Malcolm Hill didn’t think he was good enough to play during his freshman year at Illinois. In fact, it got to the point where he nearly asked his coaching staff if he could redshirt his first year on the team.
As it turned out, it was a good thing he never officially asked for that redshirt.
In four years at Illinois, the 6-foot-5 guard would go on to finish his collegiate career as the third all-time leading scorer in program history. He took over sole possession of third place from Dee Brown on the all-time scoring list after recording 13 points against Boise State in the second-round of the NIT this season.
Even he didn’t expect anything like that to happen.
“I didn’t even think I would be good enough to play at that level,” Hill told Basketball Insiders. “I was really skinny and young being 17 coming into college. I was going up against juniors and seniors. They were just dominating me strength and skill wise. It just shows the amount of work and the extra hours I put into working on my game.”
Now, Hill is regarded as one of the top seniors in the country. He averaged 17.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.2 steals in 33.3 minutes per game this season for the Illini. He finished third in the Big Ten in scoring and was named to the All-Big Ten Second Team. He led his team in points, assists and steals.
“I just did whatever was asked of me,” Hill said. “I played about four different positions all year. If I was asked to score the ball, I would score the ball. If I was asked to make us better, I would make others better.”
For his efforts this season, Hill earned an invitation to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. The tournament brings in the top 64 seniors in the country each year and it gives the players a chance to showcase their game in front of some of the top decision-makers in the NBA.
He recorded nine points, four assists and three rebounds in his Portsmouth debut on Wednesday.
While Hill admitted that he didn’t think he’d be good enough to play his first year at Illinois, it could be that freshman season that allowed him to gain the confidence needed to play at such a high level for a basketball powerhouse.
Hill spent the first 23 games of his freshman year coming off of the bench but was inserted into the starting lineup for the final 12 games of the season. As a starter, Hill averaged 6.5 points, 2.8 assists and one assist in 20.5 minutes per game.
After playing as a starter and off of the bench for the Illini, Hill knew he could make it in college.
“I think that was when we were playing our best basketball and it was a dream to be starting for the University of Illinois especially as a freshman,” Hill said. “I was playing pretty well for the team. I think we were about one game short of the NCAA Tournament. Even though we were one game short, it was a really good year the way it ended.”
Hill’s production soared during his sophomore season when he became a full-time starter. He averaged 14.4 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. He followed that up with a career-high 18 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals per game as a junior. His numbers dipped a bit as a senior, but he made it a point to get others involved in order to be a better teammate.
“I think a perfect example is I had a 40-point game one time this year,” Hill said. “The very next game I had three points and barely shot the ball because I thought it was important to get the confidence up of my other teammates because it was against a Division II team we were playing.
“I made a strong note this past offseason to learn how to be a great role player. Most of the NBA are role players so you have to learn to be effective without the basketball. I think I learned that, especially at the Nike camp I went to. I think the biggest way to be effective without the basketball is to play really hard on defense.”
As he looked back at his time in college, a couple of performances still stick out to him by opposing players.
“I’d say the one person I was impressed by was Nik Stauskas my freshman year,” Hill said. “He just lit us up. His shooting was incredible. I’d [also] say D’Angelo Russell. Playing against him as a freshman, you don’t realize the impact he puts on the game until you look at his stats because his stats against us seem like he made it so easy.”
Hill will balance training for the NBA Draft and his remaining school work in Chicago until he graduates from Illinois. He is excited for the opportunity to showcase his game in front of NBA scouts and executives in the coming weeks.
He’ll spend his time training working on virtually all aspects of his game. Among the things he’s going to focus on is three-point shooting. College prospects have to adjust to the extended three-point line in the NBA and he’ll be working hard to be ready.
Hill is currently projected by DraftExpress to be taken at No. 56 and is ranked as their eighth-best senior prospect. A good showing in front of teams during the Combine and in workouts can go a long way in improving his stock. Although so much is riding on the coming weeks, Hill just wants to enjoy this process above everything else.
“I didn’t even test the process last year so some people are going to have experience but this is going to be my first time,” Hill said. “I think the biggest thing I’m going to take away from this is just to have fun because not everybody gets a chance to do this. A lot of people wish they were in my position so I’m just grateful to be in this position.”
When Hill opted to return for a senior year at Illinois, he wanted to become one of the best players ever to play for the program. After securing third place on the school’s all-time scoring list, it’s safe to say he’s accomplished that goal.
Now, it’s time to conquer the NBA.
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