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October 26, 2006

Jordan Hill smiling on the way to success

Ever since the first time Arizona fans read about Jordan Hill (From an unknown to a star recruit overnight), it's been hard to accurately gauge expectations for the 6-foot-9, 211-pound big man.

Hill emerged on the national scene - and rankings - after a terrific performance in the 2005 Houston Kingwood Classic. One game in Houston, a 12-point, 15-rebound performance, impressed recruiting analysts enough to rank him in the top 50 of several publications following Houston.

Three weeks later, he committed to Arizona after a full court press recruiting effort from the UA coaches.

GOAZCATS.com didn't get the chance to watch Hill play until his third national event, the Pangos All-American Camp, which kicked off on June 3rd of 2005.

We were immediately impressed.

"The Arizona coaches have a little bit of work to do with Hill in terms of teaching him the game," we wrote after seeing him play for the first time. "However, when it's all said and done, Hill could be one of the best big men to ever come through the school. He has that kind of potential."

Hill's athleticism and aggressive play stood out at Pangos, but as the summer went on, he found himself dropping in the national rankings. In fact, by the end of the summer, he had completely fallen out of most Top 100 lists and was hardly even considered a Top 150 player in the country.

Arizona's coaching staff remained optimistic about Hill, regardless of the experts' opinions. When Hill signed with Arizona, the UA coaches could finally say publicly what they had been holding in for months.

"Jordan has a great upside," head coach Lute Olson said.

"Jordan is really a high level athlete," said assistant Josh Pastner. "He can run like a gazelle; he really gets up and down the court. He has a great upside. Jordan has a lot of natural instinct on the court; he just needs to get stronger."

"Jordan is an athletic big man that's going to help us on the inside, especially with Kirk (Walters) being a senior," said assistant Miles Simon. "He'll be able to learn from Kirk for a year and have some great battles with him."

Hill arrived in Tucson early this summer to begin working out and taking classes. Rumors around McKale Center were that Hill was extremely impressive and by the time fans got the chance to see him at the Lute Olson Skill Camp in late June/early July, it was well known what kind of potential that Hill had.

A week and a half into official practices, Hill's teammates know exactly how good he is now and could be in the future.

"Jordan Hill is still learning but he's really good right now," said senior forward Ivan Radenovic. "He's real athletic, he's dunking everything around the basket and that's what we need."

"He's long and athletic," said sophomore forward Fendi Onobun.

"He's surprised a lot of people since he was under the radar in high school," freshman point guard Nic Wise said. "He's been outplaying a lot of our big men."

"Jordan has been the biggest surprise for me," sophomore forward Marcus Williams said. "He's exactly what we needed. He's a big man with a lot of timing, he likes to dunk everything and he's real physical."

"Jordan is a sleeper," junior wing Jawann McClellan said. "He just tries to dunk on everybody. He's one person that can rebound, block a shot and then get a rebound on the other end of the court."

"He'll block a lot of shots and get a lot of dunks," said senior center Kirk Walters.

While the other Wildcats are talking Hill up, the freshman remains humble about his play so far. Hill didn't expect to make such an impact in practice right away.

"I'm really surprised," Hill said. "I just came in, did what I have to do and I've improved a lot since I've been here. I know I've done well."

Even though Hill is surprising himself, Arizona's coaches knew exactly what they were getting.

"I'm not surprised," said Simon, who watched Hill play pickup on his official visit in May of 2005, before he was officially hired by Arizona. "I thought he was impressive on his recruiting trip and he has continued to impress us as a great young man and also as an athlete."

A beast on the court, blocking shots and dunking the ball every time he gets the chance, Hill is all smiles off of it. He's optimistic, humble and happy to be a part of the UA program.

In interviews with the media, he's always smiling and looking at things optimistically.

On Tuesday, Hill was asked who fans should root for in tonight's Red/Blue scrimmage.

"They should root for everybody," Hill said with a wide grin. "Everybody is good, they're playing hard and playing wonderful. Root for everybody."

How will it feel to play for the first time in McKale Center?

"I know it's going to feel wonderful with all the Arizona fans."

How are the workouts going?

"The team is great, everybody is wonderful."

It's easy to root for Hill after talking to him once but it's easier to root for him when you consider his background. He only played basketball for two years in high school so he could take care of his siblings and concentrate on academics.

Hill's mother passed away when he was a kid, forcing him to grow up quickly. Helping raise his younger siblings, while getting good enough grades to get into college, took precedent over basketball.

The time away from the court obviously hindered Hill's development, making him such an inconsistent player on the AAU circuit. Luckily for him, his first appearance in front of college coaches was one of his best and landed him an Arizona offer - one he quickly accepted.

However, Hill's commitment to Arizona was reacted to by UA fans with the same "why did the coaches take another project?" complaint that seems to come with just about every big man to verbal to Arizona.

Back home, some people doubted that Hill was good enough to earn a basketball scholarship to Arizona, while others wondered if he was even Division-IA player. Many didn't think he would qualify academically.

He's proved everyone wrong.

"Jordan has worked very hard to get where he's at," said Pastner. "He hasn't been playing basketball for a long time. His biological mother passing at a very young age was obviously tough for him but he has a great father and a great step mom so he gets a lot of family support.

"He's a super, super young man. He's very respectful and very self-conscious about doing things the right way. He's got good self discipline and that's a good characteristic to have if you want to succeed in life."

A good support group and coaches that have looked over him deserve a lot of credit for developing Hill into the person he is today. Gary Graham, Hill's AAU coach with the Smyrna Stars, and Chris Chaney, his coach at The Patterson School, where Hill prepped as a senior, should both be recognized.

"Gary is one of the finest human beings you'll ever meet," says Pastner. "He was very instrumental in Jordan's development in life. Coach Chris Chaney also gets a lot of credit. He's been absolutely phenomenal. He's a great, great coach and has been very good for Jordan as well."

Even though Atlanta, Georgia is where Hill considers home, he's quickly adapted to Tucson and he's thrilled with his UA experience thus far.

"There's no doubt that he's taken Tucson in and he loves it here," said Pastner.

"I'm learning a lot here," Hill said. "The coaches know what they're talking about. I've had good coaches before but this is a D-I, elite school so these coaches know exactly what they're talking about.

"The chemistry is good. Everybody gets along and everybody knows their role. The point guards get shots but they also look for the big man down low. I've had problems with that before but not here.

"All of us play with each other real well. We like each other, look out for each other and everything is just going real well here."

Hill says that the fact his older teammates have taken him under their wing and helped him adjust to the college level has made things much easier for him.

"I have a lot of good teammates," he said. "They're older and have been here longer than me so I need to listen to what they say.

"When I mess up sometimes they'll take me to the side, talk to me and let me know what's wrong so I don't make that same mistake again."

With the chemistry problems that Arizona has faced last year, Hill - like fellow freshman Chase Budinger and Wise - is just what the team needed. Not only is he going to help the team on the court, but he won't disrupt team chemistry off of it.

Most importantly to Arizona's coaches, he can play and he can help Arizona win a championship.

"Jordan is one of the most coachable people that you will run into," Olson said. "He picks things up very quickly. You never have to tell him twice. He's tremendously quick off his feet. He runs the court with ease, and he has great timing on the boards and shot blocking."

"There's been a lot of good things with Jordan so far," Pastner said. "We're very excited about the way he's played. He's quick off the floor, he's athletic, he's a very good passer in the high post and he has really nice touch around the hoop.

"We've been really excited about him. Does he have a lot to learn? Absolutely. But there's plenty of positives about him as well."

In the very first Jordan Hill interview ever written, Gary Graham wasn't shy when we asked him how good the big man was.

"He's so good that Ray Charles could see him," Graham said at the time.

We couldn't confirm that then and we obviously can't confirm it now, but what is confirmed is that Jordan Hill hasn't even played a game but his basketball ability has been the story of Arizona's pre-season.

If Hill can meet the expectations that he's quickly compiling by his coaches, teammates and fans, Arizona could have the dominant big man that the UA faithful have been begging for over the past several years.

Fans will get the opportunity to see what he can do tonight at Arizona's Red/Blue game.

"I'm ready to get out there, show everybody what I got, play hard and do what I have to do," Hill said.

All Jordan Hill has to do is live up to expectations. After what he's gone through to get here, that shouldn't be too tough.

Josh Gershon


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