MADISON, Wis. — Jordan Hill spent most of his offseason time in two worlds: Working on his basketball skills and thinking about working on his basketball skills. Every player wants to find areas to improve, but Hill entered the summer with a feeling of even deeper purpose after a freshman season in which he barely played for Wisconsin.
During the course of those workouts, Hill contemplated ways he could make himself valuable to Badgers coach Bo Ryan. Being more consistent. Trying to take a charge. Taking care of the ball. Finding open teammates. Hitting open jump shots. All the while, he came to this very simple conclusion.
"I don’t want to be on the bench," Hill said during last week’s team media day. "I’m sick of it. It makes me angry. It hurts me inside to be on the bench. I’ve been trying to do everything I can to avoid that."
Hill, a 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore guard from Pasadena, Calif., appeared in 11 games and averaged 0.6 points and 0.3 rebounds in 2.3 minutes per game last season. Among the 13 players on the team to appear in a game, Hill tied for the fewest minutes (25) with point guard George Marshall, who transferred after appearing in only two games.
This season, an opening exists for Hill to slide into Wisconsin’s fourth guard spot in the playing rotation. With 2 1/2 weeks left before the Badgers’ season opener, the position remains an open competition between Hill and redshirt sophomore Zak Showalter. The rest of the guard rotation is set with starters Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser, and Bronson Koenig as the first guard in off the bench.
During Sunday’s annual Red-White scrimmage, Hill scored seven points on 3-of-5 shooting with one rebound, two assists and one turnover in 17 minutes. Showalter tallied six points on 2-of-5 shooting with five rebounds, two assists and no turnovers in 31 minutes. And neither player seemed to provide much separation in the race.
"I think if you asked anyone, that’s who they would say is fighting for that fourth spot," Hill said. "But I also want to come at everyone’s neck. I want to come at Bronson’s neck, Josh’s, Trae. Even though their spots are solidified, I’m not worried about that. I want to show that I’m not afraid. I’m confident, and I’m going to play that way every time I have the ball, every time I’m on the court."
In order for Hill to become the player he wanted, he noted several aspects of his game needed fixing. In particular, Hill spent the summer working on his shooting with Ryan’s son, Matt, in California. Matt Ryan, a shooting coach, is now the director of basketball operations at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
Last season, Hill said he floated to the left when he shot, his elbow extended out and his head pointed up. In the few chances Hill earned during games, he connected on only 1 of 7 field-goal attempts (14.3 percent).
"Now, everything is compact," Hill said. "I watched a lot of Steph Curry and a lot of Danny Green. Not just because they could shoot the heck out of the ball, which they can, but because their form is the same every time. Steph especially. Whenever he’s doing 18 moves and all of a sudden when he gets to his shot, everything is straight up and down. His elbow is straight. His fingers are going through the rim."
During the first few weeks of practice in October, Hill has tried to remain cognizant of his mistakes and fix them at the next practice. He returns home and re-watches practice each day on a team-issued iPad for 30 to 45 minutes to better understand every detail.
"I’ve been trying to check my numbers," Hill said. "I watch every practice because we have the ability to do that now. I count my turnovers. I count my shots. I count my misses, everything. And in my book, I’ve been playing pretty well."
Still, it remains to be seen whether Hill or Showalter will emerge as Wisconsin’s fourth guard. Given the experience and talent of Jackson, Gasser and Koenig, as well as strong front court depth, there seems no room for a fifth guard. Wisconsin returns seven of its top eight rotation players off a Final Four team, and Ryan expects to rely heavily on those seven players to play the bulk of the minutes.
Showalter is an off-guard who provides hustle, rebounding and defense. Hill, meanwhile, is more of a point guard whose ballhandling is excellent and who has worked to improve his defense and shooting.
If Hill is able to squeeze into the fourth guard spot, minutes will no doubt be limited. Jackson and Koenig figure to occupy almost every minute for Wisconsin at point guard. But as long as Hill doesn’t spend the entire game on the bench, he’ll consider the season a vast improvement.
"If I’m on the court, that’ll make me happy," Hill said. "I’m a realist, so I’m never going to be happy with, ‘Oh, well we had a great run.’ I loved it, but I want to feel personally a part of it as though I was on the court affecting the game. That’s just my competitive nature. It’s not that I’m not happy about our run or what we’ve done as a team. But I want to feel like I’m actually contributing to that."