Nothing ever stabs as deep as a career cut short. With Grant Hill, Penny Hardaway and Tracy McGrady, three similarly-sized players who were meant to redefine the point guard, shooting guard and small forward positions, it feels like someone took a sword to our guts and twisted. They were all so young, and with so much potential. Even though they all had long careers (Hill, 18 years; Penny, 14 years; McGrady, 15 years), it still hurts. Between knees, backs and ankles, all three suffered through injury-riddled primes cut short by the basketball gods.
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Penny left the NBA behind for good in 2007, and this summer Grant Hill followed him. Then, just yesterday, T-Mac announced his retirement from the NBA, the last of our generation’s greatest “what if?” trio to officially close the door on the Association. Now all we have left are memories of when T-Mac, Penny and Grant were some of the most exciting players the NBA had ever seen.
But who was the best of the three before they suffered injuries? Who was the best in their prime? We argue. You decide.
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You know the story of Grant Hill’s entrance to the league, how he was the next Michael Jordan. Which means you know about his ankle surgeries from 2000-04, his could-have-been-fatal infection in his post-surgery ankle and his career suddenly on the rocks. Knowing all of that — seeing his rise in Phoenix as a born-again bionic man who still took an opponent’s best player on defense — how would you describe Hill?
Though it’s compelling to cite alone his ability to make the Pistons’ mid-90s ketchup-and-teal uniforms look dope as the sole reason he wins, it’s that same qualification — good for a laugh as it is — that in fact lends itself best to Hill’s case. Like fashion, Hill’s game is praised because of its ephemeral quality and remembered because of its smooth appearance. Thanks to his ankle problems, his prime didn’t last long but when you read into the numbers, there’s a whole lot of substance to back up the style.
In a league that champions its gunners, there has to be an immense level of appreciation for the offensive sacrifice Hill took in his prime to produce the way he did. Yes, he was Detroit’s best option from ’94-’00, but he was never the offensive player he could have been because of his effort on defense and distribution, picking up averages of 21.4 points, nine boards and 7.4 assists in ’96-97, or 20.2, 9.8 and 6.2 in ’95-96. Able to make his team better, Detroit went from 28 wins in his rookie season to 46 and 54 by year three.
Hill may not have enjoyed the comparisons to MJ, but he never shied away from their head-to-head matchups. In 15 games against one another from 1995 to 2003, Hill had eight double-doubles and three triple-doubles and came within an assist of a fourth. (That doesn’t include a classic game on Jan. 3, 1998 where Hill went for 31 points, seven boards, six assists and six steals vs. Jordan’s 34 points, nine assists and nine steals.)
It’s that ease, on each end of the floor, that brings me back to taking Hill. It’s a sense of knowing you’re being fooled and still believing, like the eyes seeing the 6-8 forward draining himself on both ends of the court but the brain understanding it as effortless. As true as an NBA on NBC broadcast in the early afternoon, Hill made it look that way even when it wasn’t.
So this smoothness, is it exclusive to Hill? Of course not; however, Hill’s true gift was making every single part of his game just look that way.