The Spurs' big three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have been together since 2003. If you ask anyone, save for ESPN, that trio is considered among the best "big threes" in the NBA.
While there is no doubting that Duncan, Parker and Ginobili have been the most important pieces for most of the last decade, there has always been one player I consider the "plus one."
Bruce Bowen filled that role for quite a while, Manu Ginobili was the plus one in 2003 when Robinson, Duncan and Parker were the Spurs' key players in that championship run. Before that, you could consider either Avery Johnson, Sean Elliott or Mario Elie to fill that role.
Last season, while most expected Roger Mason to step into that role after a successful first season, George Hill became the player that kept the Spurs afloat when Tony Parker was sidelined with injuries.
While Hill proved the Spurs knew what they were doing when they drafted the little-known point guard out of IUPUI after his rookie year, he took steps in his second year with the team to solidify him as a reliable contributor. He ended his sophomore campaign averaging 12.4 points and 2.9 assists per game while shooting 47 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc. Hill also finished second behind Aaron Brooks for Most Improved Player voting.
Hill came into training camp this year in the best shape of his career and seemed to be on a completely different comfort level. His work in the offseason, which included five-hour workouts four times per week since July, put him into game shape on the first day of training camp.
Aside from working on his body this offseason, Hill worked on extending his range, developing a floater and studied the intricacies of the point guard position.
And while he struggled through a shooting slump throughout the preseason, there's no doubt in my mind that he will take even more steps this year to have a breakout year.
But don't call Hill the "plus one" this season. While many prematurely called Parker, Ginobili, Duncan and Hill "the big four" during last season's playoffs, he'll earn his spot alongside that trio this season.
Coach Gregg Popovich will tip off the 2010-11 season with Manu Ginobili in the starting lineup. That's not because he thinks James Anderson will suffice in the second unit, it's because Hill has earned the respect and trust of his teammates and coach, and Popovich can count on Hill to provide some energy, scoring and defense off the bench.
Don't believe me? Ask ESPN's David Thorpe.
Hill has shown us numerous times that he is a serious player in the NBA, but we've never seen it consistently. It's tough to be consistent when the minutes are not, but that's life in the NBA on a solid team. Hill projects to get consistent minutes this year for a few reasons, not the least of which is how much the Spurs need his energy and athleticism. He shot 39.9 percent from 3-point range last season, which should help guarantee him even more time. His defense will be a big help, too, as the Spurs have to improve on that end if they want a return to glory.
The rest of the NBA will see the same starting tomorrow and throughout this season. I won't go as far as to predict Hill's numbers, because as Bowen proved in his time with the Spurs, stats only tell one part of the story. But Hill being a top contender for the Sixth Man of the Year award is a prediction I'm willing to put money on.