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Buddy Hield has potential for magnificent NBA career, don't let anyone say otherwise

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Time for naysayers to realize what Kobe Bryant and other important opinions see: the prolific scorer out of Oklahoma can be a phenomenal player. Don't be surprised if resident superstar Anthony Davis ends up learning a thing or two from his newest teammate.

Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The New Orleans Pelicans drafted the 2016 Naismith Men's College Player of the Year, but Buddy Hield still has his throng of critics. He doesn't create for others, his defense -- especially on pick-and-rolls -- can be severely lacking, or altogether, his package of tools and size is merely average by NBA standards. The list of concerns appears long and many judgements have been passed, but the naysayers have overlooked several critical components that will likely change the equation and, thus, the end result.

Well, it won't be the first time scouts and experts alike have missed badly on correctly projecting a player's future. For instance, have you ever heard what was written about Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant, two of the best shooting guards to ever grace the game, coincidentally from the same 1996 Draft class?

Phil Bedard, who nailed Steve Nash for what it's worth, figured, "Allen is probably more of a scorer than a natural shooter, but he can hit from long distance." Yep, the same Ray Allen who currently holds the record for the most three-pointers made, 413 more than Reggie Miller who sits second on the prestigious list.

Bryant's report reads even funnier. "Some scouts feel he doesn't have the ballhandling and shooting skills to be an effective guard." Ahahaha, many have gone on record stating that the Mamba deserves mention among the top 10 of all time greats!

Comparisons, projections, even the most advanced statistical methods of analysis are all fine in a vacuum, but have you ever wondered why some players still bust badly or explode out of the woodwork, why the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference continues to be such a raging success or simply why a consensus has yet to be reached on a single, more comprehensive evaluation process?

The Holy Grail for talent evaluators has yet to be discovered!

Oh, today's models and years of experience with the eye-test tend to get things right many more times than not, but oftentimes they all hope to just end up in the right ball park. The problem is that there remain too many factors uncounted for in the various formulas and personal opinions.

Buddy Hield's height, standing reach and other measurables have been well documented. His four years spent as a Sooner religiously analyzed. Yet, I have failed to come across an examination of all three vital components that I believe will have a critical say in the arc of Buddy Hield's career.

  1. High-revving motor whose determination and passion rival or surpass most peers
  2. Underdeveloped game as result of lack of focus in several important areas
  3. Advanced cognitive skills that could elevate his potential ceiling

Unrelenting drive to be the best

Kobe Bryant was considered the poster child for several noteworthy campaigns, but can you guess which one he fancied the most himself? His much downplayed overachiever status. During his 20-year career, Kobe never cut any corners despite possessing that god-given ability. On numerous occasions, including in "Kobe: The Interview," he stated that nearly everyone perceived him to be a hard worker but missed the fact that passion was his driving force.

Bryant admitted to Ahmad Rashad that when he entered the league, he was shocked to learn that most failed to work as diligently as he on improving their games. He claimed he did it because he needed to, he had to be the best. It was not a choice but a way of life.

Hield appears to hold a similar perspective, so would anyone deny that he is cut from the same cloth? From his Bahamian childhood days of constructing basketball rims with any materials he could get his hands on to the hours devoted on his shot in legendary workouts at Oklahoma to now, mere days after the New Orleans Pelicans made him the sixth overall selection.

Hield doesn't know how to take it easy, and similar to Bryant, runs in high gear non-stop. This is one of the precise reasons why I favored him over other potential draft selections like Jamal Murray.

Interestingly, Bryant is starting to gain notoriety for reaching out to several of the rising stars in the association, serving as a mentor of sorts. The league's best head coach, Gregg Popovich, asked the Mamba in February to spend some time down the road with Kawhi Leonard. Why?

And Kobe is just another example of somebody that has been disciplined over time, and been a great pro in understanding the responsibility to bring it night after night after night. Kawhi sees that and understands that. He's trying to live that life.

Another of Bryant's recent pupils was Draymond Green. He loves what he sees in the Golden State Warrior's power forward because, "Draymond is a rare breed in this day and age."

Hield has yet to tally a single minute in the NBA, but he already sits inside this inner circle of trust. Several months ago, Kobe reached out to him and gave advice on a number of the nuances found within the intricacies of the game. Per Hield's words, Bryant suggested to "be mentally focused, locking in, the little things. Setting your man up, jabbing, how to create space. How to use the fadeaway jumpshot, teach me how to square my body when he uses a fadeaway jumpshot. Little things like that to help me improve."

If Kobe sees the drive, the passion, and understands better than most the importance of possessing a high-motor, who are we to argue with one of the game's greats? Seemingly many of the top players in history -- the Jordans, the Nowitzkis, the LeBrons -- have all been renowned for their incredible work ethic.

So, while many statistical models raised red flags about the jump in production from his junior to senior season, I question why Buddy's improvement, the product of hours of hard work and extreme dedication, was not heralded through and through.

As Brett Dawson wrote the other day, Hield followed a specific plan to improve his jumpshot while at the University of Oklahoma. How many of his peers decided to dedicate an additional 60 days to practicing their jumpshots while in college?

We can hope Buddy decides to invest in a new phone once he receives his first paycheck from the Pelicans, but the dedication he displayed to his craft while foregoing on the opportunity to spend more time with fun-loving students on campus must be applauded. Especially when it pays off as handsomely as Jeff from Nylon Calculus depicted.

Based on stats taken from KenPom.com, the below chart shows all eight upperclassmen lottery shooting guards since 2006 and their progression within the context of percentage of team shots taken and true shooting percentage from their penultimate to their final season. Hield’s drastic improvement is clearly seen.

The astronomical jump in Hield's true shooting percentage with the bump up in usage was unparalleled by other recent upperclassmen shooting guards, yet in the background, his age has seemingly always loomed large. A great shooter no doubt, but many have forecasted a lower ceiling for this reason, giving little credence for possible improvement elsewhere. Is that right?

An underdeveloped game with room to grow

Going back to his childhood days for a moment, it's well known that Buddy Hield grew up with a basketball in his hands, even if regulation rims were not always available, but an important disclaimer needs mentioning. As to where his American-born peers had access to the stiffest competition and highly regarded coaching, Hield did not. At the start of his collegiate career, the discrepancy showed.

When Hield arrived in Norman, the coaching staff was most impressed by his quick first step, not his jumper. Yeah, that sweet-shooting stroke was only a figment of everyone's imagination! To be honest, it was terrible mechanically and the results showed: a first-year 23.8 field goal percentage from thee-point range.

Hield still made an impact as a scorer for the Sooners as a freshman—he was the team's third-leading scorer at 7.8 points per game—but he had bad mechanics with his shot that led to the poor shooting numbers.

"There weren't great lines," Kruger said. "We like straight lines when shooting the ball."

Hield's lines zigzagged. His right elbow chicken-winged out, and his release was low. After every practice, Hield would ask OU's coaches how he could get better. "Literally every practice he would ask that and he was genuine about it," Kruger said. "He wasn't just wanting to make conversation. He wanted an answer."

The first order of business was fixing his jumper, and OU's coaches went to work rebuilding Hield's shot. They fixed Hield's lines—every shot Hield takes now looks the same with his elbow in and the ball rising up over his right eye—and he did the rest, getting up thousands of jumpers with a shooting gun.

Thousands of hours later, the chicken-wing was ironed out and the release perfected. Tell me again what they say about practice?

Through the proper guidance and with ever-important dedication, Buddy Hield went from dud to stud and was rightly considered by many as the best shooter of the 2016 class. The numbers are on his side too.

In comparison, have a look at where Stephen Curry stood after the first 33 games of undoubtedly the best regular season of his professional career.

Hield's senior season walked on water alongside one of the greatest shooting performances ever witnessed. However, before anyone raises the level of competition argument, his NCAA situation was far from an easy one. Read what Wally Szczerbiak, a fantastic scorer once in his own right who was asked to carry his Miami Redhawks on a nightly basis, had to say about Hield.

People don’t realize how hard it is when you’re the number one guy to stop on the scouting report every single night, and you get eleven 30-point games in the Big 12. You have a 46-point game at Phog Allen  [Fieldhouse], and he has completely captivated the whole country with his flat out shooting ability.

It stands to reason that with all the focus poured into shooting, at least partially because Oklahoma asked him to have a score-all-the-time mentality, the rest of his game suffered from a lack of attention. Have you ever heard what he said about practicing his ball-handling? He never gave it much thought until his final year in college!

''It's kind of embarrassing for me, because I'm always in the gym, but I never really work on my ball handling,'' Hield said when he announced his decision to delay his NBA dream for another year. ''I always work on my shooting. I need to accept the challenge and work on things I need to get better at. I'm ready to make that next jump in my game.''

In the span of one season, the improvement in Hield's handles significantly helped increase his offensive versatility. His trips to the free throw line shot up by 33%, and it helped fuel his college-best two point field goal percentage (55.2%). The effect led to a rather desirable outcome. According to Hoop-Math, 85% of Hield's shots came at either the rim or from behind the three-point line.

These improvements during the course of the senior season prepared him well for the modern floor-spacing game in the NBA, but considering it took close to four years to hone that jumper, an argument could be made that his handles have room for further development. Having ignored that part of the game too long made it a weakness, but that boat is now sailing on the proper course, and in time could become a strength.

Underdevelopment could also explain some of the defensive concerns. Facing double or even triple-teams while remaining locked in a shoot-first, second and third mentality, something had to give and likely Hield didn't put forth the requisite effort on the defensive end. The numbers at sports-reference.com seem to support this theory as his steal percentages fell steadily since his freshman year and his senior defensive box plus/minus was nearly half of what it was as a junior.

Spending several years under the expert tutelage of coaching at the highest level, say the likes of a Robert Pack and Darren Erman, Buddy Hield should be able to learn a thing or two or a hundred. His past history suggests it likely, regardless of what his driving license says.

Immensely high aptitude

When Stephen Curry entered the league, he was regarded highly but was not predicted to reach star status. Quite a few coined him as overrated because while he could score with the best of them, his lack of superior athleticism and size was eventually going to catch up with him. His defense, conversion rate at the rim and other weaknesses were supposed to always remain problematic. Even advanced projections were of little help, failing to predict his current peak, and mentioning his adjustments against bigger and more talented competition would determine if he'd be a role player or a great player.

Obviously, Curry has climbed to the top rung of the ladder. Adjustments and improvements in his game have helped, as has his work ethic, but there is one underlying key which made so much of it possible: his elite hand-eye coordinationcentral nervous system, whichever term you prefer.

The best marksman in NBA history, perhaps unsurprisingly, turned out to be a quick study at exercise technique. "Steph's central nervous system is the best I've worked with," Lyles says. "It's why he's a great golfer, a great bowler, a great shooter."

Our eyes easily discern that Curry doesn't jump or run like Russell Westbrook. This is a commonly made mistake, though, when evaluating a prospect's athleticism -- having it revolve around explosion. Steve Nash strongly believes that this is why most missed correctly gauging Steph's true ceiling when he first entered the league.

"He’s a phenomenal athlete," Hall of Fame-bound point guard Steve Nash said. "He’s off the charts in so many ways as an athlete. We sometimes get so enamored by explosion. Athleticism is what you can do within the parameters of the game: the ball, opponent, space, time, execution. There are so many things. We lose track of what a phenomenal athlete he is."

One such example of Steph's elite abilities can be traced back to his stupendous shooting touch. His dexterity is ungodly; he exhibits so much control and is able to be so precise with his movements.

"He must have extra senses in his finger tips," U’Ren said. "His ability to, in a split second, manipulate the ball is incredible. It’s just a miniscule, fraction of an adjustment — to loft it a little higher, or change the angle with a defender coming at him. But he can feel it and make the change instantly."

Shooting is an activity of feel. There are teachable techniques to improve one’s shooting, but much of it is unspoken, instinctual. It’s dexterity: the skillful manipulation of the hands. And Curry has some of the best mitts in the NBA.

In his freshman season, the form on Buddy Hield's shot was a disaster, but now it's on the verge of likely being considered one of the quickest and deadliest in the NBA. In addition to the form, he exhibits a fantastic understanding of space: where he is, where he needs to be to get off a good look and how to do it all in the blink of an eye.

It's a smart wager to make that Buddy will jump right in and be regarded as one of the most "shot-ready" guards in the league. Perhaps the best part is that he has examples of possessing an advanced feel similar to Steph that could lead to a lot of success.

This happened during one of the Sooners’ 2015–16 preseason practices, when they were breaking in a new batch of basketballs. Byron Peak, Oklahoma’s senior student manager, watched Hield stop a shooting drill and examine a ball with some annoyance. "And then," as Peak recalls, "Buddy pulls an [air-inflation] needle out of his sock, sticks it in the ball, lets out some air, puts the needle back in his sock and starts shooting again. All of [the managers] were just like, ‘What was that?’"

The deal was that Hield shoots so much that he could tell the ball was inflated beyond the ideal 7.9 pounds per square inch. The managers appreciated his advanced feel, but they had to implement a NO MORE NEEDLES policy for Buddy. They would do the deflating from then on, rather than risk their star scorer (or a teammate) getting hurt in some freak, sock-needle stabbing incident.

The proof of Hield's problem-solving skills, ranging from his days of teaching himself to be best tiptoer in the family (be sure to read "More Than Enough" by Buddy himself) to adjusting to the competition of the NCAA without a privileged AAU circuit background, are there. Further, he's always shown an eagerness to learn, say unlike a teammate who felt he had dedicated enough time to basketball, by spending his free time in front of a television, watching the best perform.

*****

Care to know what Buddy Hield thinks about his limited upside?

With concerns on whether the 22-year-old Hield has already hit his peak, he mentioned Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and forward Draymond Green and Portland Trail Blazers guard C.J. McCollum also stayed in college for three or four years before becoming NBA stars. […] "It’s funny how they say you stay four years in college and you can’t get better," said Hield, who has also worked out with Boston, New Orleans and Phoenix. "They are the superstars in the league."

In "Kobe: The Interview," Bryant admitted to Ahmad Rashad that not all the dominant players in the league ever had the speed or athleticism that he had in his prime. Yet, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and others went on to have Hall of Fame careers.

Hield knows he's not the next Kobe, because he doesn't possess the same physical ability, but just as Stephen Curry parlayed his work ethic and high aptitude into several MVP trophies, Buddy has shown an ability to accomplish a lot without an ability to leap out of the gym. Bryant seems to appreciate this and trusts Hield's talents and impact will carryover.

"The same way he's playing in college is the same way I anticipate him playing in the league," Bryant said of Hield. "I don't think it's overly complicated. I think people tend to overthink players a lot and try to nitpick. It's easy. If a guy can play, he can play. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure that out. He'll be just fine."

Despite this, I predict Hield will not win the 2017 Rookie of the Year AwardBen Simmons and Brandon Ingram, on two of the shallowest teams, will be given all the usage they can handle. With Anthony DavisJrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans around, Hield is going to be left often fighting for scraps.

But that's fine, because a new, more versatile role should help in the long run. From the start, he's not going to be asked to shoulder the scoring load each and every game, rather fulfill what duties are required. Some nights will ask he make defense a priority, others get the ball into Anthony Davis' hands.

It will be interesting to gauge just how successful he can become in the other facets of the game, but sooner or later, he will be asked to fill it up. After all, it's been his specialty for some time now, to the point that new tests needed to be devised along the way.

Over the course of four seasons, Hield improved so much that the Sooners had to alter their drills to keep pace. "We had to change some of our shooting games that we’ve been doing for 20 years, because they’re too easy for him now," Henson said in January. "We used to have guys try to make three treys in a row, from five different spots, in 90 seconds. But Buddy is to the point where he always makes [three in a row from] seven spots, and sometimes doubles back for an eighth, which is just phenomenal."

If Hield continues to harness his gifts, he could potentially fall into the top 1-percent. Blasphemy, maybe, but I'm certain I don't want to regret someday of betting against a guy who is more enthusiastic and passionate than his peers, comes from a motivationally different background than his AAU brethren, and seems to possess the right combination of intangibles to be special.

If not, who cares, the injection of Buddy Love across New Orleans and inside the Smoothie King Center is going to be well worth the price of admission alone.