foreseeable as Evan Turner's move to part company with Indiana in order to seek out "greener" pastures with the Boston Celtics.
"I think it's been in the works since I've been here," Solomon Hill told Pacers.com with regard to the team formerly announcing they had picked up his option. "You just try to make the most of every day and not think about it."
Paul George's gruesome injury coupled with free agency moves has resulted in significantly weakened depth at the small forward position. Lance Stephenson is taking a chance on himself in Charlotte. Danny Granger has elected to attempt to rediscover his former self in Miami. Evan Turner is striving to revitalize his career in Boston, and 35-year old NBA journeyman Rasual Butler is trying to make things work with the Washington Wizards on a non-guaranteed contract. Meanwhile, the team's franchise player is on the mend from an open tibia-fibula fracture. With George forced to look on from the Bird Cage (as the seats next to Larry Bird at Banker's Life Fieldhouse are commonly referred to as) along with a crater sized hole at the wing, expectations, in the vein of the team's next man up tradition, have naturally shifted away from the squad's two-time All-Star forward to up-and-comer Solomon Hill.
"It's great for me to be around Solomon and really help him grow, because he's going to have that same role I had coming in when Danny went down," Paul George told the press at the Pacers' media day. "I had to step up and play a big role. It will be the same case for Solomon."
In the midst of acute and unexpected hardship, Frank Vogel, relentless positivist that he is, has gone on record lauding the former Arizona Wildcat's potential:
"If he would have been playing 25 minutes a game last year, everyone would be talking about how good Solomon HIll is," Vogel said.— Michael Pointer (@michaelpointer) August 12, 2014
While it is certainly easy to question why Hill, earning 25 of the dreaded "DNP-coach's decision" notations as a rookie, was never re-inserted into the rotation when the team was searching for answers during the second half of the season, the more pressing point is that an opportunity that, once, never really was, now, very much is.
Yet, even with the possibility of increased playing time, accurately projecting whether or not this will be a leap-year for Hill is decidedly difficult.
ESPN's 2014 Player Rankings peg Hill at No. 380, up three spots from 383 in 2013. Comparatively, Lance Stephenson found himself ranked at No. 405 in 2012. This, of course, was the same year he by necessity had to replace Danny Granger, the cornerstone of the Pacers' offense, in the starting line-up. After a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals, the team's, now former, wildcard soared to No. #121 in 2013.
As for Hill, the Pacers' sophomore player appeared in only 28 games last season, averaging 1.7 points and 1.5 rebounds in a little over eight minutes per game, not exactly the figures by which potential stars are typically founded. His numbers from the time he spent on assignment with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants are clearly more reassuring, averaging 17 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 3.0 assists on 46.2% shooting. However, only suiting-up for two games before returning to Indy, the sample size is too small to readily expect him to follow in the footsteps of Stephenson or George.
Therein lies the problem, quite possibly. Already conveniently located on Frank Vogel's bench, Hill might actually be a big part of the remedy for the Pacers' apocalyptic off-season. Be that as it may, having immediately named the quality as something he learned from his first year experience in the NBA, even Solomon Hill firmly grasps the importance of exercising patience.
Hill, at least as has been reported, has put in the work to become a solid all-around contributor for the Pacers this season. Oftentimes being asked to contain Paul George at practice as a rookie, head coach Frank Vogel believes Hill has the makings of an elite defender. Understanding his coach's expectation that every player in the rotation be able to guard at a high level, Hill says he is focusing most on his defense during the team's exhibition schedule, "that's the way I'm going to see the floor."
Regarding Hill's offense, Pacers.com's Mark Montieth reports that Mike Penberthy, the same shooting instructor to have worked with Paul George and Evan Turner, is now helping Hill to improve his shooting rhythm. Down from the 39.0% accuracy rate he posted from behind the arc as a senior at Arizona, Hill knocked down just 30.4% of his three point shots last year as a Pacer.
Even with the work he has put in to improve his game, Hill is still likely to experience his fair share of growing pains in the coming year. Inactive for 29 games last season, unsatisfied with his lack of development in the D-League, and missing the team's Summer League, Hill, due to lack of experience alone, might still be a year away from his break out season.
"My goal is to just stay with it as much as possible," said Hill at media day. "Be a similar rock to what [David West] is for the team. Not try to grab it all in one season."
Therefore during a season that should be nothing, if not all, about team development and individual growth, expecting Hill to have a quantum-sized leap, a la Paul George and Lance Stephenson may be unattainable. Instead, envisioning a slow and steady climb toward becoming a complete basketball player seems more within reach.
Though, with the news that the Pacers have officially picked-up his option for the 2014-15 season, Hill responded with a hunger similar to that of two of his aforementioned teammates, "It gives me another chance to come back and be better next year."
Yes, when it comes to witnessing Hill's maturation as a Pacer, patience might just turn out to be both a pleasure and a virtue.