Bye, George: Hill bids Spurs adios

By Jeff McDonald

If George Hill had known who was on the other line, he might not have answered the phone.

He was on his way to a radio interview early Thursday evening when his cell began buzzing. The screen displayed a number he didn’t recognize.

“It was like 20 digits, so I thought it was probably T.P. calling from France,” said Hill, referring to Tony Parker, his soon-to-be-former Spurs teammate.

When Hill heard Gregg Popovich’s voice answer his “hello,” he knew what came next would not be news he wanted to hear.

He was right. Popovich was calling from a secure line to inform Hill that he’d just been traded from the only NBA team he’d ever known, dealt to Indiana for a package that included San Diego State small forward Kawhi Leonard, the Pacers’ first-round draft pick.

The conversation left Hill numb and cursing his caller ID.

“If he had called from his actual, real number I probably wouldn’t have picked up,” Hill joked Friday.

As Hill said this, a group of Spurs youth campers were engaging in a scrimmage behind his right shoulder. Even on his first official day as an Indiana Pacer, Hill wasn’t finished being a Spur.

“I don’t have a grudge against the Spurs or anything like that,” Hill told assembled media at the University of the Incarnate Word. “The Spurs gave me the chance to play in the NBA. I’m thankful for that.”

For those in the Spurs organization, the time will soon come for hellos. Leonard, the 19-year-old taken 15th overall, is expected in town for an official introduction today. So too is Cory Joseph, the 19-year-old point guard from Texas, selected with the Spurs’ original first-round pick at No. 29.

Friday, however, was time to bid goodbye to perhaps the Spurs’ fourth-most popular player behind Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker, the point guard Hill backed up for three seasons.

When general manager R.C. Buford called trading the 25-year-old Hill “one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make,” the emotion was real.

Thursday’s draft-night trade, which also awarded the Spurs rights to Indiana’s second-round pick (Latvian sharpshooter Davis Bertans), and 2005 second-rounder Erazem Lorbek of Slovenia, came quickly — just moments after Houston made the final lottery selection at 14. But it did not come out of left field.

The Pacers had been chasing Hill, a home-grown Indianapolis star the Spurs had taken 26th overall in 2008, almost as long as he’d been in the NBA.

“We’ve been after him for a while,” Pacers president Larry Bird told reporters in Indiana. “Today, (the Spurs) thought it was the right time.”

It says something about the Spurs’ belief in Leonard that they were willing to deal Hill — a player Popovich has only half-jokingly called “my favorite player” — to get him.

The Spurs covet the 6-foot-7 Leonard’s size on the wing, where Richard Jefferson was the only player last season to top 6-6. A top-notch rebounder for his height, Leonard ?also fits with Popovich’s goal of reclaiming the Spurs’ defensive identity.

“He’s got a blue-collar ethic about him,” said Steve Fisher, Leonard’s coach at San Diego State. “He’s not afraid to bang an elbow or scrape a knee. He’ll grab a rebound or take a charge or whatever you need.”

In pulling a reluctant trigger on the deal, the Spurs also had financial issues to consider.

Hill is due a pay raise when he comes off his rookie-scale contract after the 2011-12 campaign. Leonard will come cheaper, and at a position of greater need.

As news of his trade sunk in Thursday night, Hill admitted he was too raw to properly process it. By Friday, he had settled on the bright side of his relocation.

“It was always a dream when I was a kid to play for the Pacers,” said Hill, a schoolboy star at Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple High before playing his college ball at IUPUI. “I’m excited about that.”

In April, not long after the Spurs’ season ended, Hill added a tattoo of his home state to the left side of his abdomen.

He meant it as a nod to his past. He had no idea it would so soon predict his future.

“I knew this was a business,” Hill said. “You can be here today and be gone tomorrow. It’s just about how you embrace it and what you do to make a name for yourself in the next location.”



AGE: 25

NUMBERS: 9.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 2.4 apg.

HIGH POINT(S): Notched 30 points in March 2010 win over Houston, and again in March 2011 loss at Memphis.

LOW POINT: Late-comer to 2009 playoff series against Dallas, as Gregg Popovich declared “these playoffs aren’t for George.”

SPURS SAY: “To lose a player like George Hill, who has meant so much to our team, to our culture, to our locker room … it’s one of the most difficult decisions we’ve had to make.” — GM R.C. Buford

PACERS SAY: “He’s an experienced player. He’s been in the playoffs. We like him because he’s got great length and can defend.” — Team president Larry Bird

WHAT NOW: Hill will challenge third-year pro Darren Collison for starting PG duties in Indiana. Spurs will likely look to fill backup point role via free agency and could give new draftee Cory Joseph of Texas a look.

— Jeff McDonald

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