By Brandon Jefferson
In the lead up to the 2016 NBA Draft, there were many detractors about Buddy Hield’s chances to excel as an NBA player. Not too many people this side of Vivek Ranadive expected him to match his production as a senior at Oklahoma. For the first half of the season, it seemed like those who didn’t believe in Buddy were going to be right.
Known as a sharpshooter, Hield shot 45.7 percent from three in his final season at Oklahoma, a number that dipped to 36.9 percent in the 57 games he played prior to the All-Star break with the New Orleans Pelicans.
Teamed with Anthony Davis in New Orleans, the conventional wisdom was that Hield would be able to play the part of floor spacer in Alvin Gentry’s take on Mike D’Antoni’s seven seconds or less system, yet Hield never was able to be the deadly perimeter threat the Pelicans thought they selected with the sixth overall pick.
Following two consecutive months of shooting above 40 percent (47.8 in December and 41.9 in January), Hield had a superb showing amongst his peers in the Rising Stars Challenge. Granted, he was the hometown player so he was force fed the ball. He would end up scoring 28 points (19 in the first half to lead all scorers) and playing 27 of the possible 40 minutes in the exhibition.
As the All-Star break came to a close, it looked like Hield was on his way to righting the ship. However, it wouldn’t be done with the Pelicans. New Orleans didn’t bat an eyelid when the Sacramento Kings dangled DeMarcus Cousins in front of them, shipping Hield and filler off to the West Coast.
Since joining the Kings, Hield has looked like a completely different player. His field goal percentage has leaped from 39.3 percent to 47.1 percent, his three-point percentage has also increased from 36.9 percent to 42.1 percent. He’s playing eight more minutes and shooting three more shots, which have bumped his points per games average to 14.4 from 8.6.
Instead of hitting a rookie wall, Hield has blown it to pieces. The reason? He’s playing more like Boomer Sooner fan favorite “Buddy Buckets.” During his explosive senior year at Oklahoma, Hield was the primary ball handler for Lon Kruger’s team. The ball might not have started in his hands on every possession (they liked to get him running off screens as an early offense and then hand the ball over to him if nothing developed out of that), but it definitely finished with him.
With the Pelicans, Hield was pigeonholed into the role of a shooter. Oftentimes, he would be planted in the corner waiting for the ball to come to him. In New Orleans, 82 percent of his made three-pointers were assisted along with 49 percent of his made two-pointers. With the Kings, those numbers have dipped to 71.7 percent and 32.9 percent respectively.
It’s unlikely that Hield will ever match the 30.2 usage rate he posted his senior year in college, but there has been a bump in that number since the move to Sacramento, from 20.3 to 22.9. That 2.6 percentage increase is the same as the difference between Andrew Wiggins (19th highest usage rate) and Damian Lillard (seventh highest usage rate).
Hield isn’t a streaky shooter per se, but he is a rhythm player. Having the ball in his hands allows him to get a better feel for the game. Those deep heat check triples he would toss in with ease as a Sooner came off the confidence of having the ball in his hands longer than multiple catch-and-shoot opportunities provide. He was second to only Dario Saric in catch-and-shoot threes attempted per game. Despite seeing a slight uptick with the Kings, he comes in at seventh in the same category.
During his time with the Pelicans, Hield’s 28.9 touches per game ranked ninth amongst rookies (below such illustrious names as Isaiah Whitehead and Wade Baldwin IV). In Sacramento he’s nearly doubled that number to 41.9 touches per game. While he remains ranked around the same slot (up to eighth), there are no longer outlier names above him. Teams trying to tank (Tyler Ulis of Phoenix ranks first at 76 and two Lakers Brandon Ingram and Ivica Zubac rank fourth and seventh respectively) or have rookies that have carved out a spot in their rotation (Malcolm Brogdon, 61.3, and Jamaal Murray 45.8, are second and third to Ulis) are the players above him now.
However, Hield’s improvement isn’t as cut-and-dry of a case as the Kings are simply giving him the ball more. While that has definitely helped, Hield has also grown as a player over the course of the season. Bryan Topek highlighted his improvements as a shooter and Zach Lowe noted his added in-and-out dribble has made him a bigger threat in the pick-and-roll. Hield is a known gym rat and even got some tutoring from sensei Black Mamba in the lead-up to the NBA Draft, it was only a matter of time before some of the hard work paid off for him.
Hield must continue to put the work in if he wants his second half surge to be more than just a blip on the radar. For all the strides he’s made in Sacramento, he’ll need new tricks to pull out of his bag once teams have scouted the ones he currently uses. The Kings will likely have two more lottery picks in the 2017 NBA Draft, and while scouting prospects hasn’t been a strong suit of the Vlade Divac regime, Sacramento has a propensity to stockpile it’s talent at one position (See: Cousins, Kosta Koufos, Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere, and Georgios Papagiannis all being on the roster to begin this season).
With Cousins gone, Sacramento is looking for a new face of the franchise to emerge. Most rookies don’t get to have the offense run through them, but it helps when the majority owner of the franchise believes you to be the second coming of the only unanimous MVP. Being with the Kings has given Hield the opportunity to rediscover the game that made him a lottery selection. Buddy Buckets could be looking at a big jump in production as a sophomore next season.