Buddy Hield is having a breakout season

The Sacramento Kings have started the 2018-19 season better than anyone outside of California’s capital city would have predicted, and third-year shooting guard Buddy Hield deserves a significant share of the credit.

Hield is tied for the team lead in scoring, averaging 18.7 points per game while shooting 47.4 percent from the field, 42.9 percent from three-point range and 82.9 percent at the free-throw line. His 5.6 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game are also career-high numbers.

The Kings are 8-6 following Monday’s win over the Spurs. The franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs in 12 years is currently in eighth place in the Western Conference.

It’s unlikely Sacramento hangs onto that playoff seed — slow-starting yet star-studded teams like the Rockets, Jazz, Lakers, Pelicans and Timberwolves are all behind the Kings in the standings — but they have noticeably improved from last season, when they finished 27-55.

The Kings are trending in the right direction, with Hield enjoying a breakout season as one of the important pieces of their rebuilding project.

Two years ago, when Hield was crowned college basketball’s national player of the year by a majority of outlets, there was no reason to believe he wouldn’t go on to become a star in the NBA.

Hield averaged 25.0 points per game as a senior at Oklahoma, leading the nation in three-pointers and leading the Sooners to the Final Four. He was taken No. 6 in the 2016 draft by the Pelicans.

However, Buddy didn’t exactly take the league by storm. Midway through his rookie season, he was traded to the Kings as part of the DeMarcus Cousins deal.

The history of NBA stars who were discarded during during their first year by their first team is short, but it has happened before. Chauncey Billups and Joe Johnson come to mind — both of them were traded by the Celtics as rookies and bounced around for a few years before earning All-Star status.

Hield could follow a similar path. Early into his third season, he is producing at a consistently high level. And more important than his stats, Hield appears to be carrying himself differently. He is playing like he believes he is the best player on the court.

Hield may not be “The Man” in Sacramento (yet). That title could go to point guard De’Aaron Fox, who is tied with Hield for the team lead in scoring at 18.7 points per game. Perhaps it’s being groomed for rookie forward Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 pick in the most recent draft. The Kings have one thing in common with the two-time defending NBA champion Warriors in that they don’t have a clearly defined No. 1 guy.

But Hield is at least carrying himself like he wants to be the Kings’ top guy. He is calling for the ball in the fourth quarter. He wants it at the end of quarters so he can take the last shot, like many stars do.

Another thing that stars do is respond strongly to a subpar performance.

On Oct. 23, Hield had by far his worst game of the season, scoring just five points in a loss to the Nuggets. He bounced back by scoring 20-plus points in six of his next seven games, including a season-high 27-point effort in a win over the Hawks.

The jump shot — and the range that comes with it — will always be the bread-and-butter of Hield’s game. But this season he is becoming more of a well-rounded scorer instead of a pure shooter. He’s also showing improvement as a ball-handler and passer. His Defensive Rating is even a career-best 100.9 this season, which ranks third-best on the Kings.

Hield is leading the Kings in shot attempts and ranks second in minutes played. Head coach Dave Joerger is keeping Hield on the court when it matters, and Hield wants the ball when it matters. And he’s producing when he gets it.

All-Star nods and having his name at the top of the marquee may still be a few years away for Hield, but this season it looks like he has put himself on a realistic road to what seemed like a certainty when he entered the league.

Advertisements

It’s time for the Kings to unleash Marvin Bagley III

Marvin Bagley III

In his third season as head coach of the Sacramento Kings, Dave Joerger has shown one consistent preference when it comes to rookies: He likes to bring them along slowly.

The Kings began Joerger’s first season with three rookies on the roster who were first-round draft picks, and added a fourth with a midseason trade for Buddy Hield. The rookies started a combined 30 games, and 18 of those were by Hield, who didn’t join the team until February. Skal Labissiere started 12 games, while Malachi Richardson and Georgios Papagiannis never started.

In Year 2, the Kings took point guard De’Aaron Fox with the No. 5 pick. Although he was often their top scorer, he was still coming off the bench until about one month into the season while Joerger stuck with veteran George Hill. From the looks of things, it took an embarrassing 46-point loss to the lowly Atlanta Hawks to make Joerger finally pull the trigger on making Fox — who the coach had already said may have the highest basketball IQ on the team — a full-time starter.

That patient approach wouldn’t be a big deal in a place like San Antonio with a coach like Gregg Popovich. The Spurs are a perennially successful franchise that doesn’t often get lottery picks and doesn’t need 19-year-old rookies to make an impact.

The Kings, however, are constantly in search of that next savior and face of the franchise. Sacramento hasn’t made the playoffs in 12 years. They seem to have a permanent reservation at the NBA Draft Lottery table. So it can be understandably frustrating and confusing for Kings fans when their shiny new rookies aren’t being handed the keys like other top picks around the league.

The latest potential star for this team that is being is being brought along slowly is rookie forward Marvin Bagley III, the No. 2 pick in the 2018 draft who is by all accounts viewed as a critical piece of the franchise’s foundation.

But one week into the season, Bagley is still coming off the bench, and it looks like Joerger is again taking the slow approach with a standout rookie.

Meanwhile, it has become clear that Bagley is legit and that it’s time for the Kings to unleash him on the rest of the league.

Bagley’s NBA debut was forgettable. He only played 12 minutes in a loss to the Utah Jazz. But even in that cameo, he showed some flashes of brilliance. In his second game, he put up 19 points, eight rebounds and three steals in a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans in which he was at times matched up with MVP candidate Anthony Davis and more than held his own.

Bagley posted 13 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes during Sacramento’s first victory of the season, last Sunday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

In Tuesday’s loss to the still-undefeated Denver Nuggets, Bagley looked like a star: 20 points, nine rebounds, three assists and five blocks while shooting 9-for-11 from the field. He played 32 minutes on the road in Denver’s notorious high-altitude and his motor never appeared to slow down. And again, he came off the bench.

Perhaps the impressive play Bagley made in the Nuggets game — and there were plenty — was on the defensive end. He was being posted up by Denver’s Trey Lyles, who spun into the lane, fooled Bagley on a pump fake and went up to shoot. But Bagley recovered so quickly that he was able to block Lyles’ shot on his second jump.

On another play, Bagley was being posted up by Denver center Nikola Jokic, who was voted the Western Conference Player of the Week and appears on his way to an All-Star Game berth. Jokic, who has about 15 pounds and a couple of inches on Bagley, went up strong right at the rim but Bagley blocked his shot.

Another time, Bagley blocked a shot by All-Star forward Paul Millsap, trailed the ensuing Sacramento fast break, then drove past Millsap to score between him and Jokic at the rim.

Although it’s a short four-game sample size, Bagley is showcasing a skill set that is similar to the likes of established stars Anthony Davis and Joel Embiid. He can score in the paint, from mid-range, and hit 3-pointers. He can handle the ball and run the floor. He can defend multiple positions and block shots.

Bagley (14.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 60% FG) should be starting for the Kings. It may not seem like a big deal, since he’s getting a lot of minutes, but that simple gesture isn’t just about putting the team in a better position to win. It is also a vote of confidence for the 19-year-old that he is one of the building blocks and faces of the franchise.