Orlin Wagner / Associated Press
Thursday, July 27, 2023 | 2 a.m.
When UNLV was at its best last season, its success was built on a suffocating defense that harassed ballhandlers, forced turnovers and kept opponents from scoring for long stretches. It powered the Scarlet and Gray to a 10-0 start, including key wins over ranked teams and power-conference opponents.
Kevin Kruger wants to follow a similar blueprint in 2023-24, with one major difference: Instead of petering out at the midway point, he wants the defense to dominate for the entire season. In order to do that, he needs players who are capable of changing the game on the defensive end of the court.
Enter Jalen Hill.
The Las Vegas native committed to his hometown program in April after spending four years at Oklahoma, where he developed into a true defensive ace. At a lengthy 6-foot-7, he is a versatile chess piece that should thrive in Kruger’s aggressive scheme.
The Sooners weren’t shy about deploying Hill in high-profile matchups. When they played Alabama, he was assigned to defend high-scoring wing Brandon Miller. When they played Kansas, he was assigned to guard Jalen Wilson, the Jayhawks leading scorer.
Largely due to Hill’s presence, Miller was held to 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting, while Hill poured in a season-high 26 points. Wilson was similarly limited to 17 points on 3-of-12 from the field.
That’s the kind of difference Hill can make.
He does it with a blend of length, power, effort and IQ. He is quick enough to stick with explosive wings, strong enough to battle through screens, and long enough to bother shots. And he’s smart enough to know how to defend away from the ball, denying his man and making him work just to get possession.
He can switch onto smaller guards, contest around the rim, and even hold his ground in the post against bigger players:
Hill is capable of defending at the highest level of college basketball. Kruger is likely to utilize him in much the same way Oklahoma did, by putting him on the opposing team’s best player night in and night out.
In addition to his strong man-to-man skills, Hill also showed good instincts for team defense in the Oklahoma games I watched from last year. He rebounds well enough to play either forward spot, and he’s quick enough to work on the wing, so look for Kruger to move him around depending on the matchup.
Offensively, Hill is more limited. He increased his scoring average in each of his four years at Oklahoma, but only topped out at 9.7 points per game last season.
His best moments came as a finisher. Hill has a good sense of spacing, and he understands how to get open and present himself for passes that lead to easy baskets. Whether it’s in transition or in halfcourt sets, he flows to open spaces and then does a reliable job of converting:
Much like new teammate Keylan Boone, Hill’s ability to move without the ball and anticipate openings is going to be an asset for the UNLV offense.
Hill is less effective with the ball in his hands at the point of attack. He’s not a face-up shot creator; he’s not going to blow by defenders and he’s not someone for whom you’d set a ball screen. But when he is able to use his strength to knock defenders off balance, he can get to some high-percentage shots.
At Oklahoma, he was able to do that with some dribble handoffs, turning the corner with power and getting all the way to the rim. But more often it came in the mid-post area, especially when he got a smaller man switched onto him. In those situations, Hill is good about keeping his dribble safe, bludgeoning his way to the restricted area and putting up a clean shot:
It’s not pretty, but it should be pretty effective against Mountain West teams that have less size to their frontcourts.
One area that would really unlock Hill on the offensive end is a consistent 3-point shot. It hasn’t happened yet, however — he has never shot better than 33.3% from long range in any season, and for his career he’s at 26.7%.
Mechanically, there’s a corkscrew motion at the bottom of his motion, and the release has a shot-put look to it:
Hill made 29.1% from beyond the arc last year on 1.7 attempts per game; even just popping in a corner 3 here and there would make him exponentially more valuable on offense.
Watching him play, however, you get the sense that whatever Hill gives UNLV on offense will be a bonus. He’s a menace on the defensive end, capable of shutting down the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft and making it look routine.
Hill will step into the starting lineup and give the Scarlet and Gray one of the best defenders in the Mountain West. If he scores a little, too, he’ll be an outright star in his one year in Las Vegas.