Buddy Hield is flying under the radar

After a solid sophomore season, Buddy Hield is turning it up another notch with a stellar start to his third year.

The Sacramento Kings have been over .500 for long enough now that it would be unfair to call them a flash in the pan. Even if they cool off during their difficult slate of games to close out 2018, the Kings remain solidly in the playoff picture at 18-15 after a spectacular comeback win over the New Orleans Pelicans.

De'Aaron Fox's breakout sophomore campaign is undoubtedly the story of the Kings' young season, as he has proven himself as the cornerstone of the franchise. Beyond Fox, the biggest story of the season has been the solid but not spectacular start from Marvin Bagley III--and the rift between Dave Joerger and assistant GM Brandon Williams regarding Bagley's playing time.

Neither Fox nor Bagley, however, is currently leading the team in scoring. That title belongs to Buddy Hield, who is quietly having a breakout season of his own along with his backcourt buddy. Hield is averaging 20.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game--all of which are career highs. His vastly improved handle and already excellent shooting touch have led to a stellar season from the third-year guard.

A Steadier Hand

Buddy's shooting touch has not been questioned since the rough start to his career. If he maintains his current spectacular 44.0% clip from long range, he will set a new career high for 3-point efficiency for his third straight season. Hield is also averaging 7.3 attempts per contest from long-range; while his percentage from deep is second on the team behind the revitalized Nemanja Bjelica, Hield is putting up more than twice as many triples per contest. His floor spacing and high motor make Hield a vital transition weapon for a team that's always looking to run:

Hield has been a huge part of the run-and-gun movement by this year's Kings; his average speed is the highest among any NBA players averaging more than 20 minutes a game per NBA.com. While Fox clearly has better end-to-end speed, Hield is the one who is always in motion. He might be weaving around screens to get open from deep, or running up court hoping to get a kick-ahead pass from another Kings player, or sprinting back in transition defense. One thing is clear, though: Buddy never stops moving.

While Buddy's calling card has always been his shooting, his work on his ball-handling skills is much more noticeable. The irony of it is that Hield's handle is more noticeable precisely because it is less noticeable; instead of his previously cringe-inducing dribbles to nowhere that were prime targets for ball-hawks everywhere, Buddy can be an effective (if not extraordinary) secondary creator alongside Fox or Bogdan Bogdanovic.

Buddy's improved handle has given him a wider range of options on the offensive end. Instead of being just a spot-up shooter, he can penetrate at least the first line of opposing defenses and create looks for others. While his increased frequency of mid-range shots might not seem like a bonus, he's knocking down those shots at a much better clip; Buddy is shooting 44% on mid-range looks this year per Cleaning the Glass, which ranks in the 75th percentile among wing players. Even though those shots are not all that efficient even with Buddy's improved marksmanship, those mid-range pull-ups force defenses to pay attention to him when he's inside the arc--something that was not necessarily the case last season.

Future Outlook

There are two key factors that need to be considered when projecting Buddy Hield's future that have not been discussed above. The most concerning one, of course, is his defense. While he is not the turnstile that he was when he entered the league, he simply does not have the elite level of lateral mobility possessed by the league's top-tier wing defenders. Hield's understanding of positioning is improving and the effort is always there, but the Kings should be ecstatic if he ever becomes even an average defender on the wing.

The second factor is his age. Buddy is in his third year in the NBA but is already 26 years old, so many would argue that he has basically tapped all of his potential. However, even if his much-improved play this season were not enough to convince outside observers, making this purely age-based argument seems to ignore one of the key realities of the NBA. The truth is that every NBA player, regardless of age, needs time to adjust to the speed and intricacies of the game at its highest level. While fluctuating playing time also played a role, 30-year-old Nemanja Bjelica is having a breakout year in his fourth NBA season. Draymond Green entered the NBA after four years of college and went from an end-of-the-bench offensive disaster as a rookie to an All-NBA berth in his fourth season.

Buddy Hield might have entered the league as closer to a finished product than most of the one-and-dones of this era. However, that does not mean that he does not have room to improve--especially given his legendary work ethic. He probably won't ever make an All-NBA team, and he might not even make an All-Star team given the crazy competition for guard slots in the Western Conference. However, his offensive growth and stellar shooting touch make him a great fit with De'Aaron Fox--and they both still have plenty of room to grow after turning it up a notch this season.

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