Quiet Hill has plenty of skill
Published: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 11:28 p.m.
Before the accolades, before the McDonald's All-American game and flights to AAU events throughout the country, Florida point guard signee Kasey Hill was just a 6-year-old trying to figure out how to make a layup.
“When I was younger, I was always really good at stealing the ball,” Hill said. “I would go down and try to do a layup and never would be able to finish it. I'd always, like, throw it off the backboard or come off the backboard hard.”
Hill can look back and laugh about it now. A soft-spoken, 19-year-old with strong forearms, Hill has developed into an elite point guard prospect. His athleticism has been compared to John Wall and Rajon Rondo. With fellow McDonald's All-American Chris Walker, a power forward, Hill will arrive on campus next month as part of the most promising UF recruiting class since 2007.
By sixth grade, Hill no longer needed the backboard for layups. He could dunk. He also was the starting point guard on Mount Dora Bible School's varsity basketball team as a sixth-grader, dishing and driving past boys nearly twice his age.
“It was difficult,” Hill said. “They were a lot stronger than me. I knew how to play, though. I was never afraid of them. I kept playing.”
Hill's YouTube highlight reel, filled with ankle-breaking crossover dribbles, behind-the-back fast-break passes and high-flying dunks over defenders in the lane, shows a player with plenty of flash. But off the court, Hill describes himself as quiet. Born in the small Central Florida town of Umatilla (population 2,502), Hill chose to play at Florida because he wanted to stay close to home and developed a connection with Florida coach Billy Donovan.
“I really trusted coach Donovan a lot,” Hill said. “He played the point guard in the NBA, made it there. I feel like I can learn a lot from him.”
Hill considers himself a student of point guards. His favorite is Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose.
“He's really explosive,” Hill said. “He's a laid-back kind of a guy. I consider myself that kind of guy, too. He knows how to get his team involved and he knows how to take over the game.”
When Hill was 8, he moved from Umatilla to Eustis to live with his current legal guardian, Jeff Simmons. Afternoons were spent in the backyard, with Hill playing against Simmons' oldest son, Kyle, who just finished his freshman season as a point guard at Loyola University in New Orleans.
“Kasey says he's quiet, but he's got a practical joking side to him,” Jeff Simmons said. “He stays busy with basketball and school work. But he's social.”
Family-wise, Hill fit right in with Kyle and Simmons' 17-year-old daughter, Samantha.
“All the time that they've lived together, they've never once had a fight,” Simmons said.
By 10th grade, Hill made a name for himself on the summer circuit, quickly rising up recruiting rankings. He enrolled at Montverde Academy to play against elite competition. A member of the National Association of Independent High Schools, Montverde's schedule exposed Hill to matchups against top point guards throughout the country.
But for all the athletic gifts, Hill still had holes in his game. Enter Kevin Boyle. Hired as Montverde's coach in 2011, Boyle had molded and mentored players at St. Patrick High in Elizabeth, N.J., such as Kyrie Irving (Duke, Cleveland Cavaliers) and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Kentucky, Charlotte Bobcats). Boyle recognized both Hill's potential and flaws.
“He was this incredible athlete who was a little bit out of control, where he had too many turnovers at the point guard position,” Boyle said. “(He) was fun to watch, but he also turned the ball over way too much and didn't understand how hard you had to play defense at the next level.”
Boyle had Hill refine his practice habits, focusing on perimeter shooting, defense and decision making.
“We've got him to become a practice player,” Boyle said. “At first when I came here he was a really talented kid and he liked to play pickup, but he didn't want to work out. He didn't want to drill. And now we've got him, where he's in at lunchtime every day shooting. So he really understands that.”
That maturity translated in Hill's ability to run a team.
“We tried to slow him down, and get him under control, and then speed him back up, and that's really not even complete yet,” Boyle said. “We really got him under control running the team, now the next phase, which he's starting to get back, is know when to be really aggressive and when not to be.”
“I think Billy is perfect for him because ... they really get after it defensively and they run stuff on offense without question, but he gives the guards a lot of freedom.”
Under Boyle's guidance, Hill led Montverde to a 27-2 record and the National Independent High School championship this season. His 3-point shooting percentage improved from 35 percent as a junior to 42 percent as a senior.
“I've played a lot harder, got a lot more dedicated to basketball, realizing that everyone else out there is working as hard as me, wanting to be better than me,” Hill said. “Just attacking, learning when to use my own ability. I've definitely become more coachable.”
The improved perimeter shooting was sparked by a comment Boyle made to Hill shortly after he took over as coach.
“I told him about some of the guys who made it and some of the guys who didn't,” Boyle said. “And I told him, here's the thing, 1,000 shots a day, you make $50 million dollars, 100 shots a day and you make $72,000 in Turkey or Holland or France or $140 grand in China. You take 1,000 a day, you're gonna shoot it better, your confidence is going to be better and you are going to feel like you deserve to make shots because you put so much effort and time in. And it's going to be a snowball.
“If he shoots it good, then forget about it, because you can't guard him. But if he doesn't shoot it good then you could back off, now they're guarding him close to the basket then all of a sudden he looks like an unsure guard where he's good but not turning the world on fire. He shoots it good, then you have Florida in the Final Four, he has a terrific year and then he makes a choice when to go (pro) or not go.”
Hill said he knows he must become a more vocal on-court leader. He also knows there are critics who question whether he can be effective at his size (6-foot-1 in sneakers), similar to the questions former Gator guard Kenny Boynton faced as a heralded recruit coming out of high school.
“People say I'm undersized for the next level, NBA, but I'm a competitor,” Hill said. “I love playing and we'll see how far my height takes me. I don't think it's ever been a bad thing for me. I'm used to playing against bigger guys. And I know how to play the game of basketball.”
Hill also said he thinks he can coexist in the same backcourt with senior Scottie Wilbekin, UF's incumbent starting point guard. Both could end up starting together in the same backcourt next season. Wilbekin was one of the top defensive guards in the Southeastern Conference and also was second in the conference in assists at 5.0 per game.
“I think it would work out good,” Hill said. “He's a very good defensive player. Very good on-ball. I think I'm very good in the passing lanes, so it will work out well.”
Hill also is confident in his own defensive ability.
“That's one thing that I had to learn to do, play harder on defense once Coach Boyle got here,” Hill said. “So I think that will help me a lot once I get to college.”
At 170 pounds, Hill said he's spending extra time in the weight room to get stronger before he arrives at Florida in June. He said his goals are to get better as a player, win an SEC championship and make a deep run in March. He's also aware of the comparison's between Florida's incoming freshman class and Kentucky's incoming freshman class, which boasts six McDonald's All-Americans, including twin guards Andrew and Aaron Harrison. His Montverde High teammate, center Dakari Johnson, also is heading to Kentucky.
“It's going to be a good rivalry,” Hill said. “I've been playing against those guys my whole life and it was a rivalry then. So, it's just added on.”