Before the start of the season, Pepperdine basketball Coach Tom Asbury was beaming about the progress of forward Bryan Hill from Banning High in Wilmington.
The true freshman was making so much of an impression on Asbury that he hinted that Hill might open the season as the team’s fifth starter, along with four returning seniors.
That was until Hill, 18, injured a knee in an intrasquad scrimmage in early November and did not return until the team’s season-opener Nov. 27 against San Francisco State.
The injury has slowed Hill’s development and may have cost him a starting spot, but it hasn’t dampened Asbury’s enthusiasm about his prospects.
Despite the fact that the 6-foot-7, 215-pound Hill is averaging only 3.3 points and 2.9 rebounds in sporadic playing time, Asbury is convinced of his potential.
“It was a setback with the knee injury, but Bryan’s doing a great job and everything’s real positive and upbeat with him,” Asbury said. “I think he’s just going to get better and better.”
The source of Asbury’s optimism can be traced to last season, when he first watched Hill play as a senior at Banning.
“A year ago, nobody had heard of him, but he has really developed since then,” Asbury said. “He’s put on 20 pounds and has gained a lot more confidence.”
Hill’s coach at Banning, Marc Paez, envisioned a bright future for him even before he was a senior.
“After his junior year (in spring of 1992), I told him he was going to be an (NCAA) Division I college player and be City 3-A (Division) player of the year, and he just looked at me funny,” he said. “But I saw it before he did.”
Sure enough, as a senior at Banning, Hill helped lead the Pilots to the 3-A championship and was named 3-A player of the year. He was also recruited by several Division I schools and opted for Pepperdine.
But it wasn’t until after the season was over and Hill had already signed with the Waves that his game started to reach a higher level.
Hill gives much of the credit to Paez, who started him on an intense workout routine. He worked with weights two hours a day and fine-tuned his skills by practicing in the school’s gym for 2 1/2 hours up to five times a week through the summer.
“He showed a great deal of dedication and determination,” Paez said. “There was not one day during that period that I thought he slacked off in the least.”
Paez said he worked to develop Hill’s confidence along with his physical skills.
There was a time after he had signed with the Waves when Hill had doubted himself.
“I don’t think he really envisioned that he could play well at the major-college level until after the season was over,” Paez said. “After he signed, he went through a brief period where he wasn’t sure if he could play at that level. So, along with the work in the weight room, we talked a great deal about that aspect of it.”
All of the hard work appeared to have paid off. Hill was making dramatic strides in practice before he injured his knee.
“We were running the break in an intrasquad scrimmage and I was on the right wing and made a move to the basket and I felt a ping in my knee,” he said. “Later that night, I went to St. John’s Hospital (in Santa Monica) and that’s where they did the surgery.”
It was initially feared that Hill had torn his anterior cruciate ligament--an injury that had sidelined NBA players such as Danny Manning and Ron Harper of the Clippers--and would need major reconstructive surgery that would keep him out the entire season.
Fortunately for Hill, he required less severe arthroscopic surgery, which was performed on Nov. 10. He was ready to play in less than three weeks.
“It was a big relief that it wasn’t my ACL,” he said. “To have to think about going through major rehabilitation and not playing the rest of the year was very tough. But now I can concentrate on school and basketball, which is what I came here for.”
Hill surprised a lot of people with his rapid recovery, but Paez wasn’t one of them. He said it wasn’t the first time Hill had overcome physical adversity and resumed his career.
The most frightening problem developed in June, long after basketball season had ended.
“I was getting ready to go to school,” Hill remembered. “It was a Tuesday morning and, as I was walking out of the bathroom, I just passed out.”
It was not the first time that Hill had experienced bouts of lightheadedness and dizziness. So he went to a doctor for tests and was told that he had a neurological disorder known as vascular syncope.
He takes a pill once a day to control the disorder and has not had a recurrence of the symptoms.
“It was scary at the time,” Hill said. “But now I have the proper medicine for it and it’s under control. The medicine I take keeps my brain and the rest of my body in sync so I don’t have those problems.”
Hill thinks the injury to his knee, which he said has fully recovered, may have been a blessing in disguise.
“I think the injury slowed me down just a tad, but I always looked at my freshman year as a learning experience,” he said. “Something like this really makes you appreciate that you can play. It also opened my eyes that a degree is so important because it gives you something to fall back on.”
As long as his game continues to develop, Hill said, he is not concerned about the lack of playing time.
“So far, I’ve played in every game and I’ve contributed the way coach Asbury has wanted me to,” he said. “That’s all I can do at this point.”
Hill said he is still working on improving his strength and shooting touch. But Asbury thinks he is already pointed in the right direction.
“He’s going to be a big factor down the line,” Asbury said. ‘He’s already a good scorer and rebounder and he’s very active inside. He doesn’t have much of a perimeter game right now, but he’s got a 6-8 or 6-9 arm span and he’s still growing.”
Asbury gives Hill’s father, Zollie, and Paez much of the credit for his development. Hill’s father is a history teacher at Bethune Junior High School in Los Angeles.
“He’s a great kid and he comes from a great family,” Asbury said. “There’s no doubt Bryan is a squared-away person. I know I say this about a lot of my players, but he’s really a quality person and that’s why I think he has a great future.”
With the worst behind him, Hill wants to make the most of his opportunity at Pepperdine.
He has adjusted to living away from home and studying for his classes, and enjoys playing for the Waves.
Hill has even grown accustomed to the occasional pranks played by his teammates, including one that happened on his first road trip to Baylor earlier in the month.
“When we went to Waco (Tex.), they told the flight attendant that this was my first flight,” he said. “So they got me a name tag, like they give to little kids who are traveling alone, and they made me wear it all day long. They always pick on the freshmen like that, but I kind of expected it.”
A little wiser for the experience, Hill is hoping that his career with the Waves is ready to take flight, and he already appears to be taking steps in the right direction.