Orlin Wagner / Associated Press
Thursday, July 6, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The 1,100-mile trip from Las Vegas to Norman, Okla., is not exactly a hop, skip and a jump. So for the first four years of Jalen Hill’s college career at Oklahoma, he estimates his family was only able to travel to five or six of his games per season.
That’s going to change soon, as the Las Vegas native has joined UNLV for his fifth-year senior campaign.
The former Clark superstar averaged 9.7 points and 5.8 rebounds per game last season, and with his experience and all-around game, the 6-foot-7 forward figures to be a key piece as the Scarlet and Gray push for their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years.
That has made Hill very popular around town since he committed to UNLV in April, and not just with his family members.
“I’ve gotten a lot of texts, comments, I’ve been meeting people,” Hill said. “They’re excited for our team and I’m just as excited as them. We’ve got a chance to do something very special.”
During his time with the Sooners, Hill was only able to come back to Las Vegas for two or three weeks in the summer. Now he’s settled in for the long run, as UNLV enters its fourth week of on-court summer workouts.
When he entered the transfer portal and was considering possible destinations for his final college campaign, Hill said the draw of his hometown team helped tip the scales.
“Just growing up out here in Vegas and knowing what UNLV can be like,” he said. “Knowing those fans and what they want out of us, I think I can help provide that. And I think the finishing touch was just my parents and sister being here and being able to support and go to all my games now.”
Hill’s versatility should be a major asset on the court for Kevin Kruger’s squad. During his time at Oklahoma he was lauded for his defense across across multiple positions, and he has shown improvement on offense. Last year he scored a career high in points while shooting 49.8% from the field.
His most valuable contribution may be intangible. Hill started 67 games over the last two years and has played in two NCAA Tournament games, so his leadership will be welcomed as UNLV attempts to break its tourney drought.
He also pointed to fellow fifth-year senior transfers Kalib Boone (Oklahoma State) and Keylan Boone (Pacific), as well as returning seniors Luis Rodriguez and Justin Webster, as key leaders.
“For me, personally, I lead by example,” Hill said. “I use my voice as well, I’ve been working on that. I think with this team we’ve got multiple leaders. We’ve got Web, Luis, me. The Boone twins, they’ve been to the tournament. So I think this team has multiple leaders who can all lead in different styles, and that’s very important for our success.”
Hill is most enthusiastic about getting down in a stance and defending. Oklahoma routinely tasked him with guarding the opponents’ top threat, and he responded by leading the Sooners in defensive win shares over the last two seasons.
Hill’s length, athleticism and grit should play well in the Mountain West, where Kruger can deploy him in a number of ways to enhance UNLV’s aggressive, turnover-hunting defense.
Just halfway through the summer workout window, Hill is already buying into that plan.
“I think our defense has a chance to be really great,” Hill said. “It starts now with these summer practices. I’ve been on tournament teams, and I’ve been on teams that haven’t been to the tournament. How hard we’re working now gets us ready for the first game. Our practices have got to be like games.”