Two hours before a recent road game in Los Angeles, Solomon Hill -- arguably the most invisible 1,200-plus-minute player in the NBA -- is setting the net on fire. He floats behind the three-point arc, going from one corner to the other, then flashes off a string of imaginary screens near the free-throw line. Almost every shot goes in.
The warm up lasts 15 minutes. It's stale. There is no shot clock, crowd or defensive presence. But for a player even most League Pass subscribers wouldn't recognize if he bumped into them on the street, the routine is necessary. He leads the Indiana Pacers in minutes despite being a role player who regularly commits rash mistakes. There are moments when it's worth wondering aloud how he's cracked a professional team's roster.
As a rookie, he sat behind Paul George, Lance Stephenson, Danny Granger and Evan Turner. From October to June, his head poked above ground for just 226 minutes. This season is the exact opposite: a baptism by fire that may very well shape a long, successful career out of one that could easily have never gotten off the ground.
Stephenson, Granger and Turner now play for different teams. George is expected to miss the entire season after breaking his leg in a Team USA exhibition game last summer. The unexpected opportunity pushed Hill into Indiana's starting lineup, where he's trying his best to take advantage, averaging 10.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
"[Minutes] definitely help a lot with your development, how you play in this league, and how you're able to bounce back from stuff and understand different game plans with different teams," Hill told Sports on Earth. "You look at like, Damian Lillard. And you know how he's turned out. I think the first two years he played like the most minutes at his position? Playing time has a lot to do with getting better."
The basic stats are solid, but right now Hill's offense is still a work in progress. Efficiency is not his friend. Right now there are 17 players posting a True Shooting percentage below .500 with at least 300 field goal attempts under their belt. Hill cracks the list, while simultaneously being one of just 10 players to shoot below 30 percent from behind the three-point line (on at least 100 attempts). The Pacers perform demonstrably better on both ends with him on the bench.
According to SportVU, Hill is shooting just 38.5 percent on drives to the hoop, and a tough-to-swallow 49.2 percent in the restricted area. (Missing over half your shots at the basket isn't an endearing quality.) He's right around league average from the mid-range, but has a long way to go in terms of his ball-handling skills.
"He's got to balance, you know, not crossing the line between aggressiveness to reckless," Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said. "But I couldn't really be happier with what I've seen from him so far this year."
Hill has size (he's listed at 6-foot-7, 225 pounds), raw explosiveness, rugged work ethic and he isn't above eating the occasional slice of humble pie. The 23-year-old knows his limitations, while at the same time understanding that sometimes getting thrown into the deep end of a pool is better than any formal swimming lesson.
"I think right now I'm just finding offense from wherever. and I think one thing that'll keep you in this league is finding a couple things that you know you can get a bucket with," Hill said. "If it was easy for everybody to go out there and shoot 50/40/90, you know they would."
He's treading water in a season most would drown in, partly because developing young, inexpensive talent is in Indiana's best interest. It's how they built themselves into a championship contender, and how they'll try and climb back into the conversation over the next few years. Whiffing on a first-round pick isn't fun for anybody, but it's extra harmful to franchises that consistently compete while refusing to approach the luxury tax. Players like Hill are critical for a team that has no other choice but to be patient.
Earlier this season, about one month after the Pacers picked up an option on his contract for the 2015-16 season, Hill dropped a career-best 28 points on the Washington Wizards. Last week he went into Oracle Arena and scored 21 points against the Golden State Warriors, fearlessly stumbling into the paint on one end and setting traps for the Splash Brothers on the other.
"I love his aggressiveness. I love his toughness. I love his motor. I think he represents everything that we want to represent," Vogel said.
That means defense. Being an on-ball bloodhound would be Hill's calling card -- well, if people knew who he was. He happily covers two, sometimes three, positions with the quickness to handle smaller guards and the brute strength to bang with physical forwards. He contests shots without fouling, plays with the confident discipline of a grizzled veteran and gives multiple efforts on each possession.
"I think he has a chance to be an exceptional defender," Vogel said. "You know, he's cutting his teeth against some of these great scorers. Not just the Kobe Bryant's of the world, but the J.J. Redick's. You know, the guys that are unique coverages. He's finding his way and has a great 'figure it out' mentality, which is a really good thing."
As good a defender as Hill's been, not everything is pitch-perfect on that end of the floor -- as nobody should expect it to be from a player with little NBA experience. He has every physical tool, but has a tendency to ball watch and lose his man away from the action, especially in transition.
But Hill has the potential to fill an important role, and Indiana is praying he steadily improves over the next few seasons, much like Chicago Bulls shooting guard Jimmy Butler. In just his second season, at the exact same age Hill is now, Butler was shoved into a similar fire after Derrick Rose tore his ACL; increased playing time accelerated his growth, leading to the previously unimaginable All-Star-worthy height where he currently sits.
Not everyone can be a star, and it wouldn't be the safest bet to assume Hill becomes one as Butler did. But as a lockdown defender who opposing teams can't leave open? Sure. The off-ball cutting menace who crashes the glass, makes hustle plays, capitalizes in transition and knocks down the occasional jumper? Why not? Every team needs these players. Right now, Hill is figuring out who he'll be, on a team that won't bench him after every mistake.
"You don't just expect something, especially in this league," Hill said. "We could've made moves. We could've got somebody else in here. We still can. So you just take the opportunity, work hard with it and keep it going as long as possible."