Buddy Hield, star of Oklahoma’s run to the Final Four, Naishmith College Player of the Year recipient, and future NBA lottery pick, had been stellar getting his team in position to compete for a championship.
Hield, who averaged 29.3 points per game and shot 47.5% from three-point range through the first four rounds of the tournament, shot just 4-of-12 for his nine points in Oklahoma’s crushing 44-point loss to Villanova, the largest margin of victory ever in a Final Four game.
Still, Hield was undeniably one of the best players of the tournament, and his performances, which included 36 points and seven rebounds against VCU and 37 points against Oregon in the Elite Eight, captivated fans across the country.
It wasn’t exactly new. Hield led the nation in scoring on his way to earning a spot on the Associated Press’ 2015-16 All-America team.
For a player as accomplished as Hield was this season, did a strong tournament run really improve his NBA draft stock?
“The last impression you have of an event or a person is usually the memory that carries the most weight in your head,” a longtime NBA scout told USA Today Sports. “I think scouts are just as susceptible to that as anyone else.”
The scout spoke on condition of anonymity because they aren’t allowed to speak publicly on college players.
It wasn’t always this way for the Bahamian native. Not that Hield wasn’t a good college player. He was. He averaged 17.4 points per game for Oklahoma during his junior season on his way to winning the Big 12 Player of the Year award and being voted to the AP’s third team All-American. His three-point shot was good, connecting on 35.9% of his 259 attempts last year.
But Hield wasn’t enough of a natural facilitator to be a team’s primary ball handler, or even a high-usage scoring wing, as he averaged 1.9 assists per game during his junior season. He didn’t have the size or defensive versatility that many executives covet in the NBA’s switch-heavy defensive schemes. His jump shot being good wasn’t enough, he needed it to be great to really differentiate himself from the pack.
To his credit, he did just that.
After connecting on 35.9% of his three-point attempts as a junior Hield made a major leap, to 45.7% as a senior. His 147 made three-pointers were the most among players in the Power Five conferences in NCAA history, bested only by Stephen Curry’s 162 for Davidson in 2007-08 and Akeem Richmond’s 155 for East Carolina in 2013-14.
When a player shoots 35.3% on a very high number of three-point attempts, as Hield did on the 572 three-point attempts during the first three years of his college career, a monumental jump is typically met with skepticism, at least initially. Players, especially high-volume three-point shooters who teams have a mountain of data on, just don’t normally improve by 10% from three-point range over the course a season.
Despite that skepticism, scouts could see a change in Hield over the summer.
“I think it started to show over the summer when he competed in some of the shoe camp events. He was really separating himself from his peers there,” the scout said, talking about events such as the adidas Nations Counselors Tournament, where Hield, on a team that featured 2015 lottery pick Stanley Johnson, led the tournament in scoring. “Not only in his body, but his ability to create his own shot, and the accuracy within his shot. I think that was sort of the teaser of what was to come.”
Hield’s improvement gives him a clearly defined role at the next level, particularly in a league that places more of an emphasis on perimeter shooting and floor spacing than ever. An elite off-the-ball scorer is an extremely coveted commodity.
Still, while the nation was captivated by Hield’s stunning displays of prodigious perimeter shooting, scouts continue to question what his ultimate upside is.
“He can be a quality NBA player. I think what scouts are trying to figure right now is whether he’s got real star potential,” the scout said, pointing to his ability to create for others, and pick and roll defense, as areas still in need of improvement.
His ability to create for others is a real concern. Since the 2009-10 season, only Doug McDermott scored more points than Hield did this season while averaging less than his two assists per game. His present-day weaknesses create very little margin for error: if Hield’s three-point shot isn’t exceptional, the path to him becoming a star player is filled with uncertainty.
But this is a draft filled with uncertainty, particularly once you get past Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, the presumptive top-2 picks in June’s draft. When NBA teams make their selections in June, they’re not just betting on a player’s current skill set, they’re also betting on a player improving more than what is typically expected, much in the same way that few would have expected Hield to make the jump from a 36% three-point shooter to a 46% one.
“You really need to dive into a player’s work habits, and his competitiveness. How badly does he want it?” the scout said. “Sometimes there’s some evidence there of what could lie ahead if he’s really as focused and as driven as a guy like Buddy Hield is.”
That’s the key. That’s where the intrigue around Hield really begins. It’s not just that he improved his jump shot to the point where he had one of the most prolific seasons from three-point range in NCAA history, but more the approach to the game which fueled that improvement.