Throwback Thursday: Grant Hill

Welcome back to our Throwback Thursday blog. Each week, we spotlight one of our favorite throwback superstars. We choose these stars using a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless We Just Launched Basketball.” This week’s Throwback Thursday pick is one of the all-time great what-ifs of basketball history, Pistons superstar Grant Hill.

Elite scoring. Savant passing. Surprising rebounding. Clutch defending. Sprite-slinging. All from an incredibly charismatic small forward playing in the Midwest. Sound like anybody you know?

Well, before it was Lebron James, it was Grant Hill. The 1995 Rookie of the Year* was the precursor to King James, a do-it-all superstar who not only offered astonishing highlight dunks, stops, and assists, but also sported an elite basketball IQ and unimpeachable fundamentals.

*Technically co-Rookie of the Year with Jason Kidd, but we don’t carry the Mavs yet so tough luck.

Through the first six years of his career—before an ankle injury (and ensuing staph infection) cost him the rest of his prime—Grant Hill led the Pistons in scoring, rebounding, and assists in three different seasons. Only two other players have ever done that more than once: Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain, both doing so way back when they were freak athletes in a significantly less athletic league. Besides Hill, only Wilt’s done it three times. That’s the kind of company Hill was keeping through his time in Detroit.

Also in that company? Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird, the only players to rack up more points, assists, and rebound through their first six years than Hill did. Bird did it playing on a virtual All-Star team with Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Tiny Archibald, Dave Cowens, and Dennis Johnson (four Hall of Famers). Turns out passing to guys like that is pretty great for your assist totals.

Oscar did it in an uptempo league on a team that averaged about thirty more possessions per game than Hill’s Pistons, which means about 40% more chances to shoots, rebound, or pass. He also got to pass to Hall of Famer Jerry Lucas on the inside for much of that, and multi-time All-Stars Jack Twyman and Wayne Embry for all of it.

How about Hill? His best teammate in Detroit was post-prime Joe Dumars (though to Joe’s credit, he did make two All-Star teams during Hill’s tenure). He also got pre-prime Allan Houston (who would later become a star in New York) and Jerry Stackhouse (who became a star when Hill left Detroit).

What I’m getting at here is that while the numbers say Bird and Oscar “beat” Hill’s first six years, the degree of difficulty was a whole lot lower given their eras and All-Star supporting casts. In their first six years, Bird and Oscar had 4 (Oscar) and 2* (Larry) All-NBA teammates. Hill had zero, despite playing in an era with 5 more All-NBA spots available per season on the Third Team. Over the span, Oscar and Bird each saw their teammates earn 11 All-Star appearances. Hill’s teammates managed 3.

*Bird teammate Dennis Johnson also made two All-NBA teams during Larry’s first six years, but they were before he joined the Celtics.

There’s a popular conception of Grant Hill that he was a great player with a short prime cut short by circumstances beyond his control. Something in the vein of Shawn Kemp or Drazen Petrovic or Elton Brand. Those guys are all great players, but lumping Hill in with them is selling him incredibly short.

Grant Hill, through six years, was one of the best players of all time. Given that even in spite of his injuries he played for eighteen seasons, it’s fair to suggest longevity wouldn’t have been an issue for an injury-free Hill. There’s every chance that a healthy Grant Hill would have gone down as the greatest small forward of all time.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at his six-year numbers up against a group that could reasonably be considered the five greatest small forwards* ever: Julius Erving, Rick Barry, Larry Bird, Lebron James, and Kevin Durant.

*Reasonable cases could be made for Elgin Baylor, John Havlicek, and Scottie Pippen on that list (and this writer personally would probably put Scottie on there) but those are the five who’ve won both a regular season ABA or NBA MVP and a Finals MVP.

Hill’s scoring isn’t quite up to par, but his efficiency is, and his passing and rebounding are right there. The scoring is as much a function of playing in the slow-it-down 90s as anything else (he leap-frogs Larry if you go by points per possession), and ultimately those stats are the resume of an all-time great.

That Hill missed out on that destiny is one of the great tragedies of basketball history. But unlike the rest of the what-if pantheon (Len Bias, David Thompson, Ralph Sampson, Penny Hardaway, Connie Hawkins), Hill’s story at least has a happy ending.

After years of being hobbled by that injury, missing out on the bulk of his prime, he reinvented himself as a do-everything Swiss army knife for the Phoenix Suns offense in the late 2000s while simultaneously evolving into one of the most versatile and effective defenders in basketball. There’s a fair chance Hill came within one fluky Ron Artest rebound of a Finals appearance, and likely a championship.

Nonetheless, Hill got to spend his twilight years the way a great player should: playing with other great players on a contending team. This article, though, is about his time in Detroit, so let’s circle back to just how special it was to watch him work his magic in the Motor City.

Hill had the explosive, rim-shaking dunks that would have detonated YouTube if he’d debuted just five years later, and that’s what initially drew him so many fans—and the attention of Sprite (Grant Hill drinks it, don’t you know). But beneath the Vince-Carter-before-Vince-Carter acrobatics, Hill had a silky sweet passing game that was a cross between John Stockton’s no-frills fundamental brilliance and Manu Ginobili’s madcap creativity. He could make the obvious-but-challenged pass with no margin for error, and he could just as easily make the how-the-hell-did-he-see-that pass out of traffic.

Mostly, though, he could electrify. When Hill got going, his teammates got better. The arena got louder. Grant Hill, when he was feeling it, was an event. Anything could happen with the ball in his hands, and usually it did. From revenge-dunking on Alonzo Mourning after a takedown to crossing Scottie Pippen out of his sneakers to whatever it took for his team to win, Grant Hill could do it, even if no one else could. He was better than he needed to be at every single facet of the game. There was nobody better at doing everything better…

…at least, for those magical six years, anyway.

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