Buddy Hield and the Magical Season That Almost Didn't Happen

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Buddy Hield and the Magical Season That Almost Didn't Happen
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NORMAN, Okla. — When Oklahoma's bus pulled up to Kansas State's Bramlage Coliseum for the team's shootaround earlier this month, National Player of the Year favorite Buddy Hield sprinted off the bus and onto the floor, grabbing a basketball and throwing his gear to the side. Hield already had his shoes on and was ready to get shots up.

Oklahoma assistant coach Steve Henson told graduate assistant coach Luke MacKay to count Hield's shots.

"I wanted to see how many he could make before anybody got their shoes on," Henson said.

The answer: 25.

The anthem of the 2015-16 college basketball season is "no one gets buckets like Buddy."

Hield is the nation's second-leading scorer at 25.1 points per game, and he's flirting with a 50-50-90 season that would be historically unprecedented in the college game (more on this later).

Not even Stephen Curry had a season this good at Davidson—relevant because Hield is often referred to as the college version of Curry—and Curry was lacing 'em up against dudes in the Southern Conference and not what's widely considered the best conference in the nation.

Hield is the runaway favorite to win National Player of the Year with some of the most memorable performances the college game has seen in a long time.

He dropped 46 points at Allen Fieldhouse in a game that years from now people will probably forget OU lost in triple overtime; he took over down the stretch and scored 32 points in a comeback win at LSU against likely No. 1 draft pick Ben Simmons; he has a buzzer-beater on his resume, the game-winning three versus Texas; and he has scored 30 or more points an NCAA-best eight games this season.

Hield has been so good that when he went off for 46 points in the game of the college basketball season, the guy guarding him for much of that contest, Frank Mason, got credit for playing great defense. (Hield himself even credits Mason with the best defense ever played against him.)

The difficulty of slowing Hield was on display this past weekend at West Virginia. The Mountaineers face-guarded Hield, trying to prevent him from even touching the ball, and he still went off for 29 points in the win that kept OU in position to battle for a No. 1 seed down the stretch.

As a result of his ridiculous shooting numbers and an expanded skill set that has allowed Hield to carve up defenses designed to stop him, he is shooting up NBA draft boards.

"I think he's certainly helped his stock quite a bit," an NBA scout told Bleacher Report.

How high Hield has climbed is not a topic scouts were particularly interested in discussing—probably because they hope he slides to their team—but every mock draft now has Hield lottery-bound.

Senior lottery picks since 2007
Pick/Year Player
11/2007 Acie Law, Texas A&M
14/2007 Al Thornton, Florida State
12/2008 Jason Thompson, Rider
11/2009 Terrence Williams, Louisville
13/2009 Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina
10/2011 Jimmer Fredette, BYU
10/2013 C.J. McCollum, Lehigh
11/2014 Doug McDermott, Creighton
9/2015 Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

B/R

That would make Hield an anomaly in the modern-day game. Since 2007, only nine seniors have gone in the lottery, and only four of those players were guards.

It's the storybook ending to a great college career, and it was close to going unwritten.

Hield had one foot out the door last April as he mulled over the decision of whether to return to Oklahoma for his senior season or leave for the NBA. He visited OU assistant coach Chris Crutchfield's office every day, and they would go over the reasons to stay and reasons to go. Hield would make a list of the pros and cons of leaving on the dry-erase board in Crutchfield's office, and he made it clear which way he was leaning.

"It's my time, Coach," Hield would tell Crutchfield. "I can't do anything more."

After winning Big 12 Player of the Year, Hield felt he had achieved everything possible at Oklahoma. Crutchfield tried to convince him otherwise and played the devil's advocate to any of Hield's arguments for why it was time to go.

"He'd come back each day with a different argument," Crutchfield said. "He's stubborn, now. He's real stubborn."

Once OU's coaches received feedback from NBA decision-makers and the NBA draft advisory committee, it became clear to them that Hield should stay. Out of the 30 teams in the league, 21 believed Hield was a second-round pick, and that could lead to a future of uncertainty—second-round picks do not receive guaranteed contracts.

A couple of weeks ago, Crutchfield pulled out the folder with the feedback, which he and Hield went over before the April 26 deadline.

"Need to be able to attack the basket more," Crutchfield said as he read from the report. "Need to be able to finish. Need to improve on defense. Gotta improve ball-handling skills. Gotta improve decision-making."

Hield couldn't believe it.

"This is what they said," Crutchfield told him. "This is what they're saying. We're not saying it. They're saying it."

Crutchfield went to the whiteboard and wrote Hield's numbers from his first three seasons. He told him how everyone knew who he was already. He was Big 12 Player of the Year and would be coming back with hype to a team that returned three other starters. The Sooners would be a preseason Top 10 team, and he was already on the radar of NBA scouts.

Buddy Hield's career numbers
PPG RPG APG
2012-13 7.8 4.2 1.9
2013-14 16.5 4.4 1.9
2014-15 17.4 5.4 1.9
2015-16 25.1 5.5 2.1

Source: OU Athletics

"All you have to do is improve in these three areas," Crutchfield argued. "Just do that and you'll have a better year, taking numbers out of the equation.

"And he said, 'yeah, but what if I'm not? What if next year I'm still a second-rounder?' I said, if you work on these three things, you won't be a second-rounder. And he did. He used that as motivation, and it's what you're seeing now."


Stacy Revere/Getty Images

"I wanted to show everyone I could do it and prove people wrong."

The Buddy Hield we see now—the dead-eye shooter who leads the country in threes made per game (4.1)—is not the guy who showed up in Norman.

Imagine this: The dude who is arguably the best shooter in college basketball made 19 threes as a freshman and shot at a 23.8 percent clip from deep.

Hield's jump shot was not even what attracted OU's coaching staff.

"What I really liked in high school was that first step," OU coach Lon Kruger said. "You could see him blow by. He shot it a little bit in high school, but again, very streaky from three. Very, very quick first step and a big appetite for getting better."

Hield still made an impact as a scorer for the Sooners as a freshman—he was the team's third-leading scorer at 7.8 points per game—but he had bad mechanics with his shot that led to the poor shooting numbers.

"There weren't great lines," Kruger said. "We like straight lines when shooting the ball."

Hield's lines zigzagged. His right elbow chicken-winged out, and his release was low. After every practice, Hield would ask OU's coaches how he could get better. "Literally every practice he would ask that and he was genuine about it," Kruger said. "He wasn't just wanting to make conversation. He wanted an answer."

The first order of business was fixing his jumper, and OU's coaches went to work rebuilding Hield's shot. They fixed Hield's lines—every shot Hield takes now looks the same with his elbow in and the ball rising up over his right eye—and he did the rest, getting up thousands of jumpers with a shooting gun.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

"Sometimes young players go to the gym and do what they like doing and what's most natural for them," Kruger said. "Buddy really worked on it."

The hours that Hield spends in the gym read like an urban legend. He often shows up to OU's Lloyd Noble Center at 6:30 a.m. to get up shots—Kruger said Hield arrives to the facility before him—and Hield used to skip pregame meals so he could shoot. It got to the point where OU's coaches had to force him to get a little R&R on game day.

"Never had anyone in 35 years come as close to spending as much extra time," Kruger said. "Not even close."

Hield says he doesn't have a target number for how many shots he gets up each day. He simply shoots until he's comfortable. "I'm a weird player," he said. "If I'm uncomfortable, I'm going to stay here as long as I can."

This gives some reasoning to how a guy with a manufactured jumper is putting up efficiency numbers that likely stand alone in the history of the college game.

Hield has dropped off the 50-50-90 pace over the last few weeks, but he's not too far from getting back on track. Hield is making 49.5 percent of his field-goal attempts, 48.3 percent of his threes and 89.2 percent from the free-throw line.

Those numbers are nothing compared to what he's achieved in workouts. Henson read once that Curry and Klay Thompson try to see how many threes they can make without missing two in a row, and he challenged Hield to see how long he could go without consecutive misses. On the first try, he made 142 before he missed two in a row.

"I put a lot of pressure on myself," Hield said. "I feel like if I make 20 shots in a row in practice, I should make 20 shots in a row in a game. It's how my mind works. It's that Kobe Bryant mentality."

Crutchfield discovered another exercise where the shooter is challenged to get up as many threes as possible in a two-minute span with one rebounder, one passer and two balls. The coaches wanted to quicken Hield's release. At first, he was in the mid-30s. Hield says these days he can get up 55 threes with around 50 makes.

"You can get it going pretty fast if you don't have any bad misses," Crutchfield said. "Now he doesn't have any bad misses. His misses are all around the rim."

Hield's quick release is one key to how he's shooting such high percentages with the defensive attention he receives. The 50-50-90 has been pulled off before, but Hield, if he can manage it, would likely be the first to do so with such a high usage rate, according KenPom.com.

Dating back to 1994-95, no one has ever achieved 50-50-90 and averaged more than 19 points per game. (Using Sports-Reference.com, only three players have made the cut with a minimum of 25 games played and four field-goal attempts per game.)

The 50-50-90 Club
FG% 3P% FT% PPG FGA/G
Brian Conklin, Nebraska (2003-04) 53.3 55.9 90.9 8.0 4.9
Salim Stoudamire, Arizona (2004-05) 50.4 50.4 91.0 18.4 11.6
Matt Kennedy, Charleston So. (2013-14) 51.1 50.0 90.8 12.5 8.5
Buddy Hield, OU 49.5 48.3 89.2 25.1 16.2

Source: Sports-Reference.com

The fact Hield has pulled off such a feat is vindication for his return to college. One of the critiques of his game was that he had poor shot selection, and thus, his shooting percentages (41.2 percent from the field and 35.9 percent beyond the arc as a junior) did not impress NBA teams.

Crutchfield showed Hield video of bad shots that he took his junior year.

"You think somebody is going to give you a million dollars to do this?" he asked Hield.

This season Hield is scoring 7.7 more points per game while taking only two more shots per contest.

"The reason he slipped was you just weren't sure what kind of a consistent shooter he was," a second NBA scout said. "Now he's showing he can be more consistent."

Buddy Hield at the rim
% shots at rim FG% at rim
2014-15 29.9 55.7
2015-16 33.7 62.4

Source: Hoop-Math.com

Hield has also diversified his game by improving his ball-handling. That was his main focus this summer, and he spent hours dribbling around cones, working on changing directions in tight spaces and adding moves to his repertoire. He also worked on different finishes around the rim—layups off the wrong foot and off the Eurostep—and he's getting to the rim more often and finishing off more plays (see chart).

"I trust my game and trust how hard I work, and knew I was going to get better," Hield said.

Hield's step-back game and creativity for setting up his threes are the closest he comes to justifying Curry comparisons. It also makes him feel unguardable.

When OU had the ball on the final possession in a tie game against Texas, Hield told OU's coaches to run the final play for him. "I'm going to score," he told them. This was during one of his worst shooting nights of the year—he had made only two of his nine attempts from deep.

"You owe us," Crutchfield told him. "Make the basket."

Kruger ran an isolation play for Hield on the left wing, and he used a right-to-left crossover to create separation from Texas guard Kendal Yancy. And he buried the game-winning three in front of OU's bench.

"Those are moves he practices each and every day," OU assistant coach Lew Hill said. "All day. That's what he practiced all summer."


"He understands the gift he's got."

Two days before Oklahoma's rematch against Kansas, the OU practice gym is filled with spectators. Kruger opens up OU practices to the public, and the audience is a mix of folks of all ages. It's like they've come to see the president, and Hield delivers.

There's a reason they call him Buddy Love. He shoots like Curry and shakes hands and kisses babies like Bill Clinton.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever Hield is not involved in action on the floor, he is on the sideline talking up the visitors, and he can get in a lot in a short visit—his words come out rapidly in his Bahamian accent. After practice, he goes around to each person in the gym and shakes their hand or gives a fist pound.

Oklahoma sets up a postgame dinner in the practice gym after every home game that includes families of the coaches and players as well as OU support staff. Henson said two people make it a point to say hello to every single person in attendance: Kruger and Hield.

Hield was about 45 minutes late to the postgame dinner after he drained the game-winner against Texas. He had been signing autographs, and once he entered the room, Henson watched as Hield still made his rounds to every single visitor.

"He understands the gift he's got," Henson said. "I haven't been around many people he couldn't impact. He can go into two rooms, he can go into a kindergarten room and just relate and make them laugh and make them smile, and turn around and walk into an executive board room and make a bunch of stiff guys in suits laugh and smile. He's got that ability to do it."

These are the types of anecdotes that will be shared in NBA draft rooms in June. Hield is having a once-in-a-lifetime season, but NBA teams can explain that.

"When you watch him, you have to keep everything in perspective," a third NBA scout said. "He's very, very well-coached. He's a senior with a senior point guard and upperclassmen around him, and it is somewhat a product of his improvement and it is a product of his situation."

What sets Hield apart in the eyes of the NBA is his combination of character, personality and work ethic.

"There's more and more teams that are focused on their cultures in the locker room," the second scout said. "He's a guy that you're never going to have to make an exception for as far as that's concerned."

Oklahoma's coaches can attest.

Hield's high school coach, Kyle Lindsted, told Henson, "You don't understand how hard he's going to work." And the Sooners coaches didn't until they saw it in action.

Henson and Crutchfield stay after every practice to run on two elliptical machines stationed in the corners of the practice gym. The backdrop of an empty gym was replaced by Hield getting up shots.

About a month into Hield's freshman year, Isaiah Cousins started joining him for his post-practice workouts, with Cousins working on his ball-handling as Hield shot threes. Eventually, older players started to join.

The same thing happened with Hield's early-morning workouts as well. These days it's normal for six or seven players to get workouts in before their first classes of the day. At one point, OU's coaches quit scheduling individual workouts because there wasn't a need to make extra work mandatory.

"It's funny because when we recruited Buddy we knew his personality and his charisma and his competitive energy was going to change our program," Crutchfield said. "But we didn't know that his work ethic was the way it was, and it changed our program because he made everybody else work even harder, just as hard as he was working."

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Hield's happy-go-lucky approach has become a staple of OU's attack. The Sooners look to be looser than everyone else, and they rank second nationally in three-point accuracy at 43.1 percent. That's in part because of Kruger's free-flowing system that allows his players to play with freedom, but do not underestimate Hield's influence.

During his freshman season, it became Hield's custom to greet his teammates with, "How y'all feel?"

"He might ask it 50 times and make his teammates say something positive 50 times in a row at the start of practice or stretching," Henson said. "If their response wasn't fired up, he'd say it again and again and again."

You get the sense Hield's spirit is as valuable as his jumper and will be missed just as much once his eligibility runs out.


Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

"Unfinished business."

Crutchfield says Hield is like a son. Hield was the first player the assistant coach recruited to Oklahoma, and he had discovered him years earlier at a showcase in the Bahamas that ended up bringing Hield to the states to play high school basketball at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kansas.

On decision day last April, Crutchfield was in Iowa on a recruiting trip, and Hield woke him up around 7 a.m. with a phone call. Hield told Crutchfield that he and his mom had prayed about it, and he had decided he was going to leave for the draft.

Crutchfield was crushed. "I said, 'Ehhh, that's OK. That's fine. I don't agree with you, but I support you because I love you."

An hour later, Crutchfield called Hield again and asked if he was sure he wanted to go. Hield didn't waver. At 9:30, Crutchfield watched on his laptop as Hield announced he was returning to Norman.

"He called me afterwards; I said I'm gonna kick your ass when I get back," Crutchfield said. "It was fun. He knew he had me."

Right before Hield had informed Kruger he was staying that morning prior to the press conference, he had sent Crutchfield a text.

"Unfinished business," it read.

At the time, it confused Crutchfield. But now it makes perfect sense.

"I heard a lot of rumors like you can't get better just doing what you're doing now," Hield said. "Well, if I go to the NBA, does that mean I can't get better either?

"I wanted to show everybody I could do it and prove people wrong."

Mission accomplished.

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.

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