It started with a question.
Buddy Hield became college basketball’s preeminent perimeter threat, a 3-point shooter as feared as any in the country. He rose to the No. 6 pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, where the New Orleans Pelicans took him in hopes of adding perimeter-shooting punch.
The path began with a post-practice ritual at Oklahoma, where he was a pedestrian freshman averaging fewer than eight points per game.
“After virtually every practice, he would literally ask the question, ‘Coach, how can I get better?’ ” Sooners coach Lon Kruger said. “It wasn’t occasionally. It was virtually every day.”
Early on, the easy answer was that Hield needed to learn to shoot.
He had come to basketball from track, his first athletic love in his native Bahamas, and Hield had taken to hoops in a hurry. But he arrived in the United States in 2010 — and at Oklahoma two years later — as primarily a slasher and scorer who could make a jumper but had precious little clue how to shoot one.
The 22-year-old who held up a Pelicans jersey Friday is the product of a four-year jump-shot curriculum at Oklahoma that included early-morning instruction and late-night study sessions.
And it started where lots of college kids begin their research: online.
Imitation was the first step in Hield’s jump-shooting initiation.
“You start watching YouTube videos and try to copy the pros who shoot the ball well,” Hield said.
So he studied J.J. Redick and Ray Allen and Splash Brothers Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. He looked for clues to fix the form on his jumper, to quicken his release, then took what he learned to the gym for practical application.
Hield made 23.8 percent of his 3-point shots in his first college season. But his performance on game nights was little indication of what was happening on the practice court as he, Kruger and assistant coach Chris Crutchfield tore Hield’s shot down to its foundation and began to rebuild.
“He had one of those cross-body shots,” Crutchfield said. “It started in his right hip and it went to his left forehead. It was kind of a weird deal.”
So for maybe six months, Crutchfield said, the Oklahoma staff drilled the right-handed Hield on keeping his jump-shot motion strictly on the right side of his body. They worked to keep his right elbow from flying out in Hield’s shooting motion.
“(Crutchfield) and Coach Kruger told me to tuck my elbow in much more (at a) 90-degree angle,” Hield said. “I just tried to get as close as I can to where I feel comfortable doing it. I just started working each and every day (until) I perfected it and shots started falling.”
Hield would complain of arm soreness, Crutchfield said, from “using muscles he’d never used before” in his shot. But he kept at it, repeating the shooting motion over and over again on days that would begin at 7 a.m. and last until well past sundown.
“We would work him out in the morning for 45 minutes,” Crutchfield said. “Then he’d come back and shoot at 11. He’d do things on his own that we just finished doing three hours ago. Then he’d go back at 8:30 at night, put his reggae music on and do it again.”
By the summer after his freshman season, Hield had made enough strides with his shot that Kruger and Crutchfield were comfortable adding wrinkles. The overhaul was complete, but there were side projects to finish.
He raised his release point, a slight but significant change that not only improved the form on Hield’s jumper but made it more likely to get over a defender’s outstretched hand.
But while Hield’s release no longer was low, it still was slow.
So coaches set him up with a rebounding machine and a timer, and Hield repeated a two-minute drill during which he had to put up between 44 and 50 shots.
“That was all speed-based,” Crutchfield said. “We weren’t concerned about the makes. It was all about getting it off, getting it off, getting it off.”
With the Sooners staff and on his own, Hield worked to maintain the full motion of his shot even as he trimmed the time it took to complete it.
This time, the results translated on the court. Hield made 90 3-pointers as a sophomore — 10 more than he had attempted as a freshman — and improved his 3-point percentage almost 15 points, to 38.6 percent.
Still, there was work to be done.
By his third season in Norman, Hield had refined his jump-shot form. But there still were issues with its function.
He had started to shoot the ball well as a sophomore, but “the problem was he’d take so many bad shots,” Crutchfield said. So the coaches worked with him on shot selection.
Meanwhile, the strength staff helped him add the muscle he needed to gain an extra edge.
“Once his body got stronger, he was able to jump up and shoot it over top of people,” Crutchfield said. “He kept the technique. He kept the speed up. After that, he turned into a perfectionist almost.”
For all the continued improvement, Hield’s 3-point numbers his junior year were strikingly similar to his sophomore season. He took 26 more, made three more and saw a slight dip in his percentage.
His sharpest shooting, it turned out, was yet to come.
After three years of steady improvement, even Hield wondered whether there was another leap in him. He considered skipping his senior season and entering the NBA draft but decided that, while he had improved by leaps and bounds, there were small strides he still could make.
By then an expert with his feet set, Hield worked to improve his skill at coming off screens to shoot.
“It’s hard to come off a screen full-speed, catch it and shoot it in one motion,” Crutchfield said. “But everything we gave him, he took it and was able to do it at a high rate.”
The diversity in his game — Hield made 49 percent of shots with his feet set and a solid 37 percent off the dribble, many of those 3-pointers, according to DraftExpress — helped Hield reach new heights.
He set career highs in 3-pointers made and attempted as a senior and shot a career-best 45.7 percent from long range.
“He really expected to make every shot,” Kruger said.
Only two players since 1993-94 have made more 3-pointers in a season than Hield’s 147 in 2015-16. One of them was Curry, who made 162 in 2007-08 at Davidson.
Hield also worked on his ballhandling in traffic and his finishing around the rim. Though he committed a career-high 113 turnovers, he averaged 25 points per game. Hield’s effective field-goal percentage — which factors in the extra boost of 3-point field goals — was a career-best 62.3 percent.
“A lot of times the thought is a guy coming in as a senior is kind of capped out,” Kruger said. “That’s not the case with Buddy. Buddy was the Big 12 Player of the Year as a junior. And had they had a most-improved player, after his senior year he would have won that.”
The ironic twist to all this is that, once Hield shored up the weakness in his jumper, folks came to know it as his only strength.
The guy who four years ago couldn’t shoot straight now enters the NBA fighting a reputation that he’s strictly a jump-shooter.
“I showed this year I’m more than a shooter,” Hield said. “I took guys off the dribble, went to the rim. Finished on everybody. Defenders had to face-guard me. They had to send two guys at me. That’s not just a shooter. My 3-point shot is just my greatest weapon because you can’t leave me out there.”
Still, there will be an adjustment to the NBA. The Pelicans staff will work with Hield on his defense, coach Alvin Gentry said, in hopes of turning him into a more complete player.
Kruger and Crutchfield predicted Hield will attack NBA adjustments with the same enthusiasm he had for honing his jumper. Hield will “keep asking the question” he started asking as an Oklahoma freshman, Kruger said, and keep taking the answer to heart.
“What Lon related to us is that he’s a gym rat,” Gentry said. “He wants to get better. He wants to know what he needs to work on, how he needs to get better. So if you’re willing to do that and you’re willing to work, I think you’re going to reach your full potential.”
The Buddy system
Buddy Hield wasn’t much of a 3-point threat when he arrived at Oklahoma. By the time he left, he was one of college basketball’s top shooters. A look at his yearly progression:
Season 3-point FGs 3-point pct. PPG
Freshman 19-80 23.8 7.8
Sophomore 90-233 38.6 16.5
Junior 93-259 35.9 17.4
Senior 147-322 45.7 25.0