Buddy Hield found himself in-between just this July: Dynamic enough to be one of the best players at Las Vegas Summer League but not quite dominant enough to skip it altogether.
The best rookies usually shun summer league after a strong first NBA season. The 23-year-old Hield, who improved as a newbie but who still ended up playing with the Sacramento Kings in Vegas, just missed the cut. And he ended up churning out a performance analogous to his regular season.
He missed shots early in Vegas, sinking just 10 of 30 over his first two games. He got hot near the end of his third and final summer league performance, scoring 16 points in the fourth quarter and leading an almost-comeback against the Los Angeles Lakers.
“I'm just trying to stay confident, make some shots in summer league,” Hield told The Transcript after that Lakers game. “I shot the ball the last two days bad.”
He finished his time in Vegas averaging 16.7 points on 36 percent shooting. And it wasn’t all too different from what happened to Hield after he came to the Kings in February.
Hield credits a change in systems for a second-half surge that saw him average 15.1 points while improving all his percentages after coming to Sacramento at the trade deadline. In reality, the former University of Oklahoma star may be more responsible for his improvement than anything on the outside.
The New Orleans Pelicans, who drafted Hield with the No. 6 pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, dealt Hield over All-Star Weekend amidst an inconsistent rookie year.
He started off slowly, immediately inviting comparisons between himself and rookie shooting guard Jamal Murray, whom the Denver Nuggets selected at No. 7. Murray had gotten off to a quick start, is three years younger, and was showing signs of handling, facilitating and shooting. Hield, meanwhile, was a 3-point shooter who sank just 24 percent of his triples through the first month of the season. He was on the verge of falling out of coach Alvin Gentry’s rotation.
But that didn’t continue.
“All rookies go through that,” Kings assistant Bryan Gates told The Transcript. “I think the game at the NBA level is much harder than people take it for. I think it was just him getting used to the pace of the game. But I think he just took the momentum like all players, and then he figured out the pace and physicality of it. He learned how to adjust.”
Hield started making making shots. December was better than November, January better than December. But he was still just a catch-and-shoot threat. That is, until he plopped down in Sacramento after the Pels dealt him for star center DeMarcus Cousins.
“Just better system. Better feel,” Hield said of his improvement after the trade. “Everything’s worked out for me really well… It’s feel, better ball-movement and getting shots up.”
He sank 48 percent of his field goals and 43 percent of his 3s in 25 games with the Kings.
But it wasn’t just the system — even if the situation likely helped.
For whatever the reason, whether it was because of basketball ones or emotional and maturity ones, Hield clearly felt more comfortable. And the Kings, whose provocative owner has famously and overzealously compared to him to All-Stars and future Hall of Famers, probably played a role in that.
Sacramento turned part of the offense over to Hield, who wasn’t a high-usage player, but did hold more responsibilities than in New Orleans.
The Pelicans weren’t winning with Hield, and they didn’t do so without him, either. But they employed others who could take the ball, including perennial All-Star Anthony Davis and point guard extraordinaire Jrue Holiday. And while handing most of the duties to those two was intuitive for New Orleans, a team that was trying to make the playoffs, it didn’t always allow Hield to get cushy as a ball-handler, especially after Hield made much of his living launching 3s in every which way during his best years at OU.
"That’s what we do. Shooters shoot,” Hield said.
Every number says Hield was a quality spot-up shooter in New Orleans. He was negligibly better in Sacramento, sinking a little over 41 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s in both places, per NBA.com’s SportVU data. What changed was the rest.
The Kings found him in transition more, even if they didn’t play at nearly the pace the Pelicans did. Sacramento had Hield fly to the wings in transition, allowing him to space a floor that’s already spaced on the break. He’d often find either an open 3 or would receive the ball at the wing and make a move on a backpedaling defender from there.
He was better in the halfcourt, too, for which he deserves the credit.
The Kings had him running pick-and-rolls more often, and he was far more efficient doing so. Sacramento averaged 1.07 points per possession in pick-and-rolls he started, according to Synergy Sports Technology, an elite number. New Orleans, meanwhile, averaged 0.73 points per possession in pick-and-rolls Hield started, one of the worst figures in the league.
In reality, Hield probably falls somewhere between those two landscapes. But the early-season groans about him not living up to draft position are quieter now — even if consensus is that Murray has higher upside.
Maybe a full year in Sacramento could take him even further.