Lon Kruger is in his 30th year as a college basketball head coach. He has taken five different schools to the NCAA tournament, punched his ticket to the Big Dance 17 times, advanced to a Final Four, won conference championships, 570-plus games and coached All-Americans.
He has never seen anything like Buddy Hield.
“Buddy has great passion, great enthusiasm, a great energy,” the fifth-year Oklahoma coach says. “It really is at an exceptional level. What he has done has affected the culture of OU basketball and will for years after he’s gone.”
What Hield has done is made himself into the best player in college basketball in his fourth season in Norman by listening, revamping his shot and honing it to the point where it’s a surprise when a ball doesn’t rip through the net. If the Sooners, who spent time at No. 1 in 2016, and Kruger are to win their first national championship it will be largely on the shoulders of the 6-foot-4 shooting guard.
Kruger and Hield are buddy-buddy, unlikely duo though they are – the bespectacled Kansan whose last collegiate technical came during the Clinton administration and the sweet-shooting, always-smiling Bahamian who is way more George Clinton than Bill Clinton.
“He’s a great guy. He’s just calm, chill,” Hield, the two-time Big 12 Player of the Year says of Kruger, the 1973 Big Eight Player of the Year. “He’s always teaching me the game, teaching me how to handle media, handle fans. He teaches me how to go about life on and off the court each and every day.”
Oklahoma enters the NCAA tournament with a 25-7 mark, including a 23-point win over former No. 1 Villanova, two wins over top-25 and conference rival West Virginia, two wins over top-25 and conference rival Iowa State and two wins over top-25 and conference rival Baylor. Hield leads the Big 12 in scoring (only one player is within eight points of his 25.0 ppg) and leads the nation in 3-pointers made (127).
With three more 3-pointers, Hield will equal the total Stephen Curry had in his final season at Davidson. Moreover, the Sooner’s 46.4 shooting percentage from beyond the arc is better than any the reigning NBA MVP had in his three seasons for the Wildcats.
That isn’t to say Hield is the next Curry – there may never be another Curry – but like the Warriors guard Hield’s range is limited only by the imagination. The end of Oklahoma’s loss in the Big 12 semifinals confirms the fact. He has had six games this season with at least six 3s, including eight triples in a career-high 46-point outburst at Kansas and eight in a victory at LSU in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in which he finished with 32 points. He has posted ten 30-point games this season, joining only two other players in Big 12 history to accomplish the feat. His company? Michael Beasley and Kevin Durant.
The victory over the Tigers and their freshman phenom Ben Simmons drew the attention of another NBA star, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul.
Buddy Hield is a problem! #CollegeBBall
— Chris Paul (@CP3) January 31, 2016
When asked about the shout-out from Paul, Hield shoots back confidently, “I AM a problem.”
Hield made himself a bigger problem for Big 12 opposition by not resting on his laurels. He not only repeated as conference player of the year, but he can make a case that he’s the Big 12’s most improved player, too. His scoring average is up 8 ppg, and his 3-point percentage is up a jaw-dropping 12 points.
About the only thing Hield has more of than 3-pointers is nicknames. On his own Twitter account he calls himself “Buddy Love” (“Buddy Love is this guy who has a sweet personality, keeps smiling, charming to the ladies,” he laughs) but there’s also the frequently used handle “Buddy Buckets” and the lesser-known “Buddy Fresh,” too.
“Buddy Buckets takes the court and gets buckets, no matter who is guarding him, however it comes,” he explains. “Who told you about Buddy Fresh? Buddy Fresh is the casual guy, chill…and I just call myself fresh. Wherever I go, I gotta look fresh.”
Somehow Hield manages to stay fresh even though the coaches can’t chase him out of the Noble Center. The stories of his gym-rattery are everywhere – hundreds of jumpers a day, dozens upon dozens of 3s made in a row, early morning shooting sessions, late-night shooting sessions, sneaking into the gym without the permission of coaches. He and roommate Isaiah Cousins, a fellow senior, might spend more time shooting than sleeping.
Sooners assistant coach Steve Henson, an All-Big Eight guard in 1989, has rebounded and passed to Hield during some of his shooting soirees to the point of barely being able to lift his arms.
“I’ve been his ‘assist guy’ on many mornings,” Henson says. “It’s not a one-man job. He’s kind of interesting in that it’s not like he goes in for a set amount of time or set amount of shots. There’s no routine to it like a lot of guys. I’ve seen some guys turn on a clock, or say they’re going to shoot 300 or 500 times. He’s a ‘feel’ guy. He’ll shoot, shoot, shoot until it feels right. It might take 90 minutes, but I know he has gone for several hours with some of the student managers. Even on nights before games. He just turns on the reggae and shoots the night away.”
Kruger, as given to hyperbole as Kanye West is to humility, says Hield “probably” has come further than any player he has ever had. He tosses in the probably because he doesn’t want to offend any of the other 300 or so players who have come under his tutelage.
“Buddy was a slasher coming out of high school, an inconsistent shooter, kind of a scorer,” says Kruger, who worked with Hield to keep his right elbow in on his stroke. “Now he’s an extremely good shooter. In a catch-and-shoot situation I’d put him up against anybody without any question.
“He has really improved off the dribble and improved his body,” he continues. “If our league had a most-improved award, he’d certainly have to be considered strongly, and that speaks to the kind of time investment he has put in to be where he is. But it’s not like I have to ask him to get in the gym. I don’t think anyone ever will.”
What Kruger did have to ask of Hield was to carefully consider the pros and cons of leaving early for the NBA. The Sooners made the Sweet 16 a year ago, and Hield had won the conference’s top honor. He wasn’t a first-round lock but there was a chance, and he wanted to provide for his family back in the Bahamas.
“Buddy Buckets” was this close to being “Buddy Sooner than Later.”
“It was very close,” Hield says. “I talked to him like I wanted to go. But he laid it out for me. He told me about guys who came back and had great senior seasons. And I trusted him and what he was telling me. He has been through a lot. He has seen everything. He had seen the player I was and knew the player I could become and what I could do on the court.’
Hield ticked off the names Kruger put in front of him: Frank Kaminsky, Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker, Shabazz Napier. Walker and Napier went out as national champions. Kaminsky’s team played for the title just last year. And all four were first-round draft picks.
“It was his decision; we just provided information,” says Kruger, who was only too happy to coach another season in the Buddy system. “He’s a smart guy. He went through it all. Really what he decided to do was bet on himself. He decided, ‘I can do better,’ and that’s exactly what he has done.”
His draft stock has risen to the point it’s almost a given he’s a top-10 pick. Chad Ford has him going seventh overall in his latest mock draft for ESPN.com, thanks to the improvements he’s shown as a senior. Make no mistake, he’s no longer just a shooter. Consider the show he put on in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals. In posting 39 points against Iowa State, Hield made only two 3-pointers, the lowest amount in any of his 30-point games this season. When the Cyclones crowded him on the perimeter, he simply put the ball on the floor and blew by them. He also rose up for an alley-oop dunk (and one) that left the OU bench apoplectic.
Kansas coach Bill Self said after Hield’s career night in the Jayhawks’ 109-106 triple-overtime victory in Lawrence on January 4 that his guys “guarded our ass off against Buddy.” Hield shot 13 of 23, including 8 of 15 from distance. He added eight rebounds and seven assists. Not a bad night against a then-No. 1 team whose coach felt it had defended well.
But a loss is a loss. This is another subject that binds Kruger and Hield. Kruger’s stoicism belies his competitive streak; Hield’s effervescent, ever-present smile hides his. But make no mistake: Both hate to lose. At anything.
“When we lose, it leaves a bad taste,” Hield says. “I don’t like it. Seeing me fail on the court … I know I can do things better. I cost my team if I could have done something better. I hate it. I’m scared to lose, and I’m scared to fail.”
All it takes to win an NCAA championship is a six-game win streak. OU opened the season with 12 in a row. Hield believes this team can secure the Sooners’ first Final Four trip since 2002, but it won’t come easy. And if they manage to bring home the national championship, he’s even listening to suggestions for another nickname. Maybe “Buddy Banner”?
“That would be cool. I never thought about that one,” he says with a smile. “A lot of great players have come through here and never hung a banner. It would be special to be the first to lead us to a national championship.”