In just three NBA seasons, Solomon Hill has vacillated through enough roles to last a long career. The former late first-round pick started as a reserve on the big-is-beautiful Indiana Pacers team that finished first in the Eastern Conference before being slingshot into the starting lineup the following season in place of an injured Paul George. Last season, he all but dropped out of the rotation as well as the Pacers’ long-term plans, before a breakthrough postseason in which he shot the 3-ball like Reggie Miller and guarded power forwards helped elevate him to a five-figure-per-year free agent on this summer’s inflated open market.
For his next act, Hill went looking for the chance to be something more.
“I wanted to go somewhere that provided a place that I felt comfortable, a place where I could get better, a place that would allow me to grow,” he said on a conference call with local media on Tuesday.
To do so, he turned to his past.
The New Orleans Pelicans, armed with only the sixth overall pick in the 2013 draft, had shown an interest in Hill, then a senior out of Arizona. Hill said he wasn’t able to work out for New Orleans, but what general manager Dell Demps said during a chance meeting at LAX airport stuck with him.
“We had a talk, just a quick discussion about how the process works, about just because I get drafted somewhere it doesn’t mean it’s ever over,” Hill said. “Every time I go out I’m auditioning for another team or for the team I’m currently playing on.”
Three years later, Demps proved his point.
“When the opportunity came [in free agency], he was the first to really reach out and talk to me about, ‘I’m coming to New Orleans,’” Hill said. “[He] really wanted me to be a part of what he had going in New Orleans. And that just kind of stuck out to me, because there were a lot of people that just came out in the talks that I’ve never had a relationship with, even when I had my little run at the end of the year. It was just something that he knew that could possibly always happen, and that he wanted to see done in New Orleans. It kind of made it really easy for me and my agent, because this is a guy that believed in me three years ago when I first came into this league. For him to still be here to this day, and want to give me the opportunity to build my game and grow alongside some guys that I’m familiar with, it just made it really easy for me.”’
Hill signed a four-year, $48 million deal with the Pelicans this offseason, with the chance to reach over $50 million in incentives. One year after earning just over $1 million for an entire season, the 25-year-old will now make an average of $12 million per year -- or, nearly $1 million for every minute he averaged per game last season (14.7).
“I don’t think it’s pressure at all," he said. "I just look at it as opportunity. The contract gives me the opportunity to play the game that I love to play ... just more minutes. Once I started playing at the end of the season, when I was playing 22, 25 minutes a game, playing in the playoffs as a guy that was making $1 million a year, I’m gonna play that same way, as far as going out there, doing what my team needs me to do. I mean, I was finishing games in the playoffs. You could wipe everybody’s contract [away] and you just look at the minutes. I was finishing Game 6 of the playoffs, playing against high-caliber guys and not really worried about the money.”
His minutes, of course, figure to see a stark increase next season. Hill said he’s willing to play either small forward or power forward, but he did admit that the opportunity to start was a factor in his decision.
“It definitely came up,” he said. “They’re in a position where, for health reasons, a lot of opportunities were there the past couple years with this team. Being with a lot of different lineups and being a guy that [has] been healthy the majority of my career, there’s an opportunity to start here. Of course. That was something that was huge to me, too. I think the guys that you have returning, the opportunity to start, the style of play, meeting Coach [Alvin] Gentry made it very easy to make this decision to go with the Pelicans.”
More than anything, though, he’s looking forward to the sort of opportunities that come along with being more of a primary than an ancillary player.
“This will kind of be my chance to really expand from where I left off at last season,” he said. “Spacing the floor will always be a big key. Being able to push the ball in transition is one thing we want to do; we want to play fast. I was talking to Coach [Phil] Weber about maybe even getting in the post sometimes. That when I play the 4 and set screens; in the NBA now what they usually do is switch. So being able to get down in the post, being able to have a pull-up jumper.
“And these are all things that I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t allowed to do, but with the Pacers, it was kind of like, I just did what kept me on the floor. Now I’m in a position where I got to expand. To shoot that spot-up 3 when AD [Anthony Davis] is posting up. When Jrue [Holiday]’s driving and kicking, I’ve got to be able to maybe up-fake and take a one-dribble pull-up. I might not always be able to get to the rim. Just expanding my game and being comfortable learning about what we want to do offensively and learn off of players that are doing it currently. I think that’s more exciting than what I did with the Pacers. So I definitely want to expand my offensive game, but I’m clearly here to be our No. 1 defender.”
The next frontier in the development of Hill’s offense will come from behind the 3-point arc. A noted defender capable of guarding positions 2-through-4, Hill’s career 32.5 percent mark from long range currently keeps him from unofficially qualifying as a “3-and-D” player, a position highly coveted in today’s NBA and one sorely needed in New Orleans, especially given the recent departures of shooters Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
Hill has shown flashes -- including shooting 58 percent from deep in Indy’s seven-game loss to the Toronto Raptors and shooting 44 percent on 27 corner 3s last season -- but he hopes a change in approach last season helps provide the requisite adjustment for long-term success.
“Early on, in my first two seasons, I was so caught up in trying to be a 3-point specialist, just trying to be just a 3 guy, a guy that just sits there and waits for 3s,” he said. “But that’s never really who I’ve been in the past. The thing I was able to do my last season was if I just think about if I’m open. If I’m open, regardless of where I am on the floor, I’m just gonna shoot it, I’m gonna knock it down. I’ve been with guys like C.J. Miles, Paul George, C.J. Watson, George Hill; we’ve had enough guys around me that I should feel confident just competing with them in practice, drills that we do. I’ve worked hard enough to understand that if I shoot and I’m open it should go in, regardless of where I am, who’s closing out. If it’s too late, you’re too late. And that’s what I’m gonna try to do next year.”
As part of the Pelicans’ pitch, Hill said Gentry showed him shooting percentages of players before they played for him and those same players’ percentages while playing in his 3-happy, fast-paced offense. What Hill saw was the chance he’d been looking for.
“I’m definitely excited,” he said. “I know I’m gonna get a lot of open shot opportunities, a lot of chances to display an offensive game. But all in all, all I want to do is just knock down shots and space the floor for guys and continue to play defense.”