Doug Collins had a front-row seat for the best of Grant Hill — and, ultimately, what might have been.
As the head coach of the Detroit Pistons from 1995-98, he watched his perennial All-Star and MVP candidate bring Detroit from 28 wins as a rookie to 54 in his third season — when he scored 20 points a game, led all non-guards in assists and was responsible for more than one out of every three triple-doubles in the league.
“He was simply unbelievable,” said Collins, now a TNT analyst and Scottsdale resident. “If he had played a full career, I think there’s no doubt he would be considered among the top six, seven players in the history of the game.
“Grant is so smooth, so effortless. In Detroit, he was something to watch. And he did it all with the same class and professionalism he’s always exhibited.”
But that Grant Hill was 10 years and five ankle surgeries, one staph infection and one sports hernia ago. He spent five of his seven seasons in Orlando chained to the bench in a suit, raking in nearly $93 million but unable to earn it on the court.
“It was difficult to watch and accept. Here was a great talent, stopped cold by injuries,” Collins said. “Each comeback made it more frustrating for him.”
Now healthier, but just a few months shy of 35 years old, Hill will be introduced today as the newest Sun —– and in the eyes of management, a missing piece to Phoenix’s championship puzzle. But what does Hill have left, and what can he add to a team that has won 60 games or more in two of the last three seasons but failed to reach the NBA Finals?
Collins thinks a lot. He sees Hill as the perfect addition on and off the court. The Hill he saw last season (when he played 65 games and averaged 14.4 points in 31 minutes) showed he still has plenty to contribute to the right team.
“Talking to Grant, he is healthier than he has been in a long time,” said Collins, whose son Chris played with Hill at Duke for two years. “The rehabilitation and therapy he’s found has made him a lot better. He finished out last season on the court and feels like he’ll be even better. He has fresh legs because of all the time he’s missed.
“Phoenix’s style will be perfect for him. Running will be much easier minutes than the grind-it-out style he’s played in the Eastern Conference.”
Collins sees several Suns benefiting from Hill’s arrival — from two-time MVP Steve Nash, guard Raja Bell and forward Boris Diaw right through disappointing backup Marcus Banks.
His arrival might allow Phoenix coach Mike D’Antoni to finally peel back Nash’s minutes and expand his bench to nine or 10 players with specific roles.
“When Grant played for me, he was my point guard on offense. He can still do that,” Collins said. “We had Lindsey Hunter as an on-the-ball defender on one end and a shooter on the other while Grant created for us. If Marcus Banks can utilize his ability as a defender, not have to run the offense when Nash is resting and just run the floor with a guy like (Leandro) Barbosa, it could be just what the team has missed in those lulls.
“Mike is going to have a lot of flexibility, a lot of ways he can go depending on the opposition. This is a key pickup because the ripples will be felt through the whole team.”
Off the court, Hill’s professionalism and muted ego could solidify a Suns locker room that was less harmonious than in years past.
“When you have a player as celebrated and decorated as Nash has been, it’s easy to wind up with other players who feel they’re not getting their just due,” Collins said. “But Hill understands all that and how important it is to keep it under control. He’s here to win. He’s not making a lot of money, he’s not going to be pushing to play 40 minutes a night. He’s going to make his teammates better. All of that makes for a good situation.”
All provided, of course, that Hill can stay on the court. The Suns are banking that D’Antoni’s penchant for short practices and a training staff renown for its aggressive, preventative measures will combine to keep him productive.