Before Lebron, before Kobe, before Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, before the Michael Jordan comparisons became ubiquitous, there was Grant Hill, the original heir apparent to His Airness. Looking back, it’s not hard to see why. With his long 6-foot-8 frame, he actually bore a closer resemblance to Scottie Pippen, but the sports world was nonetheless eager to anoint him as the second coming, and for good reason.
If you’ve forgotten just how good he was, take a moment to re-acquaint yourself with the mid-’90s Hill via YouTube. Marvel at Hill’s otherworldly speed and athleticism, his ability to handle the ball and cover the length of the floor like a point guard and his explosiveness around the rim. This is how you’ll want to remember him, all youth and pep and limitless potential, a once-in-a-generation talent that was poised to carry the NBA torch into the new millennium. Admittedly, it’s tempting to erase from memory all those injury-plagued seasons, the years of frustration and disappointment. But to disregard the darker chapters of his story would ultimately do a disservice to his legacy as they are positively central to deeper understanding of who he is.
As a college player at Duke, Hill was a two-time NCAA Champion and ACC Player of the Year, and it was his savvy, full-court pass in the final seconds of the 1992 National Championship game versus Kentucky that led to Christian Laettner’s iconic game-winning buzzer-beater. He was selected third overall by the Detroit Pistons in the 1994 NBA Draft and went on to share Co-Rookie of the Year honors with Jason Kidd.
He instantly became a fan favorite in the NBA, partly because he came across as such an affable guy, and during his first two seasons he led all players in All-Star voting despite Michael Jordan’s prodigal return from baseball. Even more staggering are the statistical averages he put up during his first six seasons in Detroit: 21.6 points, 7.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, a stat-line matched only by the immortal Oscar Robertson during his first six seasons in the league.
Those gaudy numbers stand today as a stark reminder of what might have been. Despite these individual accolades, his tenure in Detroit was still a story marred by unfulfilled promise. His Pistons never won a playoff series, and when he injured his ankle just before the 2000 playoffs, it was ultimately the burden of expectation that compelled him to return to action too soon, setting into motion a chain of events that threatened to derail his career in the middle of his prime. (It’s the same pressure we saw erroneously heaped upon Derrick Rose this spring, and perhaps because of the hard lessons learned by players like Hill, Rose wisely decided to delay his return until the start of next season.)