Buddy Hield arrived at the University of Oklahoma almost four years ago in the summer of 2012. Hield spent much of his time getting familiar with the campus, going to class, hanging out with his friends – and once basketball season rolled around, missing a whole lot of shots.
Hield earned a solid 25 minutes per game as a freshman but shot just 39 percent from the floor and 24 percent from deep. In fact, Hield made just 3 of his final 36 3-point attempts of the season as the Sooners flamed out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Hard to believe, huh?
Fast forward to March, 2016 and Hield is a first-team All-American and the co-favorite for the Wooden and Naismith Awards along with Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine. Hield’s the first player to win back-to-back Big 12 Player of the Year awards since Raef LaFrentz from 1996-98 and earlier this season, the senior guard led OU to the No. 1 spot in the AP poll for the first time since 1990.
So how did the NCAA’s deadliest assassin navigate his way from one end of the spectrum to the other?
He took the long road.
“It’s a matter of time put in,” OU coach Lon Kruger said. “He’s invested time, no question about that. To really accomplish what he wanted to, there wasn’t any shortcut, he had to invest time. And that’s why he’s consistently gotten good results.”
Hield’s performance took a big jump after his freshman campaign. His shooting improved to 45 percent from the floor and 39 percent from deep during his sophomore season. However, teams began to recognize his talent and as opposing coaches adjusted, the sledding got tougher.
As the focal point of opponents’ game plans, Hield’s efficiency numbers took a slight dip during his junior season. But thanks to Oklahoma’s sudden national relevance, Hield finally started to earn the recognition he deserved. Hield was named Big 12 Player of the Year after leading the Sooners to a second-place finish in the conference. That same March, just one year ago, Hield led OU to its second Sweet 16 appearance since 2003. Hard to do a lot better than that.
Hard, but possible.
“He had another year under his belt and he either had a choice to get worse or get better,” junior guard Jordan Woodard said. “It’s hard to get better than Big 12 Player of the Year, but now it’s National Player of the Year. He just took that next step.”
Hield’s improvement can be attributed to the self-awareness that it took to realize that there was indeed another step to take. There was still potential for improvement in multiple facets of his game, one of which was shot selection.
“I shot a bad percentage last year, even though I was Big 12 Player of the Year, I shot a bad percentage,” Hield said.
Hield admitted to sometimes catching himself in the act but not being able to avoid pulling the trigger. Old habits die hard.
“I’d know ‘oh, that’s a bad shot.’ If we’re down by like eight or something, I’m gonna try to jack up a 3 and just hope it goes in, but now I’m taking shots I know I’m capable of making,” Hield said. “I’ve been working on my shot so much that now I feel like every shot I shoot is going to go in. Just really locking in and focusing, trusting my muscle memory.”
Hield’s muscles must have the memory of an elephant, because the 22-year-old Bahamian has spent much of his senior season in a state of unconsciousness. In 30 regular-season games, Hield shot 50 percent from the field, a ridiculous 47 percent from 3 and 89 percent from the line; all career-highs. He also averaged career-bests in rebounds, assists and blocks. His 25.1 points per game was good for No. 2 in the country out of approximately 4,560 Division-1 scholarship players.
Assistant coach Steve Henson, who played point guard for seven seasons in the NBA, says that Hield is as hard a worker as he’s ever coached.
“He’s taken steps his entire career,” Henson said. “Obviously when he had as good a year as he had as a junior and then comes out and accomplishes what he’s accomplishing at this point it’s pretty phenomenal for a good player to take that kind of a jump. It’s very impressive.
“I’m sure there’s days he shoots over a thousand, two thousand (shots). He’ll come in and shoot for hours, several times a day.”
Hield says that he’ll get to the gym as early as 5 a.m. to start putting in work – work that goes beyond just shooting. Hield’s main objective heading into his senior season was to work on his ball-handling with eyes on becoming a more complete scorer. In order to do that, Hield had to purchase a one-way ticket out of his comfort zone.
“We tried to get him in the gym and have him spend more time on dribble moves,” Henson said. “His nature is just to come in the gym and just shoot tons of 3s, which is why he’s a great 3-point shooter, but you gotta try to continue to encourage him to work on your weaknesses.
“We knew he was going to put in enough time on his own shooting the ball, whether by himself or with a manager or with a shooting machine, so when we were around him we tried to encourage him to do some things that weren’t as comfortable or as much fun.”
Senior forward Ryan Spangler has had a front-row seat to Buddy’s evolution over the past four seasons. Spangler credits Hield with recognizing his weaknesses and being willing to address them.
“We came in here young pups and thought we knew it all,” Spangler said. “And obviously in the first couple of years we realized ‘hey, we better buckle down and get after it.’ Last year he’d spot up and get a lot of shots and obviously he’d make ‘em but this year he’s able to come off ball screens, able to move without the ball, open himself up more.”
NBA scouts agree. Many projected Hield as a second-round pick at this time last year, but now Draft Express, the most accurate and in-depth NBA Draft website out there, has Hield potentially going in the top 10 come June.
Point guard Isaiah Cousins, OU’s assist leader and second-leading scorer, is far-and-away the Sooners’ best ball-handler. In fact, the one real knock on Cousins’ game is that sometimes he takes poor shots as a result of shaking defenders off at will. Henson encouraged Hield to partner up with Cousins in the offseason and replicate what his teammate was doing with the ball.
“I wanted to watch Isaiah and mimic him, how he handles the ball,” Hield said. “I tried to (work on) staying low … you’ve gotta be comfortable knowing you can beat the guy guarding you and know he can’t take it away from you.”
No one is gonna take anything away from Buddy Hield. Not his Big 12 Player of the Year awards, not his All-American status, and if he’s fortunate enough to win one, not his National Player of the Year award, either.
But Hield’s accolades are just formal quantifiers for the remarkable crescendo that was his college career; symbols to represent the hundreds of hours of hoisting jumpers and dribbling through cones.
They’re a result of taking the long road.
“To really accomplish what he wanted to, there wasn’t any shortcut; he had to invest time,” Kruger said. “And that’s why he’s consistently gotten good results. How consistent he’s been is really rare. It’s amazing.”