As new Kings guard Buddy Hield walked over to talk to reporters after his first practice with the team Wednesday, a team employee signaled to the rookie, who was still batting a basketball between his hands.
“You want the ball?” Hield said, flipping it above the assembled media. “You got it.”
The moment seemed to illustrate what those who know Hield say is one of his strongest characteristics: It is hard to separate the 23-year-old Bahamian from his craft.
“He puts a lot of hours in the gym,” said guard Langston Galloway, acquired with Hield from New Orleans. “He’s always in the gym. He’s always thinking basketball.”
It is a big reason Hield, who grew up playing on homemade hoops in the Bahamas, now takes aim at NBA ones. His high school coach said Hield is “driven by the passion to work and get better.” His college coach said: “I don’t care who you’ve got, Buddy’s going to be in the gym more.”
It is a trait that attracted the Kings, who late Sunday traded All-Star DeMarcus Cousins and Omri Casspi to the Pelicans for Hield, Galloway, Tyreke Evans and two draft picks. Discussing the trade the next day, Kings general manager Vlade Divac said of Hield: “His work ethic is exactly what we want here.”
Asked where it comes from Wednesday, Hield cites two things: His admiration for Kobe Bryant, and his upbringing.
“Growing up was hard, so I know the value of making it,” he said. “I know the value of hard work.”
If going from New Orleans to Sacramento in the middle of your first NBA season seems like a change, one must consider how far Hield has already come.
Hield grew up in Eight Mile Rock, a small settlement outside of Freeport in the Bahamas. It was a rough-edged area with little basketball tradition, and the opening Hield needed to start his road to the NBA came when as a teenager he participated in a local showcase for high school coaches from the United States. He caught the eye of Kyle Lindsted, then the coach of Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan.
“Really it was his personality, his charisma,” Lindsted, now an assistant at Wichita State, recalled this week. “He made winning plays on the court; he had a ton of charisma off the court. His spirit, his heart, all of those things were things I saw in him.”
They stemmed from his background. In a first-person article published by The Players’ Tribune last spring, Hield described growing up in poor conditions – sharing a bedroom with his six siblings, building his own basketball hoops using milk crates or bicycle rims. He recalled his mother, Jackie Swann, working long hours to feed the family.
“He came from a very tough situation as far as just the financial part of it,” Lindsted said. “But more than that, he really came from a great family.
“His mom was taking care of not only all his brothers and sisters, but when I’d go to their house and have a meal, she would have other people there that couldn’t take care of themselves, just random people, and would bring them in like family and feed them.”
Lindsted offered the chance for Hield to enroll at Sunrise. It meant relocating from the Bahamas to Wichita, but Lindsted said Hield fit easily in his new surroundings.
“He didn’t slide right in – he was it, he was our program when stepped in the door,” Lindsted said. “He’s comfortable in any situation. He owns it and he makes it his. He’s a little bit larger than life like that.”
Arriving as a junior in Wichita, Hield soon attracted the attention of the coaches at Oklahoma. Lon Kruger, the Sooners’ coach, said one of his assistants went to watch a different Sunrise player but came back raving about Hield.
Hield arrived at Oklahoma as more of a slasher and scorer, Kruger said, not the polished shooter he would become. But he was eager to improve.
“Every day after practice before he left the gym, he’d say, ‘Coach, what do I need to work on?’ ” Kruger said. “And he wasn’t just making conversation. He wanted to know.
“A lot of young players will go in the gym and do things they’re most comfortable doing. And certainly Buddy would go in and shoot a ton. But he’d also work on his ballhandling and anything he needed to as a freshman, sophomore. That’s why he improved so much.”
Hield’s scoring increased in each of his four seasons at Oklahoma. As a senior he was named the consensus national Player of the Year, averaging 25.0 points on 50.1 percent shooting from the floor and 45.7 percent from 3-point range.
As much as his production, though, Kruger said this season’s Sooners simply miss Hield’s presence.
“Buddy gets up every day loving what he’s doing,” Kruger said. “He just picks everyone else up when he walks in the gym.”
‘A great personality’
The Kings admired Hield before the draft last June but watched the Pelicans select him sixth overall, two slots before their pick. Still, they apparently continued to covet him. Hield said Wednesday that Kings majority owner Vivek Ranadive sought him out during the Pelicans’ two visits to Sacramento before the All-Star break.
“He said, ‘We’re still gonna get you.’ He’d keep saying that,” Hield said.
Hield said he thought little of it until late Sunday when his phone began to vibrate with texts as he relaxed in New Orleans with his family. He quickly realized he’d been traded.
“Everything’s happened fast,” Hield said. “I just know I’m in a good situation now, and God don’t make no mistakes. So if I’m supposed to be here, I’m supposed to be here.”
Hield’s first appearance in a Kings uniform will come Thursday night against the Denver Nuggets at Golden 1 Center. Already Wednesday he seemed comfortable, flashing an easy smile and bantering with reporters about his many nicknames (“Buddy Fresh,” “Buddy Love,” “Buddy Buckets”) and jersey No. 24 (“2-4-2, the Bahamas”).
“Wherever Buddy is, it’s always fun, it’s always good,” said Lindsted, the Wichita coach. “He’s got a great personality, a good sense of humor. He’s that kind of leader.
“If the Kings were trying to make a character move, if they were trying to make a move to get the right kind of person, that’s what they got.”