The first came when the UCLA redshirt junior forward went for a steal late in the first half but couldn’t come up with the ball, his failed attempt leaving him out of position as Oregon State’s Roman Silva drove for a layup.
The second, early in the second half, was even more unsightly, Hill missing an awkward turnaround jumper before committing two fouls in an 11-second span and getting yanked from the game.
He’s been a second late, a little bit off in nearly every game since returning from the right knee tendinitis that forced him to miss the season’s first two games. His performance during the No. 23 Bruins’ 57-52 victory over the Beavers at Pauley Pavilion marked a low point, Hill going scoreless with three rebounds and four fouls in a season-low 11 minutes.
“It’s a part of basketball,” said fellow UCLA redshirt junior Cody Riley, whose run of strong showings that included 16 points and 10 rebounds against the Beavers has helped him supplant Hill in the starting lineup. “Players have their highs and their lows and slumps and everything, but J-Hill’s going to be big for us. I feel like he knows that.”
All Hill has to do to gauge his potential impact is look at footage from last season, when he was the team’s leading rebounder, second-leading scorer and top interior defender while starting 25 of 30 games. He averaged 9.0 points and 6.9 rebounds per game while blocking a team-high 32 shots, numbers that are all down during a season in which he’s averaging 6.5 points and 5.9 rebounds while exclusively coming off the bench.
“I think he’s got to get himself going,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said when asked what it might take to get Hill going.
What would that require?
“Rebound, defense, block shots, finish around the rim,” Cronin said. “Today he was in foul trouble. It’s hard to get him going when he’s in foul trouble.”
If a challenge is what Hill needs, he could find it this week against USC.
The Trojans’ front line features a probable top-five NBA draft pick in freshman forward Evan Mobley, not to mention his sophomore brother Isaiah Mobley and graduate transfer Chevez Goodwin. USC coach Andy Enfield has started the 7-foot Evan Mobley alongside his 6-10 older brother in every game this season, presenting an opportunity for Cronin to counter with a starting lineup featuring both Riley and Hill.
Cronin has said the Bruins have increasingly worked on a two-post lineup in practice, adding that it was something the team could use when needed later this season. Saturday evening at the Galen Center might be the time.
A return to form from Hill could be especially beneficial given that Riley’s few struggles this season have come against taller and more athletic front lines; Arizona and Stanford were the only teams that have held Riley to single digits in scoring in 2021.
The last time Hill faced the Trojans on their home court, he switched onto Jonah Mathews for the fateful final sequence, Mathews' three-pointer over his outstretched hand with one second left burying the Bruins in their final game last season. Hill will undoubtedly be seeking a different ending to go with a new beginning for his wayward season.
“At the end of the day he knows that we need him and he’s not going to let us down,” Riley said, “so we don’t have to worry about that.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.