Buddy Hield was college basketball’s biggest star during 2015-16, the poster-boy for a season that quickly turned into the Year of the Senior. Hield was terrific throughout the non-conference portion of Oklahoma’s schedule, but he became a national sensation during the first Big Monday of the season, when he went for 46 points in a triple-overtime thriller as the Sooners squared off with Kansas in a battle between No. 1 and No. 2.
From there, the legend only grew. One night, he’s scoring 30 points on 12 shots. Another night, he’s hitting eight threes in a road win or scoring 12 points in the final three minutes while hitting the game-winning shot. And he did all of it while scoring at ridiculous efficiency levels — he finished the season shooting 45.7 percent from three despite shooting nearly nine threes per game.
He’d go on to split the National Player of the Year awards with Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine as he led the Sooners to the Final Four and has played his way into the discussion as a top five pick in the NBA Draft. But is the hype justified? In other words, just how much value moving forward should we put in a 22-year old senior that starred in a year where there weren’t any freshmen to steal his shine?
Height: 6′ 4.5″
Wingspan: 6′ 8.5″
Measurables: (From Combine)
2015-16 Stats: 25.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.0 apg, 0.66 a-to, 50.1 FG%/45.7 3PT%/88.0 FT%
STRENGTHS: The single-biggest thing that Hield has going for him is his work ethic. The kid is a terrific basketball player and one of the most potent perimeter shooters that we’ve seen in college basketball in recent memory, but the thing to remember with Hield is that this wasn’t always who he was. As a freshman, Hield shot a crisp 23.8 percent from beyond the arc and developed a reputation for being something of a glue-guy, a role player whose offensive production was the basketball equivalent of finding a $20 bill in the pocket of a pair of dirty jeans. He turned himself into one of the best perimeter scorers in the Big 12 as a sophomore and the conference Player of the Year as a junior, but he wasn’t on the NBA radar because, as he put it, “I wasn’t a good enough ball-handler and I couldn’t create a shot for myself.”
So Hield changed that. Last summer, his teammate Ryan Spangler told me during the Final Four, Hield would workout four times a day, getting to the gym as early as 5:30 a.m. and finishing around midnight. And instead of simply shooting on The Gun, Hield spent the offseason working on shooting off of the dribble and being able to create for himself.
The results speak for themselves. Hield is still at his best when he’s a catch-and-shoot guy. He has an unbelievable feel for moving without the ball offensively, particularly on offensive rebounds, and he was lethal in transition, where he consistently sprinted the floor to hunt shots. Lon Kruger didn’t run him off of off-ball screens all that often, but when he did, Hield really excelled using Iverson Cuts (the third clip in the video below).
The real difference between Hield this season and in past seasons, however, was how often he was used in isolation and in ball-screen actions as the dribbler. As a senior, 17.6 percent of Hield’s offense came in pick-and-rolls, up from 12.8 percent as a junior. His efficiency was about the same, but his improvement in isolations is unbelievable. As a junior, 6.9 percent of his offense came in isolations, averaging 0.5 points-per-possession. As a senior, those numbers jumped to 14.8 percent and 1.11 PPP.
He’s still somewhat limited in his ability to handle the ball, but he’s much improved at finding ways to create space for himself to get off a three, which is important because his release off the dribble is incredibly quick. Hield also improved his confidence in his ability to finish at the rim with his left hand:
WEAKNESSES: The biggest negative for Hield as a prospect is simply his physical tools. He’s not elite athletically by NBA standards, so he’s not a guy that can cover both guards positions, and given that he’s a shade under 6-foot-5, he’s essentially pigeon-holed into defending shooting guards at the next level. He does try hard on that end of the floor, and there may be something to the idea that his defense took a hit because of the amount of energy he was asked to expend offensively this season. So he’s not going to be James Harden defensively. He won’t be Tony Allen, either.
It works the same way offensively. He’s not a creator or anything resembling a combo-guard. He’s not a guy that can play multiple roles. He is who he is, pigeon-holed into being an 0ff-guard offensively as well.
The other part of it is that Hield doesn’t project as a great slasher at the next level. He’s much improved finishing around the rim and he’s strong enough to take some contact and finish, but he’s not an overly explosive leaper and, more importantly, he didn’t show off the ability to consistently turn the corner in college. Part of that is because he was a somewhat-simple scout this past season — for example, according to Synergy, almost 80 percent of the time that he put the ball on the floor in isolation situations, he went left — but that doesn’t actually concern me much. His ability off the bounce was markedly better this year than it’s ever been in the past for Hield, and I don’t doubt that, with his work ethic, he’ll round out his skill-set.
But improving his handle or working on driving right isn’t going to make his first step quick enough to beat NBA guards of the bounce or drastically improve his ability at the rim. Tightening up his ability to make advanced dribbling moves will help him create space for his jumper, but I’m not sure I see him being more than a shooter in the NBA.
There are two things that concern me about Hield’s shooting stroke at the next level. He doesn’t get much lift on his shot — he essentially shoots a set shot from beyond the arc — and he has a low release-point. In and of itself, this isn’t necessarily an issue (see Curry, Stephen), but the difference is that Hield’s release isn’t all that quick when coming off of off-ball screens and he doesn’t elevate to shoot over defenders off the dribble.
In other words, he needs time and space to get the shot off.
Now think about this: More than 41 percent of Hield’s offense came in transition or via spot up jumpers. Another 32 percent of his offense was a result of ball-screens or isolations. Less than 12 percent of his offense came through off-ball screens and hand-offs. J.J. Redick, who Hield should aspire to be at the next level (more on than in a second), saw 39 percent of his offensive production come via off-ball screens and another 18 percent via hand offs. Yes, a lot of that has to do with role, but there is still quite a bit of room for Hield to improve in this area. If I’m his trainer, I’m making him spend the summer perfecting Redick’s bread-and-butter: 1-2 stepping into catch-and-shoot threes off of a pin-down screen:
NBA COMPARISON: J.J. Redick
Hield is a bit bigger and more athletic than Redick, meaning that his ceiling defensively is probably higher, but functionally, this is the role that best encapsulates what Hield could become in the NBA. This past season, his 10th in the NBA, Redick — an absolute superstar at Duke — averaged 16.3 points for the Clippers while shooting a career-high 47.5 percent from three. Prior to arriving in LA, Redick was more of a part-time starter that averaged around double-figures while shooting somewhere close to 40 percent from three.
The other comparison I like is Bradley Beal minus the injuries. The thing that Beal, Redick and Hield all have in common is that they’re on an NBA roster because of their ability to shoot without wearing the comb0-guard label.
OUTLOOK: Buddy Hield’s work ethic is elite. He’s going to get better and he’s going to improve on the flaws in his game, and that makes him a relatively safe draft pick in a year where there really isn’t all that much that is guaranteed. That, combined with a proven ability in what is becoming the most valuable skill in the NBA game (shooting), will likely make Hield a top ten pick, potentially sneaking into the top five. He has a high floor. You know what you’re getting out of him.
But the difference between Hield and someone like a Kawhi Leonard, another under-recruited player with an insane work ethic, is simply physical tools. Hield has average to below-average size, length and athleticism when it comes to the NBA two-guard position. He’s not really a slasher, he’s not really a passer or a creator and I don’t think he’ll ever end up being an elite lock-down defender.
That’s why I see J.J. Redick when I watch Buddy Hield. He’s not a franchise-changing talent, but he’s a guy that should still be a valuable piece on a good team in a decade.