LAS VEGAS – Buddy Hield doesn’t need help to be motivated. He’s a self-made college sensation who shared a queen-sized bed with seven other family members growing up. He’s the No. 6 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, yet was taking jumpers on the Pelicans’ practice court just days after they selected him. He’s a charismatic kid from the Bahamas whose work ethic is legendary before he has played a minute in the NBA.
But at halftime of last Monday’s summer league game, it was a pep talk from his coaches that got the normally self-motivated Hield back on track.
"I just got fed up, man, fed up with losing," Hield said. "I just knew it wasn't me out there missing all those shots."
That was all it took, and Hield responded by dropping 17 points in the third quarter. The performance was quintessential Buddy, with the calculated step-back jumpers, the brash three-point attempts and the toothy smile so wide and so warm you can’t help but feel welcomed.
But Las Vegas is not a kind city and the good feelings never last forever. That third quarter was a flurry of blackjacks contained within a night that ended down several hundred chips. Hield scored nearly 17 points per game but did it on 33 percent shooting in his five summer league games. His bad shooting start only worsened towards the end.
Summer league doesn’t reveal anything new about the prospects on the floor, but it can amplify existing concerns. For Hield, that concern is his ability to create comfortable shots against NBA defenses. Nothing came easy for Hield last week.
"I’ve been fishing all week," said Hield, describing himself as "pissed off" in another instance. "It’s probably the worst I’ve ever shot, since I’ve been at summer league."
Hield says this will only motivate him more, and that’s really something he has never lacked. It’s easy to find motivation after growing up shooting on homemade hoops made out of milk cartons, after all. It’s normal to feel like an underdog when Hield was expected to go undrafted had he come out after his junior season. Belonging on an NBA roster, a brotherhood numbering fewer than 500 at any given time, should eliminate you from being called an underdog.
But Hield prefers having something to prove.
"In some ways I’m glad I didn’t have a great summer league," Hield told SB Nation. "So when I go to the regular season I’ll work my butt off."
New Orleans isn’t panicking about its first-round selection. A sizable share of Hield’s shots just missed – good looks, open threes, shots we’ve seen Hield knock down for years. A five-game sample size doesn’t change the fact that he’s a great shooter who will normally convert those opportunities.
As Hield pointed out, this is all new to him, too. Summer league is a haphazard production for the teams involved, from the short time squads have to practice together to the ragged pace at which the games are played. Hield pointed out another problem, too: He was often singled out by defenders looking to stand out by shutting him down.
"You’re the sixth pick in the draft, and everyone knows you’re a scorer, so everyone’s trying to get a piece of you," Hield said.
New Orleans coaches have shown Hield game tape of shooters, including J.J. Redick and Mike Miller, to guide him as he takes the next step. They don’t see Hield’s summer league performance as a failure; rather, it’s a good taste of how guys will try to take away from him. Things will be different when he’s playing for the full Pelicans roster, after all.
"Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday out on the court [with Hield] changes everything," Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry told SB Nation.
The worst-case scenario for Hield is Jimmer Fredette, who also played summer league this year despite graduating five years ago, and shot under 40 percent from the floor. Both Fredette and Hield made themselves national sensations as elite college shooters who propelled their teams to deep tournament runs as seniors, but Fredette still can’t find a way to stick in the NBA after being selected No. 10 overall in 2011.
New Orleans doesn’t believes that scenario even exists for their lottery selection. Hield’s bigger, more athletic than Fredette and has much more promise defensively. His playmaking is more evolved at this point and his off-the-dribble game has great potential. The Pelicans trust that Hield and his eternal drive to be a better basketball player will work out for both sides.
"He’s one of the hardest working guys I’ve ever been around," Gentry said. "He’s going to go through the same thing any rookie goes through, with growing pains, but with the way it works and the way he’s dedicated to the game, I don’t have a problem with it."
The Pelicans need Hield to succeed to take advantage of Davis’ prime. They parted ways with their top two shooters in Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson this summer, while Tyreke Evans won’t be ready to start the season after an injury last year. New Orleans will begin with Hield joining the backcourt next to Holiday, and there are not-so-subtle indications that the team believes that’s their backcourt of the future, too.
In Hield’s final summer league game there were some signs of improvement despite a 3-for-14 shooting performance from the floor. The college star notched five assists and worked well off the ball. With that 17-point third quarter and a 13-point fourth in another game, Hield at least left Las Vegas while showing flashes of himself at times, even as he learned how big of a challenge the NBA will be.
"Don’t watch TV and think that the NBA game is easy," said Hield, describing the biggest lesson learned from his time in the desert.
Maybe Hield isn’t an underdog for the first time in his life, but he’ll always find ways to motivate himself. Hield wants to be a great NBA player. That’s what Hield will use to make sure he wakes up early in the morning to keep practicing every day. That’s why when Hield earnestly talks about how he "can’t wait to get back to New Orleans" to continue working with his coaches, you believe him.
"What motivates me now? To play the best I can play," Hield said. "You want to be the best guard, one of the best guards in the world. That’s enough."
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