How good was Grant Hill?
An amazing four-year career at Duke, Rookie of the Year, Olympic gold medalist and 7-time All-Star, Hill's career arc includes the injuries which prematurely ended his prime and derailed any potential 'best player' chatter. Fair or not, it's part of his legacy.
The problem with any larger legacy conversations are that they typically shift the focus to unanswerable questions about what could have been rather than shedding light on what actually happened. In order to fully appreciate his transcendent talent and ahead of his official enshrinement into the Basketball Hall of Fame, let's examine Hill's prime relative to some of the game's biggest stars.
Just as good as Kobe Bryant?
Before diving in, here's video of Hill dropping a buzzer-beater to force OT against Kobe Bryant's Lakers in their second overall matchup, a game in which Hill finished with 34 points, 15 rebounds and 14 assists while playing all 53 minutes.
Hill's best season came at the age of 24. Though the MVP voting for the 1996-97 season is most remembered for Karl Malone controversially edging Michael Jordan, Hill quietly finished third while averaging 21.4 points, 9.0 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. The only other player under 25 to finish in the top 10 was Shaquille O'Neal, positioning Hill to ride the post-Jordan wave on the horizon.
When we think of bankable perimeter NBA stars in the immediate post-Jordan world, most gravitate towards Kobe Bryant who came closest to fulfilling the 'Next Jordan' moniker tossed around loosely in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Regardless of where you stand on Bryant, its undeniable that he's generally viewed higher on the pecking order than Hill when it comes to pure ability between the lines. Not just overall accomplishment, but also simply ability.
Here's the thing, though: Hill was every bit as productive as Kobe. Maybe not as a scorer, but in terms of overall value, the numbers suggest a peak player right on par with Bryant, even if that peak was substantially shorter. Given most arguments for Hill revolve around an acceptance of advanced metrics not yet in the public eye during his peak or even Bryant's, it's understandable why that might come as a surprise to some.
During that 1996-97 season, Hill finished third in league in total win shares while averaging .223 win shares per 48 minutes. While that latter number may not seem significant on its own, it's nearly identical to the career-best mark for Bryant who clocked in at .224 in 2005-06.
|Player efficiency rating||Kobe Bryant||28.0 in 2005-06|
|Box Plus-Minus||Grant Hill||8.0 in 1996-97|
|Offensive win shares||Kobe Bryant||11.6 n 2005-06|
|Defensive win shares||Grant Hill||5.9 in 1996-97|
|Value over replacement||Grant Hill||7.9 in 1996-97|
Metrics like Box Plus-Minus and Value Over Replacement Player also allude to Hill having a similar peak impact as Bryant with Hill's career best in each of those superior to Bryant. If you played out Grant Hill's career 100 times, there's a world that exists where "Kobe or Hill" dominates the debate landscape.
LeBron James before LeBron James
"More Magic than Michael."
When describing LeBron James, those are the words that noted NBA commentator Michael Wilbon has expressed time and again. And he's not necessarily wrong given LeBron's penchant for racking up triple-doubles and defending multiple positions.
Where that comparison falls short comes when realizing that James ranks fourth in all-time scoring average and poured in over 27 a night by just his second season. What if instead of Magic and Michael, we looked to Grant Hill, a 6'8" wing with point guard skills that could also go and get his.
Pistons Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas sees the comparison as well and said as much back when Hill was announced as one of the members of the Class of 2018. "When you talk about 6-8 guys with a handle, we see a lot of those guys now, but Grant Hill was the first guy who came into the NBA that I remember being 6-8 with a killer crossover… We see a lot of young players like that these days, guys who see LeBron James and Kevin Durant as the players they want to model their games after, the guys they want to play like. If Penny (Hardaway) and Grant don't get hurt, those are the two guys back in their day that everyone wants to play like."
MORE: Q&A with Grant Hill
Hill doubled as the league's premier triple threat from the moment he arrived on the scene, tallying a league-high 24 of them in his first three seasons. With Jason Kidd the only other player with more than six over that same stretch, Hill was doing things as a playmaker that nobody else his size could match.
Hill also served as his team's primary scorer, leading the Pistons in each of his first six seasons while topping out at 25.8 points per game his final season in Detroit. Carrying the mantle as his team's top scorer and distributor? Sounds awfully familiar.
When the sun set on Hill's sixth season and he decided to sign with the Orlando Magic, he had career averages of 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game which at that point, had only been matched by Oscar Robertson through six seasons.
As it stands today, only one other player has been able to accomplish it since. His name?
Hall of Fame Prime
With a resume that extends far beyond simply the NBA, Hill's Hall of Fame candidacy was never in question.
To fully articulate Hill's dominance at his zenith, we'll play a different 'what if' game. What if rather than an All-American career at Duke which included a pair of national championships and an ACC Player of the Year award, Hill began his NBA career with a relatively blank slate in the form of Hall of Fame credentials.
What if rather than evolving into an effective role player and extending his career into his 40s post injury, Hill had simply walked away? How might we remember Hill?
There's a decent chance he'd in the Hall of Fame, anyways.
One of Basketball-Reference.com's most unique features is a Hall of Fame probability calculator which considers the statistics, accolades and awards most correlated with getting selected into the Hall of Fame. Things like All-Star selections, championships and league-wide finishes on various stat leaderboards all factor into the equation. A more detailed explanation is here along with current odds for players, just know that it's based entirely on the NBA and does not take into account college or international experience.
We took Hill's career through the 1999-00 season, crunched the numbers and found that Hill graded out with a 51% chance of making the Hall of Fame. By comparison, Anthony Davis just finished his sixth season and if his career ended today, would have a 53% chance of making it based solely on this model.
So when celebrating Hill this weekend, remember to partake in more than playing 'what if' games. Peak ability comparable to Kobe, the pre-cursor to LeBron and a likely Hall of Famer just six seasons in… Grant Hill, take a bow.