Anytime Jordan Hill has stepped foot in a gym near his Atlanta residence this summer, the visual images starkly contrast with what made him a pleasant surprise for the Lakers through the past two seasons.
Instead of perfecting his post moves, Hill takes at least 1,000 jump shots per day. Instead of performing Mikan drills close to the basket, Hill often participates in shooting contests with reserve shooting guard Jodie Meeks. Instead of honing in on his rebounding, Hill’s paying extra attention to the ball handling.
All that work led Hill making one unexpected evaluation surrounding his outside shooting stroke.
“I have a lot more confidence,” Hill said in a phone interview with this newspaper. “I feel I’m a good shooter now.”
As Hill enters the 2013-14 season as a key reserve and even a possible starter, how he finds that balance between expanding his game and playing to his strengths could play a huge part in dictating his success or failure.
Before suffering a torn labrum in his left hip that required surgery and kept him out for 53 games last season, Hill became a focal part of the Lakers’ bench namely by providing endless energy on defense, rebounding and hustle plays. Such a staple earned him a role in his first season with the Lakers two years ago after they initially considered him nothing more than a throw-in to allow them to trade Derek Fisher to the Houston Rockets both to save salary and trim their backcourt. Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni sat Hill for three consecutive games last December, bringing a familiar reminder how he played a similarly limited role under him during his rookie season four years ago with the New York Knicks.
Hill eventually earned playing time by sticking to his strengths on defense, rebounding and energy. The Lakers expect Hill to have a strong role this season, too. But it came with a caveat. Hill said both D’Antoni and Kobe Bryant in separate instances instructed him this offseason to work on his mid-range jumper.
How does Hill prevent his increased outside shooting from diluting the qualities that earned him such a prominent role on the Lakers’ bench in the first place?
“I’m still going to do what I’m going to do,” said Hill, who averaged a career-high 6.7 points and career-high 5.7 rebounds in 15.8 minutes last season through 29 regular-season games. “Provide energy, play defense, rebound. That’s my game. That’s not going to change. I just want to be able to have more options and have something that the team can rely on. It’s all about just trying to expand my game.”
Hill then ticked off a few examples on how that could happen. When D’Antoni tinkers with frontline combinations with Pau Gasol and Chris Kaman. When Steve Nash runs pick-and-rolls and needs more space to elude a defender or a reliable shooter to knock down a basket. When Bryant’s continuously trying to navigate double teams.
Yet, it remains to be seen if this formula will work.
For one, D’Antoni had encouraged Gasol last season to take a similar approach. But that changed role coupled with a litany of injuries (knee tendinitis, concussion, plantar fascia in left foot) contributed to Gasol averaging a career-low 13.7 points on 46.6 percent shooting.
Secondly, Hill had taken steps prior to last season to improve his mid-range jumper, but it hasn’t materialized. Hoopdata illustrates how Hill’s current success relies more on looks inside. Consider his shooting percentage on shots at the rim (65.2 percent), attempts within three to nine feet (40.7 percent) and shots 16 to 23 feet from the basket (33 percent). Hill shot 50 percent on shots within 10-15 feet, but they’re considered a small sample size. Meanwhile, Hill has never made a three-pointer in his four-year NBA career.
Still, Hill expressed positive sentiments after working on his shooting this offseason in Atlanta with a certain teammate known for his gun slinging. Meeks, a fearless three-point shooter that struggled with inconsistency last season, gave Hill pointers on his follow through, footwork and how to find open shots. Hill also reported he beat Meeks three out of 18 shooting contests they had during the course of the summer.
“Jodie’s the shooter, but the fact I was able to get in a few games shows I’m doing something right,” Hill said.
But don’t look for Hill to worry about having a heightened offensive role.
“The thing with me this year is I’m not going to want to worry about scoring,” Hill said. “I’m going to let Pau and Chris take care of that. I’ll make sure I’ll do everything on defense, the little things, anything to make this team better.”
The Lakers sure need it after losing Dwight Howard to free agency and waiving Metta World Peace in a cost-cutting measure through the amnesty provision.
“I was surprised. I thought he definitely was going to stay in L.A,” Hill said of Howard. “But you can’t hold it against him. You have to wish him the best. But it’s definitely going to be a huge loss for us.”
Even with Howard and World Peace last season, the Lakers struggled mightily on defense.
They ranked 21st overall in total defense. Breakdowns on pick-and-roll defense became normal for reasons including Nash’s lack of speed, Bryant’s gambling, Howard’s diminished athleticism because of offseason back surgery, poor communication and effort.
Does Hill’s defensive responsibility increase?
“A lot of people say that. I don’t know maybe. I’m definitely going to keep bringing it every day, doing what I can to help the team That’s my game, playing defense, being physical, getting the rebounds,” Hill said. “But it’s about being on the same page and playing as a unit. You look at the other guys in the league – Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker. It’s hard to stop those guys on every play. It’s all about just having each other’s backs, communicating, being organized, working hard. It’s a huge loss not having Dwight and Metta, but it’s never about one guy. It’s about five guys.”
Hill then gushed about the Lakers hiring Kurt Rambis as an assistant coach to oversee the team’s defense. Rambis spent 10 seasons as Phil Jackson’s lead assistant coach, had head-coaching stints with both the Lakers (1999) and Minnesota Timberwolves (2009-2011)and won four championships in his nine-year playing career with the Lakers during the Showtime Era.
“Kurt Rambis will be a huge help. He’s going to hone in the defensive side,” Hill said. “Mike will take care of the offensive side. Kurt really knows about defense and I’m sure he’ll bring a lot of insight.”
Still, part of that effort could hinge on how fast the Lakers play.
They struggled last season in playing at the fast pace D’Antoni wanted, a product of an aging roster sapped with injuries. D’Antoni eventually relented and opted for a more methodical tempo. But the Lakers have since acquired pieces that appear more suited for D’Antoni’s system, including Kaman, former USC product Nick Young, Jordan Farmar and Wesley Johnson.
Hill paused for a few seconds before considering to what degree the Lakers should run.
“That’s something we’ll have a better idea of once training camp starts,” Hill said. “I’m young. I love running, getting up and down, trying to create a spark and get easy buckets. But it’s all about what the team needs. We’ll have a better feel once we start up in practice and get that chemistry going.”
Hill will also have a better feel for how his hip will fare after spending all offseason rehabbing it.
“It’s not 100 percent, but I feel 100 percent,” Hill said. “It’s never going to be completely 100 percent. But it’s not going to be anything where it’s going to affect my game. I just have to make sure I’m on top of my rehab and take care of my body. But I think I’ll be fine.”
Hill maintains he feels the same way about the offseason work he’s put on his outside shooting, eager to show that will translate over to when the season starts.
“I just want to expand my game,” Hill said. “So if I can stretch the floor and make some shots, it’ll help us a lot.”
Follow L.A. Daily News Lakers beat writer Mark Medina on Twitter. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org