Hill climbing for NBA dream

Hill climbing for NBA dream

CHAMPAIGN — Malcolm Hill made his way through a crowded ARC the day before graduation last month, fellow Illinois students streaming in and out for cap and gown distribution.

Hill already had all of his graduation necessities. His trip to the ARC was for basketball reasons that Friday in the middle of May.

A black bag slung over his shoulder contained two basketballs and a pair of blue Nikes. He held a stack of small, orange cones and a jug of water in one hand. His cellphone in another.

Graduation might have been a day away, but he had other priorities that afternoon. At that moment, his focus was a workout with former Illini assistant coach Paris Parham.

Hill took a little time off after Illinois’ season came to an end with an NIT quarterfinal loss at Central Florida on March 22. Then the 6-foot-6 guard was where he spent most of his four years at Illinois — back in the gym.

Hill has professional aspirations.

He earned a spot in the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April but not the NBA draft combine in May.

Three days after walking at graduation, he was on his way to Las Vegas — his new home base to train at IMPACT Basketball.

“I gave myself about a week or two off, just shut down basketball to catch up with school and focus on other things, so I could be refreshed and ready for the hardest thing in my life,” Hill said. “I wanted to be 100 percent ready for that.”

‘Under the radar’
Hill’s workout that Friday afternoon before graduation had the same end goal as all the rest.

His focus heading into the NBA draft on June 22 is three-fold in terms of areas of improvement. He wants to improve his ballhandling, shooting and quickness.

Hill got a few shots up early, but his warmup was nearly all ball handling before jumping into a foot speed drill.

The workouts last anywhere from an hour to 90 minutes — not necessarily a long time in the gym, but intense nonetheless.

“A lot of ball handling, a lot of shooting and a lot of conditioning — so running up and down the court,” Hill said. “It’s difficult being able to still perform while you’re tired. The workouts I’ve been doing, I’ve been getting myself really fatigued to make sure I can still perform at a high level.

“Usually end of the workouts is conditioning, so running while I’m tired to build up my stamina and then shooting to be able to shoot while I’m tired. Then at the end, lay down somewhere to recover and get ready for the next one.”

The next stage in Hill’s professional career is the NBA draft.

The No. 3 all-time scorer in Illinois history does not currently appear on any NBA mock draft boards, moving from the late second round to undrafted in the DraftExpress mock once the early entrant candidates were finalized in late May.

But he has worked out for six teams, including the Orlando Magic, Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors and Los Angeles Clippers.

“He had a good year this year, but not a great year,” Utah Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin told the Salt Lake Tribune after Hill’s workout. “So he’s gone under the radar a bit on some draft boards. ... I think he’s going to look better once he’s in a situation where he doesn’t have to do so much.”

Hill did it all at Illinois — particularly in the past two seasons. He ran the entire gamut, from initiating the Illini offense to defending the post. A more defined role — regardless of the league — is coming.

“He’s not going to have the ball in his hands as much,” Illinois assistant coach Jamall Walker said. “With us, we had to put the ball in his hands to make plays for us. His job is going to be to take advantage of mismatches, make open threes and really be a good defender. That’s about 80 percent of the NBA, in my opinion. That’s what they do.”

The areas Hill is working to improve before the draft — ball handling, shooting and quickness — are more guard-specific.

He’ll play on the perimeter at the next level.

Refining those skills will ensure Hill can stand out in the role he’ll play as a professional while maintaining his versatility.

That was the focus of his May 31 workout in front of nearly 100 NBA front office personnel arranged by his agency, Pensack Sports Management Group.

Adam Pensack is Hill’s primary agent and also represents former Illini guard Brandon Paul.

“It’s like a double-edged sword,” Pensack said of Hill’s versatile game. “Sometimes when you’re a jack-of-all-trades, there’s some value in that, but some people might say you’re a master of none. He’s not going to play the 4 at the next level anywhere. He’s going to play on the perimeter. The workout (Wednesday), he did a good job of facing up and taking guys off the dribble. Those things are going to become more and more important.”

The skill Walker said Hill could bring teams is the ability to score.

It’s something Hill showed throughout his Illini career, and he did it at all three levels, with an ability to finish at the rim, a potent mid-range game and three-point skill.

“It’s hard to be the third all-time leading scorer at a place like (Illinois) without an ability to make plays,” Walker said. “He didn’t play a lot early as a freshman, so he scored a lot of points in a quick amount of time. He can do that. I think that will be able to translate. I don’t know if he’s elite at it, but he’s really, really good at it.”

Capitalizing on youth
When it comes to a possible NBA landing spot, Hill’s age is also in his favor.

He won’t turn 22 until right before the start of the next season, while the rest of the available seniors will be approaching their 23rd or 24th birthday. In a draft that could see 16 freshmen taken in the first round, any age advantage could be important.

“NBA teams hate seniors,” Pensack said. “There’s probably a half dozen teams that have used the word ‘hate.’ ... I just had an NBA team tell me they believe eight seniors will be drafted this year. On average the last five years it’s been closer to 18 seniors. It’s crucial this year maybe more than ever to really drive home the fact (he’s 21).”

Pensack said he was working to lock in dates for more workouts with NBA teams in the final weeks leading up to the draft.

The May 31 workout was an opportunity to get Hill in front of NBA front office personnel who might not see him otherwise. Any opportunity like that is one Hill has to exploit.

“For players that are underrated and for seniors, you have to look at every opportunity as the opportunity,” Pensack said. “You never know which one workout or one opportunity will make a difference. ... As he’s had more and more workouts, he’s gotten more comfortable with knowing what teams expect. There is a sense of urgency. I think that’s the No. 1 thing players struggle with.”

The one thing Hill will have to ultimately prove to get his shot at the NBA is if he can hold down a perimeter spot. That’s where dropping weight and getting quicker turn into necessities.

“If you’re going to play on the perimeter in the NBA, there’s not that many 6-6, 230-pound shooting guards,” Pensack said, although adding the fact that Hill’s 6.5 percent body fat is ideal. “As a result, you see NBA players are dropping weight pretty consistently. Speed is an attribute teams are looking for.”

The foot speed drills are one way Hill’s tackling that particular challenge.

Changing his diet is the other.

“I wish a lot of things were on the menu, but I can’t have it,” he said. “I’ve been eating stuff like salads, grilled chicken. Boring meals. Low carbs and a lot of protein that’s helping me lose weight. The Applebee’s, Chili’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, McDonald’s, they’ll all be there in the future. That can wait. I’m putting that stuff to the side right now.”

Putting it aside to pursue his professional basketball aspirations. One step of many Hill has taken and will continue to take to turn basketball into a career.

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