The New Orleans Pelicans will undoubtedly have a rocky year in the talent-rich Southwest Division. Injuries, absences and scarce high-profile acquisitions have left Anthony Davis with no supporting star power. The silver lining to this likely rebuilding season is the chance for Alvin Gentry to groom promising prospects, namely Buddy Hield.
Few college guards have ever enjoyed a campaign like Hield’s senior year at Oklahoma. He posted 25-plus points per game and a blistering 46 percent from distance, and the Pelicans hope he can bring that marksmanship to the NBA. The 6’4″ Bahamas native brings depth to New Orleans’ guard corps and offers a more polished skill set than most other rookies. In the NBA’s annual general managers poll, Hield got the second-most votes for Rookie of the Year projection.
Point guard Jrue Holiday took a leave of absence to be with his wife Lauren, who’s pregnant and will undergo brain surgery on Thursday. Combo guard Tyreke Evans is also inactive to start the season with a knee injury and is targeting a December return. That leaves a decimated backcourt and inevitably more touches for Hield. What exactly will the 22-year-old newcomer do with this opportunity?
Offensive role, expectations and limitations
Alvin Gentry gave Hield the green light to shoot in Summer League and preseason, and he’ll let Hield fire away in the regular season as well. The Pelicans lost two of their best outside shooters this offseason (Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon), so they’ll depend on Hield to pick up some of the slack.
Between his junior and senior year at Oklahoma, Hield streamlined his shooting delivery and made it incredibly swift. His footwork and shot preparation are vastly superior to most rookie shooting guards. Hield has showcased his perimeter talent in spurts this preseason, producing a mix of mid-range buckets and three-point firepower.
Hield isn’t quite dialed in from NBA range yet, as he’s still trying to refine his shot selection. He’s 6-of-21 from distance through five exhibitions, including 0-of-6 in Tuesday’s loss to the Houston Rockets. However, we saw how dangerous he can be when he catches in rhythm or creates decisively off the bounce. He scored 19 points and went 3-of-6 from three-land in his preseason opener against the Dallas Mavericks:
Hield isn’t an incredibly advanced ball handler, but he’s exhibited fluid shot creation off the dribble recently. He’s adept at finding soft spots around the free throw line for short jumpers.
When opponents chase him over screens, he curls around the screen, stops on a dime and lets his quick shooting mechanics do the rest. Here are a couple of examples against the Rockets:
Hield is also agile enough to blow past defenders when they close out too hard. Once he gets into the paint, the results are mixed.
When he gets a step on his man and the help defense comes late, he’s polished enough to score with either hand. Hield also keeps his head up and finds open teammates in drive-and-dish situations. He’s averaged 3.1 assists per 36 minutes in preseason play, and he’s recorded multiple assists in each game. That’s partially due to the mediocre defense he’s faced, but give him credit for making the right play and doing some table-setting.
Despite his quick first step, however, he’s not particularly explosive or acrobatic around the rim. Until he becomes more savvy, he’ll struggle to consistently score through traffic:
Hield has been able to use the threat of his shot to break the paint, but not really a threat to finish along the baseline.
— Nate Duncan (@NateDuncanNBA) October 19, 2016
Fortunately, Hield isn’t over-aggressive attacking the rim unless he has a clear path. He doesn’t make crazy forays too often. Until he becomes more proficient near the cup, he’ll pick his battles wisely.
There’s a chance Hield will start at shooting guard. But even in that best-case scenario, he’ll split minutes with E’Twaun Moore and Lance Stephenson, along with Evans when he returns. Gentry may lean toward the veterans in certain situations or close games, but during this rebuilding season, there will be lots of minutes and touches to go around.
Hield will likely see 22-28 minutes even if he’s not the starter. He’ll be the second or third scoring option on the floor in most cases, and he’ll be a secondary or supplemental ball handler. That will yield 14-16 points and 1-2 assists per game. His shooting efficiency won’t be scorching like it was at Oklahoma, but he’ll outperform most other rookies with 44-46 percent from the field and 35-37 percent on three-pointers.
Attackers will test Hield early and often on defense. He wasn’t an elite defender at Oklahoma, and many of his NBA opponents will be athletically superior.
During preseason play, he’s been energetic as an on-ball and off-ball defender. Opposing slashers haven’t walked all over him, although sometimes he’s foiled by speedier attackers. And when drivers turn the corner against him, it’s tough for him to recover and protect the rim.
Hield has demonstrated admirable activity as a weak-side helper. He keeps tabs on the ball and eagerly rotates to clog the paint, although he’s occasionally a step late.
In some cases, he’s shown cagey ball-hawking instincts. In this sequence against Houston, he slid down to help and then baited Corey Brewer into throwing a cross-court pass:
The most frequent mistake he makes is being too eager to help off his man. Hield sporadically loses track of his man and gives up easy points. In his draft film breakdown, DraftExpress.com’s Mike Schmitz noted Hield’s current defensive shortcomings:
(Hield’s) more of a space defender than a pesky defender… (He’s) active but over-helps. Gets caught ball-watching…Struggles with quick guards, fundamentals aren’t great.
Those are all issues that could gradually be ironed out. It will probably take him a couple of seasons to become a consistently reliable defender, so his rookie campaign could be rocky.
Will Hield’s first-year efforts be enough to win Rookie of the Year? Considering how wide open the field is after Ben Simmons’ foot surgery, Hield has a great chance. He’s more experienced and refined in his role than almost every other newcomer. If he plays 25-plus minutes and scores 15-plus points per game, he’ll contend with Kris Dunn, Joel Embiid and Brandon Ingram for the honors.