Buddy Hield is ready to get to work

ByJustin Verrier via ESPN logo
Saturday, July 16, 2016

LAS VEGAS -- As Buddy Hield's range ballooned past the 3-point arc, his big smile winning over teammates and administrators alike around Oklahoma's Norman campus and becoming the avatar for all of college basketball, Lon Kruger made sure all that went into being Buddy -- the late-night workouts with reggae music booming off the gym walls, the unwavering self-confidence that fueled his transition to a knockdown shooter -- wasn't lost along the way.

"Our message to Buddy all year was, 'Don't change, don't change,'" said Kruger, the Sooners' head coach. "When you start getting those national accolades and recognition and player of the year conversations, don't change, don't change. Even when he received the awards, we said don't change anything. When you get drafted, don't change anything. You've got something unique and special as a personality. When you get to the NBA, don't change anything."

Such a player would seem like an easy fit in a league currently cashing in on an everyman capable of superhuman shot-making. Like Steph, Buddy enters his pro career a ready-made persona, with a backlog of big-game highlights -- including besting a "Mini-LeBron" with the almighty 3 -- and the ability to walk the line between charm and confidence. He's a supremely gifted athlete who also pulled himself up by the boot straps.

He's your buddy, but he's also an on-court killer who idolizes -- and now shares an agent with -- Kobe Bryant.

"The qualities Buddy has are the ones you'd want everyone to have," Kruger said. "What I think balances it is sincerity, and maybe the work ethic. His peers like him, the coaches like him, the administration likes him, the people in town like him. It's not like he flaunts anything. It's not like he gives off that he's entitled. It's not like he's expecting anything back. Buddy's a giver. Which is pretty rare when you think of a player with those abilities."

The Buddy brand also comes complete with three self-given alter egos: "Buddy Fresh," which he's prone to belt out to spark self-motivation; "Buddy Love," which is "for the ladies," as he recently told The Starters; and "Buddy Buckets," which on draft day lined his suit jacket in Bahaman colors.

"I've got good branding skills," he said with a smirk. "Attracts the crowd a lot, too."

Even "Buddy" is an alias. His mother, in what is now Hield lore, saw a likeness between her infant son and the character Bud Bundy from "Married With Children," and so Chavano became Buddy.

Those who know him well agree it fits.

"He's always had that swag," said Sacramento Kings rookie Isaiah Cousins, Hield's former roommate at Oklahoma. "It's just a part of his culture."

His first taste of the NBA, though, hasn't exactly aligned with expectations. In five games at Las Vegas Summer League, Hield shot worse from the field (32.7 percent) than he did from behind the 3-point arc (46 percent) in his meteoric senior season. His healthy scoring average of 16.8 points per game places him near the top in Vegas, but even Hield admitted, after virtually every game here, that he hasn't shot this poorly in years.

"I'll be fine," he said after his fourth game, in which he went 5-for-17. "It's just a learning curve for me. I'm not worrying. I'm just a little pissed off right now. I didn't get summer league how I wanted it to go. But I gotta keep grinding, man."

Hield has shown a willingness to pass, the sharpshooter has notched five assists in each of the final three games at summer league. And he always seems to be the one loudly encouraging a teammate -- or himself -- on the court. But Hield struggled to handle the ball in the face of pressure and to get separation off the ball. While Hield gives effort on defense, one NBA scout questioned Hield's impact on that end given his lack of length and instincts.

Both Hield and assistant Robert Pack, New Orleans' head coach at summer league, noted the extra attention defenses are giving to Hield given his notoriety and the options around him. In the petri dish that is summer league, the Pelicans used Hield at times to operate the pick-and-roll, but he'll more likely be asked to spot up and stretch the floor for the big-league club.

"Everybody just guarding me tight," Hield said. "I've been getting attention as soon as I stepped onto summer league. Everyone's just been guarding me tight. I'm just trying to find my way. It is what it is, man. Keep grinding, keep getting better. That's what summer league is for: to learn.

"When we get back to training camp, guys like Anthony Davis will open the floor more for me. So I'm not worrying about it. I'll be fine."

The early struggles present a familiar arc. Though Hield said he was "always a shooter," Kruger says he arrived at Oklahoma as more of a slashing, attacking guard. In four years, he grew from a 24 percent 3-point shooter on less than one attempt per game to 46 percent on almost nine a game.

"He knew from the start that he wanted to improve the shot, improve the mechanics, raise it up a little bit. And then just spent time," Kruger said. "There's no shortcut with anything. Buddy invested the time and put up the shots."

One Pelicans staffer said he's bound to learn reggae by the amount that's been bumping at the practice facility court leading into their rookie's first minicamp. Hield also told Sports Illustrated that he's not looking to take any time off before the start of training camp in order to rectify his disappointing debut.

Amid his summer-league slump, Hield was asked if he ever reverts back to the downhill player he was when he arrived at Oklahoma. He proceeded to talk up a 39-point effort against Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament in which he made just two 3-pointers.

Then the usually fast-talking Hield paused.

"I just find the way in life," he said.

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