When it comes to University of Arizona basketball practices, it's all about the gold jersey. To the players the jersey is literally treated like gold. The premise behind the sought-after uniform? The Wildcat that has the best week of practice gets to wear the jersey the following week -- and doesn't have to run sprints.
Solomon Hill rarely relinquished the jersey his last two years at Arizona.
“The thing is even if you're just trying to win the gold jersey so you don't have to run, you still had a good week of practice,” Hill said. “If you have a good week of practice you're building good habits. So it's hard to have good weeks of practice and nothing good happens in the games. So [for me] it became trying to knock them together: gold jersey after gold jersey after gold jersey.”
It’s that gold jersey work ethic that got Hill noticed by the Pacers, who surprised many by selecting him with the No. 23 pick in the 2013 NBA draft. He arrived in Indianapolis to little fanfare. His rookie year, he spent more time on the bench than in a blue and gold jersey, playing in just 28 games.
But the injury-plagued Pacers thrust Hill into the starting lineup this season, starting him 34 of 35 games. In turn, Indy has seen flashes of stardom from the second-year player along with his share of struggles. Hill is averaging 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds in 32 minutes per game while shooting 38.6 percent from the floor and just 31 percent from deep. While the 23-year-old has yet to develop into a consistent contributor, Pacers GM Donnie Walsh believes Hill has big things in store down the line.
“I thought he had a very mature game [at Arizona] and he knew how to play. He was strong and he could defend. He had a lot of aspects to the game,” Walsh said. “He’s played very well. He’s asked to guard the best player on the other team, which for a young guy coming in is very hard to do because there are a lot of factors that you can’t teach. But, he’s smart enough to do that.”
One of the reasons Hill is ahead of the curve is his experience playing all over the floor. He was a point guard in high school, a power forward at Arizona and has transitioned to the three in the NBA. With size and handle, the 6-foot-7 L.A. native can do a little bit of everything.
“I feel like it's harder to be a one-trick pony unless your one trick is the best trick in the book,” Hill said. “If you're a guy that can do multiple things and be put in multiple positions, just an all-around basketball player, you kind of make it hard to stay off the floor.”
While Hill might not do one thing exceptionally, he is a jack-of-all-trades. When you’re not the star of your team, you learn to do the little things. At Arizona, Hill was roommates with Derrick Williams, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 draft, and played second fiddle. In Indy last year, Hill played behind Paul George and was content taking notes and playing a complementary role on a successful team.
“The most important thing to me is winning, which is one of the reasons this year is a little different,” he said. “Even though I’m playing, I would definitely sacrifice minutes to have more team success. One thing I learned from [Arizona coach Sean Miller] is team success drives individual success. You can get everything you want if you’re on a winning team. That’s how I play basketball; I don’t have to be the guy you see all the time.”
What may be perplexing to some is that Hill has the capabilities to be the guy in the forefront. Although he’s struggled over his last five games, shooting just 25.7 percent, he’s also been a silver lining for a 13-22 Pacers team. He scored a career-high 28 points against the Wizards earlier this year and netted a winning layup against former teammate Lance Stephenson against the Hornets on Nov. 19. He’s also earned trust from head coach Frank Vogel, who has played Hill a team-high 1,121 minutes (Roy Hibbert is second at 809).
“He’s been given an opportunity to grow, make mistakes and play through those mistakes and learn,” Vogel said. “He certainly has shown he has the ability to be an elite defender and we’re putting the ball in his hands too, which is a welcome surprise.”
Pacer veteran forward David West says he has watched Hill’s confidence grow game by game and expects him to become even more aggressive.
“He just has to continue to go,” West said. “He has to make sure when he has the ball he is confident to go out there and make plays because that’s what we need. I’ve told him to stay solid, trust yourself and become a guy who is a confident shot taker.”
The confidence factor is something Hill continues to work on, often saying the less he thinks about playing, the better he plays. It’s a conversation he often has with his father, who he talks to after every game. He wants his son to be more aggressive; take the gold jersey practice mentality into each game.
“Everyone is saying that I’m playing good now compared to last year, but there is a whole other level I have to take it to now that I’m getting this opportunity,” Hill said. “I have to be able to learn on the fly and adjust accordingly throughout the year. You shouldn’t have to wait an entire year for me to be a better basketball player. I just have to show my work, stay in the gym and work on learning the game.”