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The Ballad of Buddy Buckets

You may know Kings shooting guard Buddy Hield as Buddy Love. Or perhaps Buddy Fresh. With the indefatigable 24-year-old rediscovering his shot in Sacramento and emerging as a key cog in the team’s energizing rebuild, it’s finally clear that Buddy Bust won’t be joining the list of his alter egos.

Ringer illustration

As a tween growing up in Freeport, on the island of Grand Bahama, Sacramento Kings shooting guard Buddy Hield used to slink out of the house whenever his overworked mom fell asleep so that he could sneak in a few extra nighttime minutes at the local basketball courts. As a high schooler living at Sunrise Christian Academy, a boarding school outside Wichita, Kansas, where he had been recruited, Hield spent so much time shooting hoops that his coach, Kyle Lindsted, later said that the only way to force the kid to take a break was to physically lock up all the basketballs.

When Hield got to the University of Oklahoma, where he played for four seasons and received four major national player of the year awards, he and his teammate and roommate Isaiah Cousins grew so committed to beating one another to the practice courts in the wee hours of the morning that Cousins, seeking any edge over the indefatigable Hield, occasionally resorted to straight-up sleeping at the gym. And after the New Orleans Pelicans drafted Hield sixth overall in 2016, the team had to break it to their rookie that his collegiate habit of spending entire days inside the arena would probably not withstand the rigors of an 82-game pro season.

But old habits die hard, and during a recent morning shootaround at the Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento, where Hield arrived via trade from New Orleans in early 2017, Hield is the last player to leave the court, doing so only after a Kings staffer pointedly hollers that time is up. The Oklahoma City Thunder are in town to play the Kings, and as Hield walks toward the Sacramento locker room in his warm-ups, I ask him what he remembers about the experience of attending Thunder games every so often back when he was a college kid and NBA hopeful.

“Just dreaming, man,” Hield responds in his Bahamian drawl. “Just dreaming, wanting to play against those guys, just being able to go out there and be an NBA player and live the life they live and compete at the highest level.” Later that night, in a 117–113 win over Oklahoma City that represents perhaps not the highest level of competition but is certainly close enough, Hield goes out there and is not only an NBA player, but one of the best players on the floor, living the life.

Hield plays a team-high 35 minutes against the Thunder and scores a team-high 25 points. His 9-of-18 shooting performance highlights the range of his offense: the smooth catch-and-releases sprung from explosive De’Aaron Fox passes; the sometimes slashing, sometimes stuttering transition moves through the paint; and even the midrange pull-up jump shots that, in Hield’s capable hands, seem like mostly sensible decisions. In the fourth quarter, when Russell Westbrook hits a big 3-pointer that pulls the Thunder within two points of the lead with about five minutes remaining, it’s Hield who answers with a 3 of his own on the next possession, the first of three baskets from downtown for Hield in the fourth quarter alone.

“As a kid,” Hield tells reporters after the game, “I watched Kobe Bryant a lot. He made a big name for himself just making clutch buckets. … Every player wants that feeling, the crowd is cheering, I just want to be part of that.” After a decade-plus of living with near-constant frustration over bad trades, confusing draft picks, relocation rumors, and general disarray, every Kings fan wants that feeling, too.

The Kings’ victory over Oklahoma City is their ninth win; last year, it took them an additional 10 games to reach that milestone. As of November 29, their record stands at 10–10. The mood in the locker room is buoyant and boisterous, a nice change from the familiar tenor of dysfunction and panic that had crept up a couple of days earlier after Yahoo Sports reported that management was unhappy with head coach Dave Joerger’s minutes management of rookies Marvin Bagley III and Harry Giles. Next to Hield, guard Iman Shumpert is explaining to reporters that the team is jelling in ways that extend beyond the court. Everyone’s “lingo is starting to blend together,” Shumpert says, turning to Hield and mimicking his accent. And “Bogi” — second-year shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic, with whom Hield chilled this summer in locales ranging from Coachella to Belgrade — is “starting to flood his pants like us,” Shumpert adds, referring to the Serbian’s new ankle-baring ways.

Hield laughs, both with and at Shumpert. “Winning helps,” Hield says to the media. “When you win, everybody starts to know each other better, and have fun.” He speaks from experience: After a disappointing beginning to his own NBA career in New Orleans, Hield has found his stroke and his smile again in Sacramento, a city that has been waiting patiently to turn back into a basketball town. In the year and a half since he came to the Kings, Hield has been a crucial part of a young, fun franchise that has nowhere to go but up — and knows it.

Not much was fun about the Kings when Hield arrived in Sacramento at the trade deadline in February 2017. The team hadn’t made the NBA playoffs since 2006 and was on its ninth head coach since that time. Two weeks after general manager Vlade Divac insisted Sacramento would not be trading Boogie Cousins, the occasionally maddening but mostly beloved heart, soul, and face of the franchise, the Kings dealt him to New Orleans for a package of players that included, though did not necessarily feature, Hield. (“A jar of jelly beans, a case of Gatorade and six rolls of tape” is how Fox Sports’ Shannon Sharpe described the Kings’ yield.)

Hield’s previous 12 months had been marked by extreme highs and challenging lows. He reached the Final Four with the Sooners in the NCAA tournament, but was blown out 95–51 by eventual champion Villanova in the semifinal game. He was selected as a lottery pick in the draft by the Pelicans, but struggled in summer league. Despite being an “old” rookie at 23, Hield was at one point during the season shooting sub-40 percent from the field; his minutes withered, and he was traded away before his rookie season was even complete. In a 2016 Rolling Stone interview, Hield had discussed a whimsical trio of alter egos that defined him: there was Buddy Love (with the ladies), Buddy Fresh (for when he was lounging), and Buddy Buckets (self explanatory). Now it seemed like he might have a fourth in his future: Buddy Bust.

“You hear about somebody getting traded,” Hield says, “but you’ve never been in the league to know how it is. In college, you never know the feeling of being traded … coming to the new team and everybody looking at you, like, ‘Oh it’s the new kid on the block.’”

Early on, there were promising signs that Hield might derive a much-needed boost from the unexpected new situation. In his first stub of a season with the Kings, he averaged nearly nine more minutes per game than he had in New Orleans. He took more than three additional shots per game, and, crucially, made a lot more of them: His field goal percentage that year went from 39 percent with the Pelicans to 48 percent in Sacramento. In New Orleans, he had averaged 8.6 points per game; in Sacramento, it jumped to 15.1. (So far this current season, Hield leads all Kings scorers with 18.8 points per game.) “That’s not a bad deal,” is what Chris Crutchfield, an Oklahoma assistant coach and a man Hield describes to me as “a father figure,” remembers telling Hield after the trade. “You can go in there and start this thing from scratch,” Crutchfield says in a phone conversation, explaining his thinking at the time. “They really don’t have a veteran team. They don’t have any established guys. You can go in and get this thing started.”

In the year and a half since, that’s exactly what Hield and the rest of the Kings’ promising young core have done. Only four players on the team’s 17-man roster have five or more years of NBA experience; on Sunday, when Bogdanovich started in place of a resting Shumpert against the Utah Jazz, all five Kings players on the court during the opening tip had three or fewer seasons under their belts. The team’s most experienced veteran and last season’s leading scorer, 37-year-old Zach Randolph, was informed by the coaching staff in the offseason that he wouldn’t be seeing much, if any, playing time this season in order to make way for the team’s future.

That future includes rookies Bagley and Giles, as well as a key group of guys — from Hield, to Fox, to center Willie Cauley-Stein — who have now played together through a full season and two training camps. “We made some moves,” says Fox, sitting in the locker room before the Thunder game, “but we still have a lot of the same guys that we had last year. So I feel comfortable playing with those guys … kinda know their spots, and know where they want the ball. I think it’s been a lot easier.” In his second season, Fox is averaging 17.5 points and 7.5 assists per game, up from 11.6 and 4.4 last year. (About a fifth of his passes go to Hield.) He has established himself this season as one of the sneaky-best players from a 2017 lottery class that included Lonzo Ball, the confounding Markelle Fultz, and Jayson Tatum, among others. Cauley-Stein, the sixth overall pick in 2015, is also having a career season, both in points and rebounds.

But it’s Hield, who earned a starting role this season after spending much of last year as an increasingly efficient performer off the bench, who has put up some impressive numbers with the same abandon he uses to hoist up shots. “No player in NBA history,” wrote Sactown Royalty’s Tim Maxwell on Twitter, “has averaged 18+ PPG while shooting better than 43% on 5+ 3PA per game in their first 3 seasons. Only 11 players have done that in any season in history. Buddy Hield is currently averaging 18.8 points while shooting 45% on 5.7 3PA attempts per game.” The Kings’ fast, transition-based offense is well-suited for Hield, who has the haunches and the gait of a guy who spent many years running track; according to NBA Advanced Stats, both he and Fox cover, on average, about two and a half miles per game, putting them among the top 16 players in the league in the category. “He’s definitely one of the best guys in the league with movement off the ball,” says Fox. “He shoots so well, so he doesn’t need to stand in one spot. He scores in a variety of ways.”

Hield’s early beginnings were not exactly the stuff of legend. “If I showed you some pictures of him, he was a small little scrawny little kid,” says Darrell Sears, a basketball coach in Freeport who has known and worked with Hield since the player first caught the basketball bug. The third-youngest of seven children, a number of whom focused their athletic talents on track and field, Chavano Rainer Hield, a.k.a. Buddy, also grew up a runner, racing mostly middle distances. It wasn’t until he was in seventh grade, Hield says, that he really began immersing himself in basketball. “I was always short,” Hield tells me. “Everybody was like, ‘You’re so short, you’re so young. … You should stick with track, that’s your best way of getting off the island and making something for yourself.’ But I said, ‘Nah, I’m sticking with basketball.’”

For the past 16 years, Sears has run an annual event called the Darrell Sears Showcase that puts local Bahamian basketball talent on international display, though Hield wasn’t even technically participating in the event the first time Crutchfield noticed him there. He was just being his usual 14-year-old gym rat self: messing around on the court’s fringes with some of his friends, talking to anybody and everybody, and walking around like he owned the damn place.

“I loved his energy,” Crutchfield says. “I just loved his energy, I loved his confidence that he had as a young 14-year-old kid. So I wrote his name down and then a year later he’s in the showcase, and I go back down and see him. … He’s shooting the ball from his hip, and it’s going in. And he’s making these funny sounds. When the ball goes in, he’d make a funny sound like a bird whistling or something, and he’s having fun playing, and he still has that confidence and that swagger.”

Lindsted, who is now an assistant men’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota, was at the time the head basketball coach at Sunrise Christian Academy, a school founded by his father Robert, and he has similar recollections of seeing a skinny, small, “not very athletic” Hield play in Freeport. “I don’t think Buddy was even close to being one of the marquee guys,” says Lindsted. “But I noticed just how magnetic he was, and how he would do whatever it took to win. … It was a typical high school gym, with bleachers, and everywhere Buddy sat down there was always a big roar of laughter and a crowd of people around him.” Lindsted wasted no time in pursuing Hield, and was soon sitting with Jackie Swann, Hield’s mother, to pitch the idea of her son coming to Sunrise Christian.

In 2010, Hield arrived on the school’s Kansas campus for the first of his two years. Between his junior and senior seasons, he experienced a growth spurt that helped set him apart from his peers; Hield remembers someone giving him a nice pair of size-13 sneakers that were three sizes too large, “and I was like, man, my feet are never gonna get that big,” he says. “Then I just shot up and grew into it.” While he was still considered only a three-star recruit, Crutchfield says that interest in Hield took off after he made improvements before his senior season. Hield turned down offers from Kansas and Colorado to commit to Oklahoma. “He needed to be a guy that had a lot of touches and a lot of opportunities,” Lindsted says, and they felt Oklahoma could best offer that.

His freshman season as a Sooner, Hield was voted Most Inspirational Player by his teammates. In his senior season, in what Hield’s teammate and roommate Cousins describes as “probably one of the best games I’ve seen him play,” Hield dropped 46 points in a triple-overtime loss to Kansas and earned a standing ovation from the rival crowd. “I was really impressed with him in the Kansas game,” says Thunder head coach Billy Donovan, speaking to the Sacramento media before playing the Kings. “It was a game where, you know, he was building a huge reputation and name for himself and every night everybody was probably going out to stop him. … I really was impressed with his composure.” A few weeks after that game, Hield hit seven of eight from beyond the arc in the second half as part of a 32-point effort that helped the Sooners come back from a 14-point deficit against LSU. Cousins hit the game-winner that night.

The previous spring, Hield had agonized over whether to declare for the NBA Draft or return for his senior season; Crutchfield says the two talked it over pretty much every day for two weeks, hashing out the feedback from NBA contacts about the deficiencies in Hield’s game. (Shot selection, ballhandling, and athleticism were the three areas where NBA scouts hoped to see improvement.) Crutchfield says he still remembers where he was — recruiting in Des Moines, Iowa — when Hield played a trick on him and called to say that he would not be returning to the Sooners.

Crutchfield fronted a supportive demeanor for the player he considers a son — to this day, he says, Hield not only stays at his house when he’s back in Oklahoma, but he also helps himself to Crutchfield’s car — but when the coach hung up the phone, “You know, I’m dejected, right?” says Crutchfield, who had felt that Hield needed another year of development at Oklahoma. “I’m like aww, crap. I call my wife. I said, ‘He’s gonna go, he’s gone.’” Crutchfield took out his iPad to stream the press conference, and “This joker gets up there and says he’s coming back,” Crutchfield says, laughing.

At one point during Hield’s senior season with the Sooners, he flirted with an almost impossible milestone: the “50–50–90 Club,” which would have meant making half of his field goals and 3-point attempts and 90 percent of his free throws. When he arrived at Oklahoma, Hield’s shooting form had been undisciplined: his elbow jutted out, and he released the ball too low. “He never had his hand behind the ball,” Crutchfield says. But the coaching staff worked with him to rebuild his shot, even when it meant doing rote mechanics drills for days on end that did little to satisfy Hield’s urge to square up toward an actual basket and let ’er rip. When Hield remarked that his arm was feeling sore, Crutchfield explained why: “All you’re doing,” Crutchfield told him, “is you’re using muscles in your arm that you never used before.” These days, the good news is that Hield’s release is velvety and consistent. The bad news is that sometimes his soft, sure touch can remind people of someone else.

In the aftermath of the Cousins trade in early 2017, Baxter Holmes reported that not only did Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé feel Hield had “Steph Curry potential,” but also that Ranadivé’s take on this front had been influential to the trade’s very existence. On the surface, any aspiring athlete ought to be thrilled and proud to be mentioned alongside one of the most electric and efficient players in his or her chosen sport; Hield’s ability, back at Oklahoma, to win games and hearts by draining long balls certainly placed him somewhere in the NBA taxonomy of sharpshooting game-changers. But after Hield’s uninspiring showing at summer league and a start in New Orleans that was anything but Curry-esque, the Ranadivé report felt more exasperating than endearing. “I’m not Steph Curry,” Hield reassured the media a few days after being saddled with the cursed praise. “I’m Buddy Fresh. I’m Buddy Love. I’m just me. I’m just Buddy.”

This summer, the same forces were at play on draft night when Divac made the blithe error of expressing an audacious and chipper outlook on the potential of his burgeoning roster. In a draft night press conference at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, held shortly after the team had opted for Duke big man Bagley over Luka Doncic with the second overall pick, I asked Divac how operating in a league constantly scheming about how to assemble Voltron-like superteams impacted his decision-making. “My team is a superteam,” Divac said then. “Just young.” This confident answer became a shared in-joke among Kings fans caught between the familiarity of feeling disgruntled and the allure of allowing themselves to feel hopeful.

Last Saturday night, the Kings traveled to Oakland to play the one true superteam. With both Curry and Draymond Green sidelined, it was an excellent chance for the Kings to steal one from the stars, and Sacramento looked like it might be on track to do so. Hield sparkled throughout, finishing the game with 28 points on 12-of-21 shooting. (He also had one particularly unfortunate pass attempt to Mars make the rounds across the internet.) But poor rebounding — one of the Kings’ most glaring weaknesses this season — enabled the Warriors’ Klay Thompson to put back his own go-ahead miss with five seconds left, and Hield’s decision to try to slice through to the net resulted in a high floater, an attempted putback tip by Bagley, a pivotal wedgie, and a 117–116 loss that was both frustrating in its outcome and exciting in its implications.

“If you hand the ball over to De’Aaron Fox, he will change your franchise,” said an impressed Kevin Durant after the game. “And then you have Buddy Hield who’s scoring at a nice rate right now. They have the two bigs off the bench — they have a nice team, I think they’re just young right now, but they’re going to be really good in the future.” Kings fans’ calm and even proud reception of Durant’s praise felt a bit like the opposite of the typical protect-the-family situation in which I can say rude things about my brother but so help you if you do. In this case, everyone appreciates it when someone points out the exciting potential of the Kings’ young core, just so long as that someone isn’t the team’s owner or general manager.

Sunday night’s game against the Jazz has all the makings of a trap game: Not only does it come one night after the road loss to the Warriors, but it’s also against a Utah team that the Kings beat on the road just days earlier. Hield has 10 points by the end of the first quarter, but everything unravels from there, and his impact on the flow of the game becomes even clearer as soon as he’s not draining buckets in his usual manner. Shumpert, sidelined with an injury, chats animatedly with Hield and others when they come off the court.

In the locker room following the 133–112 loss, Hield’s seat is a nexus of activity: First, he carries out a long conversation with Shumpert, and later Bogdanovich stops over after getting out of the shower. I think about how Linsted described a teenage Hield to me on the phone: as someone who always draws a crowd. “He’s got his nickname because he’s everybody’s Buddy,” Lindsted says. “That’s why they called him Buddy.” (The truth of the nickname is a little different, and involves both the show Married With Children and a local drug dealer.)

Before the game, Joerger took a question about what the team’s energy is like now that they’re having more success. “I don’t know that we’d been beat down for that long, to be honest with you,” Joerger said. “I mean, this group hasn’t been here for 10 years, as all of our fans have had to endure some losses.” The answer was at once reassuring and depressing, pairing the happy potential of a blank slate with the threat of everything turning into the same old story. While the dishy front office scuttlebutt involving Joerger and the playing time of the rookies was muted by the pair of pre-Thanksgiving Kings wins, it’s the sort of topic that, once raised publicly, can have an unpleasant way of lingering. More generally, whether or not Joerger’s rotation decisions are being micromanaged and second-guessed or not, he’s still in a tricky situation when it comes to figuring out how to coach, variously, for wins, personal development, and team-building all at once. “I’m serving a lot of masters,” Joerger told reporters before the season; that has not changed.

The Kings are playing this year without a first-round draft pick, having traded theirs away back in 2015. On one hand, this can enable the team to play without regard for draft position for the first time in years; on the other hand, should Sacramento struggle to keep up its bubble-team pace, there won’t be the usual light at the end of the tunnel. It won’t be long before the Kings stop surprising their opponents; already, other franchises have shown up ready for the Kings’ run-and-gun tendencies, although Hield says that even a prepared opponent still has its work cut out for it when trying to defend him and his teammates in transition: “Teams are like, ‘Get back,’ that’s all you hear. ‘Get back, get back,’” he tells reporters after the Thunder game. “And you just got to pick your poison, who you want to leave open sometimes when you’re running so hard.”

As Kings fans try to come to grips with the alien fact that their team may have actually made out really well in a trade, Hield is continuing to get comfortable in Sacramento. Recently, he got a dog and named it King — although when he was in New Orleans, he did have a puppy named Nola, for whatever that’s worth. He loves Game of Thrones so much — Khaleesi, Jon Snow, and Arya are his favorites — that he’s planning to rewatch the entire series before the final season airs, and he is eager to discuss his thoughts on Bran’s various visions. Every day, like clockwork, he sends out the same mantra on his Twitter feed: “Thank God For Life, Health and Strength ✊ ” Hield’s social media presence is like one of his gym workouts: a model of consistency, simplicity, biceps, and devotion, day after day.

“Every time I’m on the court,” Hield says to reporters following the Thunder game, “I try to be as motivated as I can, so that I can show people on the island that there’s a next one down there. They can believe in success, and know that you can make it out.” Hield made it to the NBA, and then he made it through a difficult rookie season. Lately, he’s been making the Sacramento Kings better as he makes a whole lot of his shots. Just don’t try to make Buddy Buckets leave a gym before he’s good and ready.

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