Grant Hill goes from has-been to playoff playmaker

OPINION - He's 37 now, and most who have watched his career closely, never thought he'd still be in the league right now...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

I don’t think anyone could have predicted that Grant Hill’s career would’ve turned out like this.

The once superstar, whose injuries robbed him of the chance to reach his true potential, is now in the best position he’s ever been to win an NBA title.

Hill is a major reason why the Phoenix Suns are in the Western Conference Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. He’s the Suns best perimeter defender and does all the little things that teams need and most players won’t do. He takes charges. He dives on the floor for loose balls. He only takes good, high-percentage shots.

He’s 37 now, and most who have watched his career closely, never thought he’d still be in the league right now.

When the Detroit Pistons drafted Hill out of Duke in 1994, expectations were incredibly high. He had already generated tons of hype that year, after helping orchestrate one of the most memorable college basketball plays of all time — throwing a 70-foot pass to Christian Laetnner, who spun around and hit a buzzer beater to beat Kentucky in the regional final.

He didn’t disappoint, winning Rookie of the Year and getting selected to the All-Star team. Hill was making triple-doubles look easy before we’d ever heard of LeBron James or Rajon Rondo, getting 10 in his second season (he had 29 in his career). Like many young guards, he was (unfairly) compared to Michael Jordan.

Hill was everything for the Pistons. He led the team in points, assists and rebounds three times (putting him in the class of just one other player: Wilt Chamberlain). But despite his stellar play, his Pistons teams struggled, losing in the first round of the playoffs four times.

In 2000, the Pistons traded Hill to the Magic, and that’s when Hill’s career started to fall apart.

That same year the Magic signed Tracy McGrady, and on paper, it looked like that one-two punch would allow the Magic to compete for several NBA titles.

That never happened. Hill had nagging ankle injuries while with the Pistons, and those injuries got worse in Orlando, allowing him to play just 45 games in his first four seasons. He managed to stay healthy during the 2004-05 season, earning an All-Star selection in the process, but was injured again the next year. His tenure with the Magic is seen largely as a disappointment.

It looked like Hill’s career was done. He signed with the Suns in 2007, and again missed much of the season due to injury. During the next two seasons, Hill’s career surprisingly started to turn around. Thanks in large part to the Suns’ training staff, Hill has missed just one game the last two years.

This year was the first time he played on a team that advanced out of the first round of the playoffs (he’s previously been injured on teams that have advanced in the playoffs). He’s adjusted from being a superstar, to a role player; something many of his peers have had trouble doing.

And now Hill may be the most important Sun if Phoenix hopes to make the NBA Finals. He will be tasked with covering Kobe Bryant, the best player left in the playoffs (sorry LeBron). His defense neutralized the San Antonio Spurs’ Manu Ginobili last round, which was a major reason why the Suns swept that series.

You have to root for Hill. In his 14-year career, he has gone from phenom, to afterthought, to valuable veteran on a contender.

It’s a miracle that Hill is even still playing, let alone being this productive. His was at risk of losing his life while trying to get healed. He’s the consummate “good guy” winning his third NBA Sportsman of the Year award this season.

He understands that he has defined responsibilities now: Stick to Kobe. Crash the boards. Hit open shots. It’s his acceptance of this new role that has helped him extend his career.

We’ll never know what kind of player Hill could’ve become if he stayed healthy. But based on how he’s endured, and how he’s still playing the game after all he’s been through, we know what kind of man he is.