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January 24, 2014

Ex-Arizona star Hill waiting his turn with Pacers

PHOENIX -- Solomon Hill checked into his first NBA game in a month-and-a-half to a standing ovation Wednesday. Well, the roar from the 16,465 fans at US Airways Center was actually for the hometown Phoenix Suns, who were putting the finishing touches on a 124-100 beatdown against the team with the NBA's best record.

The Indiana Pacers rookie checked in at the 6:06 mark, made his lone field goal attempt - a free-throw line jump shot after an effective pump fake - and then called it a night. These are no longer the days of averaging 33 minutes per game as an Arizona senior.

After Hill worked his way into a first-round selection as the 23rd overall pick last June, he told GOAZCATS.com then that he knew there would be a pecking order. After all, Paul George plays his position and was voted as a starter for next month's All-Star Game. George, just 23 years old and in his fourth season, is on the track to superstardom in the league.

That hasn't made Hill any more patient, however.

"It's been tough just looking on," Hill said, sitting with his teammates in the visitor's locker room.

But he also understands that the Pacers are on a mission "to win it all." Indiana, currently 33-8 and atop the Central Division, was a win shy of advancing to the NBA Finals last season. The two-time defending NBA champion Miami Heat outlasted them in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers currently have a three-game lead over the Heat for No. 1 seed.

That logjam for minutes at small forward also includes Danny Granger, a former All-Star who is working his way back into shape off the bench after missing most of the past two seasons with a knee and calf injury. Chris Copeland and Orlando Johnson, a pair of young second-year forwards, are battling for the same minimal minutes as Hill.

That is why the game was just Hill's first on the team's active list after not dressing for the previous five, and just his 17th appearance overall through 41 games. Hill hadn't played in an NBA game since Dec. 8 at Oklahoma City.

The 6-7, 225-pounder hasn't even been with the team all season, requesting a stint in the NBA's Developmental League that didn't please him.

Hill averaged 17 points, three rebounds and three assists in two games with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants before getting recalled Jan. 4. The minutes were not what he had expected; in one contest, after scoring 13 of his 15 points in the first quarter, he sat for the entire fourth.

Instead, Hill would rather spend his time on the Pacers' practice floor, with established players who once waited for their opportunity like he is now. George averaged 20.7 minutes in 61 games, mostly off the bench, as a rookie in 2010-11; Granger logged 22.6 minutes over 78 games in 2005-06; and starter Lance Stephenson played just 12 games in his first season in 2010-11. All three have spent their entire careers in the organization.

Hill is currently averaging 1.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 8.8 minutes.

"With a team like this, it's going to be patience," he said. "There are people on the team that didn't play their first couple years, and now they're blossoming and they're being big contributors to our team.

"All I have to see is just understand patience. We're winning games at a high level and I just wait my turn."

In the process, Hill is soaking up the knowledge his teammates have to offer, such as George, Stephenson and little-used 11-year veteran Rasual Butler. There are things to learn from different players who have made separate journeys.

The Pacers, meanwhile, remain "really high on Solomon Hill," head coach Frank Vogel said.

Vogel added that the Los Angeles native "has the tools to be an elite defender" in the NBA and possesses certain instincts on that end that cannot be taught. There is a toughness in Hill that the Pacers like, too - a trait that was evident in his prior four years on the McKale Center hardwood, and now fits with the hardhat personality of the Pacers' franchise.

While there still needs to be consistency in his jump shot, Vogel added that Hill is capable of knocking down the open 3-pointer. If needed in case of emergency, there would be no hesitation in thrusting him into significant action this season.

"He's a complete player, a two-way player," Vogel said. "What we build our whole success on is playing two-way players.

"He's working. I fully believe that if we had injuries and we needed to play him extended minutes, he would produce right away for us."

Hill stayed back in Tucson for the Wildcats' 69-57 win over Colorado on Thursday night. Dressed in an Arizona jersey, he received a loud ovation when he was shown on the arena's new video board.

Before the game, Hill met with the team and head coach Sean Miller. In the postgame press conference, Miller remembered a time during his sophomore season when an "emotional and upset" Hill had a talk with him. The sight of other players around the country - ones ranked similarly or behind him coming out of high school - bolting to the NBA after one or two years bothered him. Heck, one of them was on his own team, as Derrick Williams morphed into the No. 2 overall pick after just two seasons.

Hill wondered why that kind of instant success wasn't happening for him, Miller recalled.

"You can't ever rush the process," Miller told him. "Sometimes it happens early, sometimes it happens late. But if you just stick with it, your talent eventually will win out."

There was another talk after his junior season. Hill wanted to know whether it would be worth coming back for a fourth year. His point to Miller was that in today's college basketball landscape, "you're damaged goods if you come back as a senior." Players on winning teams in college do not get drafted into the league, Hill suggested.

But he listened to Miller, who relayed that his focus should instead be on "just getting good enough." What followed was a Sweet 16 appearance led by Hill, on a roster that featured a good chunk of the team that is now No. 1 in the country.

Pacers general manager Kevin Pritchard took notice of Hill's body of work and rewarded him, drafting him into an organization that has a track record of developing similar talent.

Now, Hill has an opportunity to earn a ring in his first NBA season. The minutes may not be there yet, but he wouldn't trade his current situation for anything.

"It's been fun," Hill said. "It's been a great experience."

Tracy McDannaldTracy McDannald
GOAZCATS.com Senior Editor

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