Vlade Divac arrives at his office in the practice facility most mornings, almost never greeted by silence, but awakened by the thump, thump, thump of a bouncing basketball. He doesn’t need to look onto the court to see which of his players is putting in the extra practice time. He doesn’t need to wear a watch, either.
“Nine o’clock every morning,” the Kings general manager says, pointing to his bare wrist. “Buddy is already in here shooting. I call it ‘Buddy time.’ He just loves the gym. He is one of those guys who wants to get better so badly, that he never stops working.”
Chavano “Buddy” Hield, the second-year guard, has been a gym rat since age 12, when he abandoned dreams of becoming a Bahamian track star and reached for a basketball. The decision, he admits, was difficult. In his hometown of Freeport on the Grand Bahama, mere steps from stunning, seductive beaches, he loved the rhythm and pace of the middle distances, welcomed the pain that accompanied his powerful strides, and envisioned himself as a future Olympian.
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But Hield is a thinker, a pragmatist at heart. He wanted a better life for his mother, who cleaned houses every day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and for his six siblings who were crammed into a tiny house, often forced to share beds.
There was a way out, Hield had been told. Fellow Bahamian legends Mychal Thompson and Rick Fox had thrived in professional basketball – Thompson as the NBA’s No. 1 draft pick in 1978 and Fox as a valuable role player, also best known for his years with the Lakers. It was another Laker – the younger, spectacular Kobe Bryant – who closed the deal for Hield.
As he studied Bryant, emulating the moves and the passion, he attacked the game with a ferocity that continues to this day. Because there were few indoor facilities and none that had air conditioning in Eight Mile Rock, his impoverished coastal neighborhood in the Freeport suburbs, Buddy and his friends created their own outdoor courts. They would gather milk crates and attach them to lightposts, then play deep into the night in worn, tattered sneakers.
“Buddy didn’t grow up with a lot,” Thompson said, “but he has a very close-knit, loving family. He has a great attitude. He also has that Kobe-type desire. He burns to win, and he’s coachable.”
After dominating a summer basketball showcase following his sophomore year of high school, Hield was offered a scholarship to Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan. Though land-locked and occasionally struggling with the cultural transition, much as Thompson had when he left Nassau to attend prep school in the United States, Hield led his team to the national championship and was named tournament MVP. A year later he averaged 22.7 points in 21 minutes per game and was among the most coveted recruits in the country. Though intrigued by Kansas, he signed at Oklahoma, largely because he craves challenges.
Four years later he led the nation in 3-point field-goal attempts, won the John Wooden Award, and was drafted by New Orleans with the sixth overall pick. In February he changed addresses again, this time becoming the major piece in the trade that sent All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to the Pelicans.
While the merits of the swap will be debated for years, Hield is among the numerous young Kings who seem delighted by their unusual circumstances. “We are young and a little old,” Buddy said, smiling. “I think it’s great. We have a lot of players near the same age, but we have guys that we can learn from,” like Vince Carter, George Hill and Zach Randolph.
Hield’s career arc angled upward sharply after he joined the Kings. His scoring average almost doubled (from 8.6 points to 15.1), he was a more efficient shooter, and an improved, more determined rebounder, earning him All-Rookie First Team honors. His ability to create off the dribble, make plays for teammates and defend more consistently remain areas of emphasis.
But the Kings are extremely upbeat about Hield’s upside, either as a starter or sixth man, and you will hear only compliments about both his personality and his stroke. After Tuesday’s practice, Divac and Peja Stojakovic watched the second-year guard convert 35 consecutive shots from the corner. “I was counting them out loud,” said Stojakovic, one of the league’s all-time great shooters.
Later in the week, after Hield put on another impressive display from 3-point range, he playfully trash-talked and threw the ball at Peja, trying to bait him into a shooting contest.
Peja laughed, and after standing, answered with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I don’t want to ruin his confidence,” the Kings vice president of basketball development quipped.
In all seriousness, a major competition is ongoing at shooting guard among Hield, Serbian rookie Bogdan Bogdanovic and veteran Garrett Temple, with Malachi Richardson hoping to make it a four-player race. One side note of interest: Hield and Bogdanovic have gravitated toward each other throughout the opening week of camp, often standing side by side while coach Dave Joerger offers instruction. During informal warmups, they alternate shots at the same basket and can be seen lying near each other during stretching exercises.
Stojakovic, who said he senses a chemistry between the two, surmised that Hield and Bogdanovic could be in the lineup together on occasion. “Their games are different,” he added. “Buddy is a scorer, and he is getting better (off the dribble) and on defense. Bogdan is more versatile. He scores and makes plays, and he can really pass. When Dave (Joerger) goes small, you might see them. And they both really love the game.”
Hield embraces the competition, but is conceding nothing. He has a one-track mind – pun intended.
“Competition is what it’s all about,” he said Friday while seated after practice, taking a short break before his extra-hours routine. “Everything will work itself out. Just keep working. You have to keep your body in shape, and I worked on that, and everything else this summer. My trainer was with me most of the time, in the Bahamas when I was there for my children’s camp and hurricane relief, and here for about three weeks. I still have to do a better job eating right (those conch fritters are lethal), but I’m more cut than I was. I feel stronger. I think we’re going to have a good year. We shouldn’t talk about a championship, because we are a few years away. But we should be thinking about the playoffs.”
The famously wise-cracking Thompson, who remains an immensely popular figure and is known as “Sweet Bells” in his homeland, predicts Hield will eclipse him in terms of exposure and popularity.
“Buddy is a national hero down there now,” said the Lakers broadcast analyst. “He is followed more closely than I ever was, because when I played, it was the dark ages, with black-and-white TVs, no social media. Buddy has all kinds of social media going, Instagram accounts, all of it. He is our Usain Bolt. He is a great ambassador for the country. He gives back to the poor, has a great reputation. The Bahamas has the right guy in place.”