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Illinois' Malcolm Hill blossoming into team's best player

You want to like Malcolm Hill right off the bat? You want to get instant senses of why his Illinois basketball coaches and teammates so enjoy being in his company?

Ask him what it was like being the man back in the Metro East area of greater St. Louis, on the Illinois side of the river, where Hill was a consensus national top-75 recruit and the leading member of coach John Groce’s 2013 class.

Hill recently smiled wide at the question.

“Honestly? I was kind of known as a softy in high school,” he admitted.

The truth is, there isn’t a trace of BMOC in Hill, a 6-6 swingman who scored 25.3 points per game in his final high school season. Anyone watching him blossom as a sophomore into arguably Illinois’ best player can see the earnestness in his approach as he tries to take on more scoring responsibility while ramping up his physical play at the defensive end and on the boards.

There’s endearing humor and self-awareness in Hill’s personality and also an evident humility to his game; call him Robin to senior Rayvonte Rice’s Batman. Rice, the team’s leading scorer (16.6 points per game) and rebounder (7.0), is a muscle-bound 6-4 mass of in-your-face. But Hill (14.6, 5.8) keeps finding space in which to raise his own profile.

During the ESPN telecast of Illinois’ (7-2) loss Tuesday to seventh-ranked Villanova at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Rice was described on multiple occasions as being the team’s top player. But Hill — who scored a career-high 20 — was described as someone who might appear at MSG many more times in the future.

The NBA looked a long way off when Hill was averaging 4.4 points in 14.6 minutes as a freshman. He started the team’s final 12 games, but the consistency never was there.

“Last year, I was really nervous being a freshman, especially at 17,” said Hill, who turned 18 a couple of weeks before the start of his initial season. “It was an all-new scene to me. This year, I’m a lot more confident and more accustomed to it.”

The consistency has been there and then some; Hill is shooting 54.8 percent from the field, is an opportunistic 7-for-16 from behind the arc and has scored in double figures in all nine games. Bulked up 20 pounds from this time last year to a formidable 230, he is creating mismatches on the floor and exhibiting all-Big Ten potential.

It’s no overstatement to say Hill could be an all-league first-teamer as soon next season.

“He’s really gifted,” Groce said. “He’s a very special player.”

Before the season, Groce predicted Hill would break out as a sophomore. That confidence had a lot to do with how Hill looked: not only bigger, but more able to handle it whenever his coaches and older teammates got on him about picking up his effort. Unlike last season, when Hill admits that Groce’s demanding nature sometimes bothered him, Hill has relished the yelling, motivation, encouragement — whatever you want to call it.

“I think it’s a good thing,” he said, “because if I’m not getting yelled at, it probably means they don’t expect a lot out of me.”

You want another reason to like this guy? Ask him how high his arc can go and his answer — his honest answer — is about rebounding. Not a great leaper and not always near the basket, Hill is focused on recording his first double-figure rebounding game. He had nine in 20 minutes against Coppin State.

Why would one more matter so much?

“Because 10 is 10,” he said. “And I don’t want to be a softy.”

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

Twitter: @slgreenberg