From start to an earlier than expected end to his college season, freshman Ben Simmons has had a hold on the no. 1 pick position in the upcoming NBA Draft. Though he’s likely the best prospect in this draft, on a night in late January, he wasn’t even the best player on the court—that was Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield.
The two could not be more different. Simmons, a 6-foot-10 forward with point guard vision, brimming with potential, stands in stark contrast to Hield, a 6-foot-4 senior scorer who may be playing at, or close to, his potential.
Both can expect to hear Adam Silver call their names on draft night. While Simmons won’t have to wait long in the ESPN Green Room, Hield will need to exert some patience before he gets called up to the stage. But with the way his season has gone, and an NCAA tournament ahead, that wait time is rapidly shrinking.
Unlike Simmons, Hield didn’t burst onto the national stage as a freshman. Instead, he improved year after year in relative anonymity in Oklahoma, quietly expanding his role in the offense. As a freshman, Buddy Hield used just 20.5 percent of his team’s possessions with a 97.2 offensive rating, according to KenPom; this season he used 28.6 percent with a 121.5 offensive rating. Now averaging 25 points per game, second among all NCAA players, Hield is a front runner for National Player of the Year, turning heads and opinions heading into the upcoming NBA draft.
Hield’s shot-making is his calling card, with a sky high 66.2 true shooting percentage bolstered by his 46.4 percent three-point shooting on 8.6 attempts per game of which he connects on almost half of such attempts. He makes tough shots night after night, both off the dribble and on the move with hands in his face.
Hield will need some time to adjust to the NBA, where defenders are longer, more athletic, and quicker to closeout; and to a role that figures to be less prominent than his current one. While some of the above shots might be good for Oklahoma, as a role player in the NBA—at least early on—teams will want him to be a little more selective and let the game come to him instead of forcing the action.
But his quick release and ability to shoot from more than a standstill position bode well for getting his shot off at the next level. Hield is excellent moving off the ball, showing great awareness in sniffing out open spaces and creating enough separation for open looks. Smart teams will be able to leverage his gravity to generate easier looks.
He’s already adept at using screens to free himself in the flow of the offense. Watch as he sets his defender by walking him away from the screen before his quick cut back toward the ball. He’s able to gather himself off the catch for a quick release into a three. This will be a great skill for him to have as a complementary player at the next level. Teams won’t need to call a ton of plays for him but they will be able to draw up sets that will allow Hield to get open or create space from time to time.
Hield isn’t great off the dribble when breaking his defender down in isolation yet. He doesn’t have a quick first step or much shake off the bounce to lose his defender. And he’s more or less an average finisher at the rim right now at 63.0 percent, according to hoop-math.
Although his footwork is much improved since his underclassmen days, he’ll need to refine it further to supplement what he lacks in elite athleticism. There are times when Hield tries to put a move on a defender but can’t shake him.
But with a near 6-foot-9 wingspan and reputation as a hard worker, there’s hope Hield can learn to finish over the top of NBA rim protectors and develop into more of a scorer than shooter. He’s shown flashes of potential here, and with his shot, will only need to do enough to keep defenses honest.
It would be helpful for his development if he could become more of a creator for his teammates. He currently averages just 2.1 assists per game, which is low for a guard with such a high usage rate, and is below average relative to shooting guards in Draft Express’ top 100. When he draws the attention of the defense, he is more likely to shoot than not, even when the attention he draws leaves teammates open.
The simplest read he’ll need to master is watching to see if the defense hedges off screens, forgoing a contested jumper to dump the ball off to the open screener. The more difficult leap will be to leverage the attention he draws off the dribble to manipulate defenses into giving up open looks for his teammates. Right now, Hield is primarily focused on getting his own offense, which is fine for the Sooners, but strides in the shot creation skill set will be big for his NBA ceiling.
Defensively, Hield hasn’t been much of a plus contributor this season. With such a large offensive load, his effort level can slip on this end. He sometimes fails to get into a stance to be even ready to guard before failing to move his feet when the ball is in front of him. He does a decent job off the ball of staying aware and making rotations, but teams will want to see him more focused on ball.
With a smaller role at the next level, this will be crucial for him to help out on that end. The potential is there with his wingspan and the agility he shows on offense. Now he just needs to commit to proving himself defensively. While it’s difficult to project him as a lockdown wing defender with his size and relatively average quickness, he should be able to learn the principles of a team defense, its rotations, and improve his footwork enough to be a useful team defender on a tough defensive unit.
In terms of a player comparisons, Hield could develop into along the lines of J.J. Redick or Kyle Korver; players who can bend and stretch the defense as opponents chase him all over the court. It’s easy to imagine him probing the defense off the ball and running off screens to get open for jump shots just like Redick and Korver. They don’t have high usage rates, but they are incredibly important to good offenses. The ending play from the LSU game is an example of how defenses need to treat him as such a weapon at the collegiate ranks. Tim Quarterman can’t leave Hield’s side on the ball screen which gives Isaiah Cousins a free mid-range jumper for the win.
Of course, he’s also not afraid to take the last shot himself as proven against Texas earlier this season.
If he can create for his teammates, the right situation could see him as the offensive leader of a bench unit with free reign to have the ball in his hands. If so, he could play a role similar to Jamal Crawford, who has 4.1 assists per 36 minutes for his career. If he doesn’t make strides in this area, he’ll play a smaller, but still valuable role. A less successful version of Hield has him as a ball-dominating, ball-stopping, low-efficiency, chucker in the vein of J.R. Smith or Dion Waiters (with hopefully somewhat better decision making). That’s still a valuable, albeit smaller, role, and Buddy will have to completely buy into his role for the betterment of the team.
One of the main factors holding Hield back from an even higher draft status is his age. College seniors just don’t get drafted in the top 10 anymore with many rebuilding teams toward the top of the draft more likely to draft a younger player who will be coming into their early 20’s near the end of their rookie contract rather then a senior who will be in his late 20’s by that time.
There’s something to be said for a 22-year-old dominating 18- and 19-year olds before struggling once he gets to the NBA. If Hield would have performed like this as a sophomore, he would have been in the mix for a top five pick. As it stands, he’ll likely have to settle for a mid-lottery selection at best. The past results of the top college seniors drafted point that out with the below chart showing the seniors drafted in the top 20 since 2009.
Expect Hield to go in the 10-14 range come draft night. His age and poor defensive skills will hold him back,but it’s hard to argue with his shot making and ability to stretch the defense.
Of the teams currently projected to select from nine to 14, there are some good and bad fits for Hield. Most teams can use a player with his shooting, it’s just a matter of whether they have the minutes for him and how the develop him as a player to use him at the next level.
Three of the last five Wooden Award winners have been seniors, and it’s possible that Hield will be the next in line, though he has tough competition from Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine.
Buddy Hield might have the best NBA transition of any of the previous award winners, which include Kaminsky, McDermott and Jimmer Fredette. His shot-making will be key for him to succeed at the next level and he’ll need to accept a smaller role as a secondary scorer. If he can consistently hit three’s with a hand in his face, he’ll no doubt have a long career. There is little evidence from this season to suggest he won’t be able to do that, giving the team that drafts him a valuable building block.