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Will Buddy Hield’s great year translate into a high pick and NBA stardom?

March 24, 2016 Columns No Comments

A leading candidate for national Player of the Year is Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield. While not exactly a consensus pick, you can hardly go wrong selecting him. What will that translate into in June when the NBA Draft comes? Or more importantly, what kind of a professional player will he be?

The answers are not easy, no matter how facile some who try to answer the questions might make them seem. But they highlight two important things worth expanding on regarding the college game and the NBA: perception of seniors and the difference between the two levels.

By pretty much any measure, Hield has had a sensational season. After carrying Oklahoma past VCU into the Sweet 16 by scoring 29 of his 36 points in the second half, he averages 25.4 points per game on the season to go with 5.6 rebounds per game from the guard spot. He is shooting 50 percent from the field, a terrific number for a guard, including 46.3 percent from long range. When it has mattered most, he has almost always risen to the occasion, scoring 63 points in two NCAA Tournament games on nearly 56 percent shooting, going 9-20 from long range. About the only knock would be in the Sooners’ semifinal loss to West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament, where he scored just six points on 1-8 shooting a night after scoring 39 points on 14-21 shooting.

The VCU game marked the 11th time this season that Hield has scored 30 or more points and the 13th time in his career, which ties a Big 12 record. On 18 occasions this season, he has scored at least 25 points, and Sunday’s game included his ninth 20-point half of the season. He will almost certainly end the season as the third Big 12 player ever to average at least 25 points and five rebounds per game and have the third-highest scoring average in Big 12 history, behind Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant for both.

With all of that information, you would probably be shocked to know that while Hield won Big 12 Player of the Year for the second straight year, he did not do so by a unanimous vote.

What does that mean for after the season? Opinions, naturally, are varied, although there appears to be relative consensus about the draft.

Let’s start with the NBA Draft. Hield thought about declaring a year ago, but opted to return. He was thought of as a borderline first round pick, a talented scorer but one whose jumper could stand improvement, especially since that has always been the featured part of his game. After coming back and making a big improvement, especially shooting the ball, Hield is now seen as a mid-lottery pick, mostly in the lower half of the top 10. Who is selecting will certainly influence where he goes, but that gives you an idea.

Why not the top spot? Well, it might be the same reasons scouts and others in the game are a bit divided on what kind of professional he will be. A closer look at his pros and cons gives a better idea.

The pros: primarily, he can shoot the ball very well out to long range, and has improved greatly in that respect. In addition, he doesn’t shrink from having to carry a team or come up big when a lot is on the line. He can rebound from the guard spot, and his improvement – he shot below 24 percent from long range as a freshman and was never better than 39 percent before this season – is a sign he accepts coaching and has proven he can get better.

The cons: he is more of a shooter than a scorer, though a good (not great) athlete, and at times his shot selection leaves a bit to be desired even now. He’s also considered a bit undersized for shooting guard at 6’4″, and as a senior, he is older (he turned 22 in December) than a number of players who also figure to go in the lottery, which works against him. While he is not the most physically mature player, he isn’t a baby, either, so he is seen as having less upside than others.

NBA teams will be weighing whether or not the pros outweigh the cons heading into draft night. What likely overrides all is that for most teams, the NBA Draft is about upside, about finding players with the highest ceilings and who are furthest from their ceiling. When it comes to the first overall selection, rarely does it go to someone who isn’t either an elite point guard or big man, or a special wing or combo forward talent along the lines of Lebron James or Kevin Durant.

Hield is a pretty good player and prospect, but he isn’t James or Durant. As such, most evaluators have him going more towards the middle or back end of the lottery. Because he is older and more mature physically, he is closer to his ceiling than others. It is possible, however, that he is merely a late bloomer of sorts. In theory, his track record matters, but because the NBA Draft is more about upside than production, his track record matters less.

Evaluating a player’s professional potential is always tougher because we are talking about a human being, not a robot or computer. There are many factors that come into play as to whether or not a player pans out at all, let alone becomes a star player. Maturity is a big one, because as a professional your time away from your job is not structured the way it is in college. How a player manages his off time is a very big factor; with many talented players in all sports who did not pan out, one can point to how they managed themselves off the playing field. In Hield’s case, the human factors would appear to be an advantage; his character and maturity is not at all in question. Further complicating matters in evaluating how good he will be – and really the first and foremost factor in evaluating how good any player will be – is the reality that the NBA is different from the college game, not unlike how the college game is different from high school. Not everything translates nicely from one level to the next.

Hield’s improvement shows he is coachable and can get better. Many talk about getting better, but it doesn’t always happen. A big question is how he will fare when he is not his team’s go-to guy as he has been at Oklahoma the past two seasons. His shooting ability, especially the improvement with it, suggests he can do well in a more specialized role centered around that, but a specialized role like that is also not often that of a star player. Specialists are certainly valuable, and Hield appears to be a little more than just that, but specialists are rarely all-stars in the NBA.

As long as the Sooners continue to win in the NCAA Tournament, Hield will get to show his wares a little more. For the most part, he’s a pretty known commodity, as scouts have had a chance to see him play a lot over his career and even just this season. He will have value for an NBA team at first, and perhaps longer, but just how long will depend on a number of factors as previously noted. But an important thing to keep in mind is that something that often works against a player should work in his favor – if he had declared and stayed in the draft a year ago, Hield might have ended up in the second round of the draft. With a year of big improvement, he can now get drafted much higher because he did what was necessary to move up significantly.

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