Two and a half years ago, the Sacramento Kings traded a lumbering post-up giant whose best days were behind him for a package that included one of the best high-volume shooters in the league.
Of course, that wasn’t how the deal looked at the time. DeMarcus Cousins was in the NBA All-Star Game and hadn’t suffered a string of serious injuries that have kept him largely out of action in the last 18 months. Meanwhile, Buddy Hield was an old rookie struggling to shoot 40 percent from the field on a bad New Orleans team. I now remember greenlighting this headline without second thought just after the trade was consummated. It was the prevailing logic, one I shared.
Now, that deal looks like a masterstroke for the Kings. That’s even more obvious now that they’ve agreed to a four-year extension with Hield worth at least $86 million, according to multiple reports. Likely individual bonuses would bump it up to $94 million, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, while more unlikely team-specific bonuses could bump it all the way up to $106 million.
Those numbers may seem high, but considering the season Hield had last year, the fact the contract decreases over time, and the timely resolution to a potentially messy saga, this is a huge win for Sacramento. Over the weekend, Hield told the Sacramento Bee that the Kings’ early contract offer — reportedly four-year, $90 million, according to Yahoo! Sports’ Chris Haynes — was “an insult.” In the end, Hield signed an extension that guarantees less than that and is only likely to be $1 million more than that per season if he maintains his production. Those team incentives must’ve done the job.
Ultimately, the Kings couldn’t really afford to bungle this up. De’Aaron Fox is the young star of the future, but Hield was the Kings’ best offensive player last year. His spot-up shooting is just as essential to Sacramento’s fast break as Fox’s end-to-end speed with the ball. (Possibly more important, if you wanna get spicy). The two complement each other like peanut butter and jelly: Fox needs Hield to spread defenses out to charge up the middle, and Hield needs Fox’s ability to suck in the defense to launch his sweet stroke.
Outside of Stephen Curry, Hield is the best healthy high-volume three-point shooter in the league. He shot 43 percent on nearly eight a game last year, with a relatively even split (318 vs. 333) between the first nine seconds of the clock and the final 15 seconds. That shows he was far more than just a beneficiary of Fox: nearly 70 percent of his threes were assisted by someone else or nobody, and he generated just as many with a similar accuracy in half-court situations as he did in transition.
Still, Sacramento’s running style helped push Hield’s game to new heights. We always knew Hield could shoot the rock, but it was less clear whether he’d be able to generate enough deep attempts against NBA athletes to capitalize on that skill. Early attempts to use him coming off screens in New Orleans largely failed, since he hadn’t gained the elite shake necessary to free himself on the run. But the Kings’ extreme emphasis on running simplified Hield’s approach, thrusting him into the open floor where it would be harder for defenses to track him. Hield’s increase in three-point volume and overall usage rate largely came because he got many more shots like this in transition.
On its own, elite shooting in transition situations makes Hield worth the contract he now has. The Kings shattered recent league records for most shots taken early in the clock last year, and that number could even increase if they improve defensively and generate more running situations off misses. Hield is the team’s best transition three-point generator and one of the league’s best three-point converters in such situations. As the game speeds up, players will Hield’s skill set become more valuable, not less. That alone should offset any age-related decline that may come.
But this contract becomes an absolute bargain if Hield can continue to improve in half-court situations. Hield’s still not particularly adept at getting to the rim or drawing fouls, but his ball-handling has improved to the point where he can create his own shot against tougher defenders. He launched 246 off-the-dribble threes last year, a significant increase from his first two seasons, and limited his turnovers despite having the ball more often. His pick-and-roll game barely existed as a rookie, but now, Hield has become adept at pulling up against dropping big men.
Beating defenses mid-switch.
Or, using well-timed dribble moves to generate the very shots opponents don’t want him to take.
The next step is to do that in isolation situations as a marked man. Preseason has been encouraging: he’s scoring more unassisted buckets this season, albeit in a small sample. His stepback jumper looked like a promising weapon last year and I bet we see more of it this season.
I’m also encouraged that he’s testing his range: 33 percent of his looks have been from at least 25 feet this preseason, compared to about 26 percent during last year’s regular season. One-on-one shot creation will never be Hield’s biggest strength, but last year showed he can still hit a lot of threes even when the looks are tougher. As long as he keeps getting bushels of three-point shots up, he will be an elite offensive weapon, even without top-end burst or playmaking.
Hield doesn’t have Fox’s long-term upside, but in the near term, he’s just as important to the Kings’ success. Locking him up through his prime years was a no-brainer, and the Kings ultimately did just that at a number that should age well. This situation had a lot of potential to go sideways, and instead the Kings handled it deftly.