With Dante Exum missing all of last season with a torn ACL, the Utah Jazz’s starting point guard was Raul Neto and then Shelvin Mack (after acquiring him from the Atlanta Hawks at the trade deadline). Mack started 27 games, averaging 12.7 points, 5.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds and shooting 44.4 percent from the field. Neto started 53 games, averaging 5.9 assists, 2.1 assists and 1.5 rebounds and shooting 43.1 percent from the field.
Exum had flourished on the defensive end as a rookie due to his size, length and athleticism, and many people expected him to break out as a sophomore. But then his season ended before it started, and suddenly the point guard position became a weakness for the Jazz.
This season, that’s no longer an issue. In addition to Exum returning to 100 percent, Utah has George Hill, whom they acquired in exchange for the No. 12 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft over the summer. With Hill starting, Exum is easing back and can even play alongside the 30-year-old at times. Hill has absolutely benefited from the change of scenery, playing some of the best basketball of his career while also emerging as one of Utah’s main leaders.
Hill is averaging career-highs in points (21.4), field goal percentage (54.8 percent), three-point percentage (42.9 percent) and free throw percentage (88.2 percent), while also contributing 4.6 assists, three rebounds and one steal per game. He currently leads all Jazz players in points, assists, steals, effective field goal percentage (63 percent) and box plus/minus (7.9).
Even more impressive, Hill ranks fifth among all NBA players in win shares (1.0), putting him above superstars like LeBron James, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and Chris Paul among others. He’s also ranked sixth in the league in value over replacement player (.4), 11th in estimated wins added (1.3), 10th in offensive rating (130.4) and 15th in player efficiency rating (26.46). Put simply, Hill is exceeding all expectations early on and giving the Jazz star-level production from the point guard position – albeit in a very small sample size.
“I’m just happy we’re winning, I don’t care about the numbers,” Hill told Jazz.com. “I’m just doing whatever it takes to try to win each game. I’m glad that my teammates have confidence in me to control the tempo out there and try to make plays, but the numbers are nothing. I just want to win.”
When he learned that Indiana had traded him to Utah, he says he was happy and immediately realized it would be a better situation for him.
“It was very exciting to me because I was going somewhere where I was wanted,” Hill told Tim MacMahon of ESPN. “No disrespect to Indy, but they didn’t think I was the right fit for where they were going. To come to a place that wants you and wants to give you the keys to drive the car, I was very excited about that. To come in here with guys that I know like Gordon [Hayward], Shelvin, Boris [Diaw], Joe [Johnson], that was the exciting part, knowing we had something special if we can just put it together.”
Hill’s teammates are thrilled to have him on board and love what he’s been able to contribute on both ends of the floor thus far.
“I think we have been missing someone with that aggression the past few years,” Favors told Jody Genessy of the Deseret News. “He can get to the basket and make plays. He can hit his shots. He’s just playing great for us. … He takes charges, brings intensity defensively, makes shots and finds guys offensively.”
“It’s huge. When you’re in a game that’s going back and forth, you need a guy who will step up and make big plays and he does that,” Rodney Hood said of Hill, per Jazz.com. “Whether it’s taking a charge, being aggressive going to the basket, getting to the foul line or playing great defense, that’s great for our team to have.”
Head coach Quin Snyder couldn’t be happier with Hill. Snyder has described Hill as a calming presence when he’s running the offense, praised the point guard’s ability to make big shots and, finally, raved about the fact that Hill has already emerged as a leader who has the respect of the locker room.
“I think he’s just a good player,” Coach Snyder added. “He’s got a lot of pride in his defense. And on the offensive end, he [doesn’t] stop attacking. That’s huge for us with Gordon and Alec [Burks] out.”
“I’m big on leading by example,” Hill told Jazz.com. “Holding guys accountable, doing what I can do first and let guys read that. That’s the thing; if every one of these guys [is] able to hold each other accountable and give each other constructive criticism and don’t take it the wrong way, the better off we’ll be.”
Some pundits expected Utah to struggle a bit early in the season due to the injuries to Hayward (who dislocated and fractured finger) and Burks (who underwent surgery on his ankle). The loss of these two important pieces coupled with the adjustment period needed to get offseason additions like Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw acclimated seemed to suggest the Jazz could have a tough time out of the gate. Instead, the veterans have picked things up quickly and produced at a high level. The Jazz are currently 3-2, which includes impressive double-digit wins over the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks.
“We have a great group of guys in this locker room and I think all of us have the same mentality: Do whatever it takes to win,” Hill told Jazz.com. “Anytime you have a group of players who will make sacrifices for the betterment of the team, anything is possible out there.”
The Jazz currently have the 11th-best defense in the league, allowing 99.9 points per 100 possessions. Hill and his teammates believe they aren’t playing to their full potential yet though.
“We’ve shown improvement, but there’s still so many things that we can improve on and I’m not satisfied with it,” Hill said of the team’s defense. “I’m sure a lot of other people [in the locker room] aren’t satisfied with it either, so we’re going to watch film and try to figure out how we can get better defensively.
“We’re a good defensive team [because] we’re big, we’re athletic and we have a lot of smart guys at each position. It’s all mental. We’re going to be as good as we can on defense if we’re locked in mentally, everyone knows their role and feeds off of each other.”
In the NBA’s annual general manager survey, 24.1 percent of the league’s executives voted Utah’s addition of Hill as the most underrated player acquisition of the offseason. And at least one GM voted for Hill as the biggest-impact addition of the summer, over Kevin Durant to the Golden State Warriors.
Because Exum is still viewed as Utah’s point guard of the future and Hill is 30 years old and in the final year of his contract, it’s unclear how long the latter will remain with the Jazz. However, recent comments from Hill suggest that he wants to stay in Utah long-term.
“I’m not the type of guy that likes to move around and go from team to team,” Hill told MacMahon of ESPN. “I really like it here. My family likes it here. I’ve got some friends here. The city’s been great for me so far, and it’s a nice place to raise a family, so hopefully I get an opportunity to re-sign here if they would love me to be here.”
Hill also told MacMahon that he would be “very interested” in a contract extension with Utah, which would allow him to avoid free agency altogether. The Jazz have until Feb. 28 to restructure-and-extend the contracts of Hill and Derrick Favors. Hill is earning $8 million this season and will be an unrestricted on July 1 if Utah doesn’t extend him. The team recently agreed to a four-year, $102 million extension with Rudy Gobert.
It seems very likely that Utah will break their four-year playoff drought this season; the bigger question is just how good can this Jazz team be, especially if Hill continues to play at this level when Hayward comes back and the team is at full strength?
Utah has been regarded as one of the most promising up-and-coming teams in the NBA for some time now, but the play of Hill coupled with the development of their young core could have them ready to make some serious noise in the Western Conference sooner than expected.
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