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Can We Believe in Buddy Hield?

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When a player is on an NCAA tournament hot streak like the one Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield is on, NBA scouts have to ask if they can believe what they are seeing. In terms of predicting a pro career, success in March means nothing — for every Kemba Walker, there’s a Shabazz Napier fighting to stay in the league. So what are we really seeing with Buddy?

Hield is averaging 25.4 points per game, the highest scoring average by a player entering the Final Four since Georgia Tech’s Dennis Scott in 1990. Coming off a 37-point Elite Eight performance against the 1-seed Oregon Ducks on Saturday, his stock is so high that some are wondering whether the Sooners wing, projected as a second-rounder after his junior season, could go first in the upcoming NBA draft.

The question facing the scouts is simple: Whom has Buddy been beating to get these numbers? There aren’t a lot of great teams in this tournament, and there aren’t a lot of great prospects in this year’s draft class. Most of his peers — Hield is 22 years old — are already in the NBA.

Hield hasn’t faced great talent this season. He matched up with Villanova’s Josh Hart in nonconference play, and the best Big 12 competition he saw (aside from Baylor’s Taurean Prince, who was playing zone defense) came from Wesley Iwundu (Kansas State) and Wayne Selden Jr. (Kansas).

However, it’s not so much who is guarding Hield as it is whom he is guarding. The best way to slow down a scorer is to attack his legs on defense, and Hield hasn’t faced many players (or any) who can do that. In the NBA, it doesn’t matter how many points you can score if you’re giving them right back on the other end of the floor.

Hield has the physical tools to be a good defender. At 6-foot-4, 215 pounds, with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, he has prototypical 2-guard size. And while he’s not an elite athlete, he’s not going to get blown off the court.

The Sooners advancing to the Final Four gives scouts a chance to see Hield throw down against better competition. A win over Villanova (and another round with Hart) would mean a game against either North Carolina’s Justin Jackson or Syracuse’s Malachi Richardson and Michael Gbinije, all three of whom are 6-foot-6 (at least) NBA-caliber athletes with the ability to challenge Hield on both sides of the ball.

At the next level, everyone Hield will face will be as good (and likely better) as those guys. How he performs against his Final Four foes could be the truest predictor of how he’ll fare in the NBA.

This piece originally appeared in the March 28, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.