On the surface, there is little different about Grant Hill these days. Just as he did as a Duke freshman, he still can finish a fast break with a thundering dunk. Just as he did as a sophomore and junior, he fits comfortably into a complementary or starring role.
But go below the surface. There you can see the transformation, from prodigy to soon-to-be pro, from blue-chip talent to perhaps the best all-around college basketball player in the country. There you can see the personal maturation process at work, from a shy, naive suburban teen-ager to a friendly, yet hardened, young adult.
"I'm so much different than I was when I first got here," Hill said one day last week, sitting in an office at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It took two injuries -- a badly sprained ankle as a sophomore, a broken foot as a junior -- as well as the departure of point guard Bobby Hurley, to help turn the 6-foot-8, 225-pound Hill from one of the most spectacular college players to one of the most cerebral. "I can probably count the number of dunks he's had this season on one hand," said his father, Calvin.
And it took one disturbing off-court incident -- having his apartment broken into and his car stolen last spring by people he considered friends -- to make Hill realize he was not a typical college student, maybe not even a typical college athlete. "I began to realize a person in my position can't trust just anybody," he said.
But it is his understanding of the game, as well as human nature, that has allowed Hill to turn what had the makings of a disappointing senior year into a thoroughly enjoyable one. And it has allowed the Blue Devils to forget that they weren't supposed to be national title contenders.
Going into tonight's game against Maryland in College Park, Hill has become the most dominant player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Not by scoring more points, or grabbing more rebounds. Not by making more assists or blocking more shots. But by doing enough of each -- as well as playing the toughest defense in the ACC -- to help Duke become the most consistent team in an otherwise inconsistent league.
The Blue Devils will come into sold-out Cole Field House with a 21-3 record (11-3 in the ACC), a No. 2 national ranking and first place in the ACC nearly locked up.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski gives credit to Hill and fellow seniors Tony Lang and Marty Clark. "The three of them have produced a nice environment," he said.
Hill, though, is clearly the leader. While Lang has taken over more of a scoring role than during his first three years, and Clark has given the team an emotional lift coming off the bench, it is Hill who seems to do everything. It began when he was moved from small forward to point guard with the graduation of Hurley, the team's four-year starter and the NCAA's all-time assists leader.
"His versatility sets him apart from a number of players," said Maryland coach Gary Williams. "People understand the value of his leadership. When you have a very good senior point guard leave, most teams would struggle. When you ask who's the leader of the Duke team this year, that name jumps out at you."
The move to point, a position he played for three weeks as a sophomore when Hurley sprained an ankle, seemed more of a concern to his parents than to Hill. In fact, after taking four months off after foot surgery last spring, he returned to the gym energized by the challenge.
A different Duke leader
With Hurley gone, Hill felt comfortable with the idea of this being his team. Unlike former Duke star Christian Laettner, who yelled and chided and bullied his younger teammates, or Hurley, whose impatience with others' imperfection made him try to do too much at times, Hill understood what it was like to complement.
"The way Christian and Bobby led those teams worked because the team was older and knew what to expect, but this team is younger and more sensitive," Hill said, alluding especially to its guards, freshman Jeff Capel and sophomore Chris Collins. "I knew that if I wanted to win, I'd have to make some sacrifices."
Said Collins: "It's unbelievable the number of things he can do. A lot of it goes unnoticed. He'll help out the guards defensively. He'll take a big charge. He'll get a rebound when we need to. A lot of guys have to score 30 points to have a great game. He can dominate by scoring 10."
The result has been nothing short of startling. Except for a pair of losses to Wake Forest, and a second-half pounding by North Carolina, the Blue Devils have been flawless. Hill has spent the season moving his teammates around the court like a chess grand master, directing them to early-season road victories at Michigan and Iowa and, on Sunday, a 12-point win at home against then-No. 8 Temple.
"To be honest, this year has been really fulfilling," said Hill, who is averaging team highs of 17 points and 5.2 assists, as well as 6.6 rebounds. "The big knocks on me were my shooting and my leadership. Can he shoot the three? Can he be a leader? People who understood the game knew that I could, but I think there were people who doubted what I could do."
They were certainly not on the Duke campus, where Hill has been treated with reverence ever since he made his first recruiting trip here as a senior from South Lakes High School in Reston, Va. No longer do the Duke fans look at Hill in awe, but the respect he receives as a player and fellow student are obvious.
Evidence of that came Sunday, when Hill's jersey No. 33 was retired during a ceremony before the Temple game. When Hill came out for pre-game warm-ups, he was greeted with a standing ovation. During the ceremony, Calvin and his wife, Janet, heard the chant, "One more son!" And Duke president Dr. Nannerl Keohane said that Hill "exemplifies everything that's right about the sport."
Accepts role model role
Hill downplays his perceived perfection, but admits that being a role model is important for a black athlete in this society. He has spoken out on a variety of topics on Charlie Rose's PBS show, to the National Association of Basketball Coaches' issues forum last fall, and following the proposed boycott by the Black Coaches Association earlier this season. He would have taken a stance during last year's controversy surrounding the lack of minorities teaching at Duke, but found his fellow students uncertain in the direction they wanted to go.
Hill knows that the demands will be even greater once he leaves Duke.
"There's a big void [of role models] in the NBA," said Hill. "Not that I'm going to fill that void. But hopefully, there are some things I can do to make a difference. Do I agree we should be role models? No, but that's what we've become."
The impact Hill will make on the court in the NBA depends largely on the team that drafts him, and the system it employs. While he is no longer compared to former North Carolina State and Denver Nuggets star David Thompson, there are some NBA scouts who believe that Hill's diversified game is similar to that of current Chicago Bulls star Scottie Pippen.
"Because of the dunks my freshman year, especially the one against Kansas [to start off Duke's NCAA championship game victory in 1991], there were a lot of references to David Thompson," said Hill. "I was always trying to become an all-around player. I knew what my deficiencies were, like my three-point shooting, and I worked on them. I want to do whatever I can do to help us win.
"When I came to Duke, one of the reasons was to be the missing piece. They had been close. I understood what my position was going to be. I knew who was going to be the star. We had Christian. We had Bobby. We had Brian [Davis] and Thomas [Hill]. I was going to be the unassuming star. I know that if I go to an NBA team that's not winning, people are going to expect me to be the star. I have the confidence I can do that."
Although Hill's game easily translates to NBA success, it doesn't necessarily mean stardom. He is not a prolific scorer. He is not a ferocious rebounder. He does not possess Magic-al passing skills. On a team that is one or two players away, Hill could be the perfect fit. On a perennial loser, he could be in trouble.
"If he gets on a team where nobody cares about winning," said Calvin Hill, a former NFL running back and until recently an Orioles executive, "he won't be a happy camper."
While pro scouts don't drool at the prospect of drafting Hill as they do at Purdue power forward Glenn Robinson, or even California point guard Jason Kidd, he should be picked among the top four players in the draft, maybe even in the top three. "He is not a franchise-turner," said one NBA scout, "but he has all the tools to be a great player."
Where Hill might make his mark initially is on defense. Krzyzewski calls Hill "the most beautiful defensive player I've ever coached," but said that Hill's offensive skills shouldn't be overlooked.
"I've told Grant, 'I want you to do as much as you can, as much as you want,' " said Krzyzewski, only half-seriously. "Grant really knows the game. With a 24-second clock, the more decisions he has to make, the more his stats will go up."
'He still can dance, dunk'
And Hill's mother said that her son's reputation for being the ultimate team player might be a little overblown. "I think in a way, too much is made of his selflessness," said Janet Hill, a partner in a prestigious Washington law firm. "He's just adjusted his game. There's still the high-flying game in him. He can still dance and dunk."
Though Hill is looking forward to graduation -- he will receive a degree in history May 8 -- he is not looking forward to this season ending. The disappointment of last season, which began when Hill got hurt and ended with the elimination of the two-time defending national champions in the second round to California, lingers. He would like to do what no Duke player has done: be a part of three national championship teams.
"Who would have thought we'd be in this position right now?" said Hill. "Leaving here with another championship would be the best feeling to me."
GRANT HILL'S CAREER STATISTICS
Season.. G.. ..FGM-FGA.. ..FTM-FTA.. ..Pts.. ..Avg.. ..Reb.. ..Ast.
160-310.. .. 81-133 .. ..402.. ..11.2 .. 183.. .. 79
1991-92 .33.. 182-298 .. ..99-135 .. ..463.. ..14.0 .. 187 .. ..134
1992-93 .26.. 185-320 .. ..94-126 .. ..468.. ..18.0 .. 166.. .. 72
1993-94 .24 ..150-326 .. ..83-117 .. ..408.. ..17.0 .. 119 .. ..121