The NBA playoffs are approaching, and the Kings are in a mad dash to get there, flaming at their customary speed. It's early March and they're at it again, working in transition, look at him go. Buddy Hield sprints with his head tilted back, eyes up toward the cup, and settles in around the right wing. De'Aaron Fox trails him for a moment and then jets upcourt, erasing lost time, outpacing everyone.
This is where the Kings are at their best: Fox zips toward the basket, and Hield stands at the ready, and what's the defense supposed to do? The Kings have numbers, and either Hield or Fox is certain to score. This two-man magic has the Kings in the hunt for the first time in more than a decade, and after a bucket it has the Kings up three in a pivotal game against Boston. For upstart Sacramento, the first act is always Hield outworking everyone, gliding toward the wings, where he shoots more than anyone and hits often.
"People are like, 'I don't know why the fuck they leave him open so much,'" Hield says. "I just run harder than everybody. Everybody don't want to run, bro. I don't care what nobody says. Nobody wanna run after you. That's how it is."
Paced by Hield, Sacramento runs more transition plays than any other team, and it scores the most points in transition. The real hammer is that the Kings turn it over the least in those spots. That's a credit to Fox, who runs those breaks, but it's the product of a backcourt perfectly conceived.
"It's always just trying to make the defender make a decision," Fox says. "If I feel like he's leaning toward Buddy, then I'll keep it and keep going. If I feel like he's about to try to stop the ball, then I'll just flip it back or find wherever he is on the court. I think we have a great feel for each other."
Pace has defined the Kings' season: The team was slowest in the league last year, and now it's fastest—voila. No single player is faster than Fox, but it's Hield's endurance that makes the Kings so relentless. His stamina astounds even teammates, like fellow wing Bogdan Bogdanovic, who says Hield "can run all day and never be tired from shooting."
That's been clear this season as he establishes career highs in just about every category—points (21.1), threes (3.4), free throws, minutes, you name it. For a feared sharpshooter, there's a nice balance to Hield's game. He can improvise in the half court. He is an elite rebounder among shooting guards. He rates as the team's best defender against pick-and-roll ball-handlers, per Synergy Sports. At 6'4", 215, he tries to check opposing teams' best players. (When facing great point guards, Hield will sometimes approach his backcourt partner and say, "Fox, let me guard him, let me try.")
Hield will need to deliver in all areas down the stretch. "Right now my best is needed, so I have to be at my best every time to get us to the playoffs," he says. "That's my motto and my goal."
Sacramento is tracking for its first plus-.500 finish since 2005-06, when the team last made the postseason. The heroes of that old group are still here: Vlade Divac and Peja Stojakovic run the front office; Doug Christie is on the call; Bobby Jackson works in player development. "We're invested in Sacramento because we played here and we want to see the team do well, but we want to see these young guys do well also," Jackson says. Young guys abound: Hield, Bogdanovic and center Willie Cauley-Stein are in their mid-20s, Fox is 21, and Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles can't drink.
Right now my best is needed, so I have to be at my best every time to get us to the playoffs. ... That's my motto and my goal—Buddy Hield
The Kings nearly slept through this decade, as lottery picks and coaches passed through aimlessly. But this new group has awoken a dormant hoops city and stolen the hearts of NBA fans everywhere. These Kings are easy to root for. "We don't have assholes," Jackson says. "I've been around assholes. I was an asshole. I've seen how we carry each other, how we respect each other—it makes your job easier."
Hield is the leader of the clubhouse. He arrived via trade two years ago, making him one of the longest-tenured players on a youthful team. At 26, he is a near veteran around here, a role he embraces. "I want to be the guy everybody looks up to, and say, 'Hey Buddy, what do you think about this one?'" he says. "A lot of people don't like that challenge. I like that challenge." Hield likes every challenge.
He is a flamboyant competitor. He has a little Kobe to him; he's worked out with Bryant and studied his film, and he's prone to reference Mamba mantras in conversation. Excitedly, he'll say, "Kobe also said" and "Kobe always said" before reciting something about basketball and war. Hield is a fast talker with a mild Bahamian accent that goes in and out. He says "bro" a lot, and hanging around him, you do kind of feel like his bro. He is genuine and charming, even as he curses to no end. "It's just a tough fucking league, bro," he says at one point. "It's hard to stop motherfuckers in this league, bro."
He works endlessly on his jumper—team ball boys say he drives them the hardest of any King, demanding a ball in his hands at all times during pregame shootaround. Jackson calls him a "gym rat. He can be in the gym by himself and just shoot, shoot, shoot." On a recent afternoon, while working with Jackson, Hield nailed 32 threes in a row from the left corner, letting fly with his distinct jumper, calm and low-slung. "Sometimes it's like, 'Man, you gotta go home!' Because he might be there two hours after practice," Jackson says. "I got a family—I need to go!"
"It's always been weird. You can't explain it, bro. If I see some shit, I have the touch to do it," Hield says of his wonky mid-range work. "My teammates are like, 'Tough shot!' I'm like, yeah, I worked on this shit, I'm in rhythm, my body alignment is perfect."
If there's room for Hield to grow, it's at the rim, especially when tempo slows in the half court. Nearly a fifth of his possessions are pick-and-roll spots, and most often those end in a funny dribble jumper. He's only attempted 30 shots at the rim all year when coming off a pick, per Synergy, and he's made just 10. "10-for-30? That's like 30 percent? Ooh, that sucks," he says.
He'd like to unlock that area. "If I get to the free-throw line more efficiently, I can jump to like a 27," he says, meaning points per game. "That's a goal—you gotta set a goal for yourself." It's a lofty number, but it's attainable, considering Hield's track record for making good on his ambitions. Entering this season, he had targeted 18 points per game for himself, and at present he's surpassed it by about three points; at 21.1 a game, he's up 7.6 from last year. A similar leap next year and he'll be rocketing toward golden 27, and beyond.
If Hield isn't shooting, he's running. This summer, he spent time strengthening his core and lower body by running on a trampoline, resisting gravity, trying to stay low. The regimen came in handy as Kings head coach Dave Joerger—in his third year—began demanding breakneck speed during pick-up games. "I was like, OK—Coach is crazy," Hield says. "But everyone got used to the pace, and me being a leader and athlete, I'm like, I'm not letting these dudes beat me. You wanna play fast, this is my strength, you know? It brought something out of me."
Joerger appreciates how Hield affects the young Kings. "You always feel like when the energy comes from within [the team], that's the best," he says. "He always brings the energy."
That's been true since Hield was a teenager. His high school coach, Kyle Lindsted, recalls how he turned workouts into events. "With that personality, he makes it the fun place to be, so your whole team is in there with him," he says. "He's got the reggae pumped up, yelling and screaming—he makes everything fun."
Hield grew up near Freeport, the second-biggest city in the Bahamas. He was a track star, like his mother, Jackie, and his siblings. He was not much of a hooper yet. As a teenager, Hield was undersized at 6'1". His jumper was ugly, his mid-range game nonexistent. "Nobody had faith in me," he says. That was true until Lindsted, the head coach at Sunrise Christian Academy in Bel Aire, Kansas, walked into the gym. The first time he saw Hield play, he saw a subpar athlete with a mean drive. He offered him a spot on his team.
Hield arrived at Sunrise the following year as a high school junior. His first day in the weight room, he pushed his scrawny frame as far as it would go. "He's shouting out, screaming through the pain, 'I'm gonna make it!'" Lindsted says.
Others weren't so sure. D-I coaches told Lindsted that Hield had no shot to play in their division. Lindsted had him pegged for a mid-to-low D-I conference. For Hield, that wasn't enough. "Broke my heart," he says. "I said: 'Fuck that shit, bro, I'm a high-major player. My mom's gonna watch me on TV play. I didn't come this far to let that happen.' I worked my butt off." He erupted as a high school senior, and schools took note. Kansas offered him a scholarship, but with a catch: It was first waiting on another player to decide. "Fuck that shit, I'm not waiting on nobody," Hield says. "If I'm not wanted, I'm not gonna go."
Hield committed to Oklahoma, where, after three seasons of steady progress, he once again ascended as a senior. He averaged 25 points per game (shooting 46 percent from three) and then led the Sooners to the Final Four.
Hield went No. 6 in the 2016 draft to New Orleans. Immediately, though, his scoring prowess eluded him. In his first pro game, he shot 2-of-8 from the floor. His second game was even worse: 1-of-6. By November, he was basically out of the team's rotation.
Pressure mounted. Anthony Davis, then in his fifth season, approached Hield about his shooting woes. "AD tell me one day at practice: 'Bro, we're losing. You the No. 6 pick. We need you to do some work, bro. You're not doing shit yet. You gotta make something happen.' I said OK, I got you, bro."
Soon thereafter, on Dec. 4, the Pelicans traveled to Oklahoma City, Hield's old turf. Friends were in attendance; he received a standing O when he first checked in. His first shot was an air ball. ("I said, 'Oh fuck!'") But he settled in and finished with 16 points. The following weeks were promising; for December, he shot nearly 48 percent from deep—good stuff for anybody, let alone a rookie. But in January, he slipped into a rut again, and the first few weeks of February were even worse.
Then, on Feb. 20, 2017, just after the All-Star Game, an impossible thing happened: Hield was traded, with a few other pieces, for one of the league's great talents, Kings center DeMarcus Cousins. NBA Twitter had a field day: Bill Simmons estimated Sacramento received 40 cents back on the Cousins dollar; Chris Herring of FiveThirtyEight tweeted: "If you have friends who are Kings fans, hug them. Can't believe that's all Sac got in a trade for a player of Boogie's caliber."
Hield heard it from his peers as well. "When I first came in here, some players were like, 'Oh shit, they brought him in for the franchise player?'" Hield says. "'Fuck, you get Buddy? Motherfucker's not worth shit,' you know what I mean?"
The Kings front office felt otherwise. Owner Vivek Ranadive reportedly went so far as to compare Hield to Steph Curry, which seemed like the next in a long line of Kings errs. (Who could forget crowdsourcing the team's first-round pick in 2014, selecting Nik Stauskas with it and then dumping Stauskas' meager salary in 2015, with this year's pick, to clear cap room to sign Rajon Rondo for a single, losing season?) Perceived missteps aside, Divac and Stojakovic believed the Cousins trade signaled a new era. Hield appreciated their confidence. "I respect those guys because they gave me opportunity that nobody didn't wanna give me," he says.
Hield finished the season nicely, averaging just over 15 points per game for the Kings (compared with 8.6 in New Orleans) and earning a spot on the All-Rookie first team. The following year delivered more of the same (13.5 points, 2.2 threes), but the Kings were bad—invisible, even.
The Kings were unbothered. "Before the season, we knew—our basketball people here, not you media and fans—that we are better than everyone thinks we are," Divac says. "But the kids are showing us they are even more better."
Still, not everybody was quick to believe, even as the Kings moved to 6-3 and then to 15-12 and beyond.
"You start winning games and everybody's like, 'Oh this team is getting lucky.' I said, 'No, we're not getting lucky, fuck that shit,' you know? This is us. I know myself. I know my heart and what I'm capable of doing, and you guys just haven't seen it," Hield says. "Kobe always said, 'I work so hard that every shot you put up, I outworked you this summer, you didn't work harder than me. I know I outworked you.' I don't care what you do. You can be an All-Star, you know what I mean? Shit, I outworked you."
In the Kings locker room, on a floor-to-ceiling whiteboard, below where it details the opponent's good three-point shooters and their percentages, and their bad free-throw shooters and their percentages, and below diagrams for motions like 4 Fist and Stack and Stack Loop, the Western Conference standings are written in black marker. About halfway down—below the eighth-place team, that is—there is a thick red line. And just below that, there are three cruel letters: S-A-C.
You start winning games and everybody's like, 'Oh this team is getting lucky.' I said, 'No, we're not getting lucky, fuck that shit,' you know? This is us. I know myself. I know my heart and what I'm capable of doing, and you guys just haven't seen it—Buddy Hield
In the thick of a playoff race, the Kings can't help but track those ahead of them. Tonight, they are two games out of contention as they welcome the Boston Celtics. Ahead of the game, Fox sits at his locker, scrolling through his phone, and makes an announcement: "We got a game!" The Hawks are beating the Spurs in the third quarter—if they hang on, Sacramento will trail San Antonio by just a skinny game. "The Spurs are going to lose to the Hawks, man, watch," center Kosta Koufos shouts just before the Kings hit the floor.
Instead, it is the Kings who lose—the Spurs come back to win—dropping the team three games out.
Afterward, TVs on either side of the whiteboard air highlights from around the league. The Kings only appear for a brief lowlight, eliciting groans from the locker room chorus. Players with their feet dunked in ice stare blankly at the monitors. Tonight's loss will become the first of three in four games, creating more separation between them and No. 8. Wherever the Kings are going, they're not there yet.
"Everyone's talking about us being a playoff team," Divac says. "Yeah, it would be great, but we have a bigger picture."
Indeed, history tells us that the Kings' redemptive playoff berth will come next year, with a little more seasoning. This is the year that every someday-great team endures first, full of hope and a dash of heartbreak.
Then again, 14 games remain on the calendar. And Buddy Hield thinks the Kings can win them all. "You can't put a limit to yourself, because when confidence gets involved with limits, you go crazy with it, you surpass it," he says. "As a player, all you need is a little bit of confidence, and then you just take it and run."
Sacramento Kings TV analyst and former NBA veteran Doug Christie joins Howard Beck on The Full 48 to discuss the Kings' resurgence, the bright futures of De'Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley and Christie's playoff battles with the Lakers in the early 2000s.