2016-17 will be a make-or-break season for Illinois basketball. With head coach John Groce’s job likely at stake (though that could change, considering next year's recruiting class), a successful season for the Illini—that is, an NCAA tournament appearance—is a must.
The approaching season is not only crucial for the future of the program, it is equally important for the possible NBA future of team standout Malcolm Hill.
Hill, one of the few bright spots in a rather disastrous 2015-16 campaign, has steadily developed into one of the Big Ten’s most dynamic players. Over the last three seasons he has continually improved and is now the identifiable leader of the team. Illinois’ hopes of having a bounce back year are firmly tied to his ability to make another step in his development.
Though he could have opted to make the jump to the NBA draft after his junior season, Hill recently decided to use his fourth and final season in college to further improve as an NBA prospect. Currently, he is ranked 24th in the Draft Express rankings of the top juniors. Though he is not listed in Draft Express 2017 mock draft, he is bound to find his name up there soon enough once the college basketball season rolls around.
Hill remains the best option to break the program’s streak of five years without a draft selection. At 6’6" and 230 pounds, Hill has the ideal body-type to excel as a top wing player this upcoming season and to become a sought-after NBA prospect at small forward. His wingspan is listed at 6’9", and he's yet to turn 21, so he still has plenty of time to grow and fill out into his body.
Hill’s development as an NBA prospect is most advanced in his high-volume scoring ability. Last season, he scored 20.3 points per 40 minutes with a field-goal percentage of 43.6 and a true shooting percentage of 56. During his sophomore season, Hill first began to show his potential as an elite shooter. That year, he shot 42 percent in catch-and-shoot opportunities and 37 percent on all jump shots off the dribble. His three-point shooting numbers actually declined in his junior season compared to his sophomore season (38 percent to 31 percent), so it is crucial that those numbers get back to where he was as a sophomore.
His stats as a shooter are already strong enough to consider him a solid offensive wing player that can efficiently shoot the ball, though he must become a more versatile offensive force. According to his scouting report on Draft Express, Hill only shot 52 percent near the rim as a sophomore. He typically struggles with control of his body on drive attempts, which leads to wild shots at the basket. It is important that he learns to better control his body and become a smarter, more creative finisher in those situations. It is equally important for his NBA development to continue his tendency to draw fouls. Hill had 7.9 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes last year.
Outside of his offensive and shooting ability, Hill still must develop into a better ballhandler. Averaging 3.7 assists and 2.5 turnovers per 40 minutes, he had a below-average assist to turnover ratio of 1.49. As a senior, he’s got to show he can get others more involved in the offense.
The defensive side of the floor is where Hill has the most to prove, though. According to his scouting report on Draft Express, he "still has room to grow on this end of the court before he becomes someone who can be relied upon against NBA wings." The report raised concerns about his ability to challenge shots because of his average wingspan. He also does not have the proper strength as of yet to be able to defend at different positions on the floor other than the three.
The scouting report praised his potential as an individual defender, but nonetheless questioned his commitment to team defense as "he doesn't always see the right rotations or close out effectively and needs to make smarter decisions on the defensive side of the ball to help the team."
As talented a scorer as he is, Malcolm Hill is clearly not without his obvious flaws. This season will be key and how he develops as a defender, a finisher at the rim and as a more effective distributor will help determine his NBA fate. He is banking a lot on his decision to return for his senior season in order to morph into a possible first-round draft choice. He certainly has a lot to prove, but given his track record of improving steadily throughout his first three seasons, Malcolm Hill is well on his way to becoming Illinois’ first draft pick since 2012.