Isiah Thomas Said Grant Hill Was Meant to Replace Michael Jordan as the Face of the NBA After 1998: ‘We Were Talking About Passing the Mantle to You’

The NBA lost its leading talisman when Michael Jordan retired following the 1997-98 season. However, Detroit Pistons legend and Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas felt then-Pistons star Grant Hill would make a seamless transition as the new face of the league.

Hill was one of the budding superstars in the NBA toward the turn of the century, a versatile point forward with exceptional athleticism and playmaking ability. Unfortunately, he never replaced MJ as the new face of the league, instead becoming one of the more notable “What If?” stories in NBA history.

Grant Hill followed in Isiah Thomas’ footsteps as the next Detroit Pistons legend

Isiah Thomas was the seminal figure for the Bad Boy Pistons, but Zeke’s career arc was on the decline after Michael Jordan and the Bulls swept Detroit in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals.

Thomas made the All-Star team in the next two seasons, but the Pistons won 48 games during the 1991-92 campaign and missed the playoffs after winning 40 games in 1992-93. Things bottomed out immediately thereafter. Thomas dealt with injuries during a woe-begotten 1993-94 season in which the Pistons won just 20 games. He promptly retired.

However, the franchise was about to welcome a new talent who appeared ready to transform not just the Pistons, but the entire NBA.

Detroit selected Duke star Grant Hill with the No. 3 overall pick in the 1994 NBA Draft. Hill had been a two-time All-American with the Blue Devils and was named ACC Player of the Year the same year he entered the draft. He made the transition from college to the NBA seem like light work.

Hill was the 1994-95 Rookie of the Year. He made his first All-NBA team the following season and was All-NBA First Team during the 1996-97 campaign. The Dallas native ripped off five All-Star appearances in his six seasons with the Pistons.

Hill left Thomas’ beloved Pistons to sign with the Orlando Magic in the summer of 2000. Still, he convinced Zeke he was the new standard-bearer in the NBA.

Zeke believed Grant Hill would fill the void left by Michael Jordan

Pistons legend Isiah Thomas at a gala and former Pistons star Grant Hill during his playing days
Isiah Thomas and Grant Hill | Photo by Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Image; Photo by JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Grant Hill’s all-around talent and remarkable athleticism gave him a certain aura as a guy ready to explode as the best forward in the NBA — and perhaps the best player in the league.

Let’s do a quick side-by-side comparison.

Player A averaged 20.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 6.5 assists from 1995 to 1998. Player B averaged 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.6 assists during that same time period. Player A is Grant Hill during his first four seasons in the NBA. Player B? Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen in his last great years with the Chicago Bulls.

Isiah Thomas believed that early showing hinted at G-Money becoming the best player in the NBA. He said on the “Decades” episode of NBA TV’s Open Court back in 2015 that Hill was meant to replace Michael Jordan as the face of the Association.

“When Jordan was retiring and Grant Hill was coming into the league, we were talking about passing the mantle to [him].”

-Isiah Thomas, NBA Open Court (2015)

Thomas said someone such as an aging Pippen could not “carry” the NBA. On the other hand, Hill was a guy on the rise who dunked on centers and crossed over seemingly quicker guards with ease. He had the excitement to carry the league into the new millennium.

The NBA would find a new face, but it wouldn’t be Hill. While Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant, and the Los Angeles Lakers came to define the sport amid a dominant three-peat, Hill suffered a devastating setback.

Grant Hill was never the same because of ankle injuries

In July 2000, Grant Hill signed a $92.88 million contract to revitalize an Orlando Magic franchise decimated by the departures of stars like Shaq and Penny Hardaway. Hill and Tracy McGrady appeared to form one of the most imposing wing tandems in the NBA.

But the contract is only a painful reminder of what might have been.

Ankle injuries robbed Hill of his prime. He played 47 games between the 2000-01 and 2002-03 seasons before missing the entirety of the 2003-04 campaign. Hill made the All-Star team in his return to the court but was still a shell of his former self. He was ultimately forced to alter his game and become more of a defensive-minded wing, though it was quite the commendable transformation.

All in all, Hill still had a remarkable career and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018. But injuries prevented him from living up to the Isiah Thomas billing as “the guy.”

Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.

RELATED: Isiah Thomas Never Gets the Love, but He Took Down Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan in Their Primes