When Buddy Hield arrived in Wichita six years ago to begin a new life focused on basketball, he instantly fell in love with the area.
Just don’t expect his explanation to appear on city billboards.
“The weather was different, the culture was different and you felt like you were in the middle of nowhere,” Hield said. “Coming to Wichita from the Bahamas, where you live this free lifestyle, you feel stuck. You couldn’t do any of the things you used to do in the Bahamas. It was everything I wanted.”
That’s not what most teenagers dream of when they envision life in the United States, especially teenagers who grew up in the Caribbean. But for a young man like Hield, who was used to shooting at uneven rims and busted backboards on Bahamian streets, it was paradise.
“Moving to Wichita was one of the best things to ever happen to me,” Hield said. “I was able to train every day and train at a higher level than I was used to. For the first time in my life, I had a weight room and trainers and 24/7 access to a gym. I always wanted to spend an entire day inside playing basketball, and I finally got to do it. I never had to leave. That’s where I improved my game.”
Hield quickly made a name for himself at Sunrise Christian Academy, becoming one of the nation’s top 100 recruits, and his notoriety has risen like a rocket since. He is now the best player for Oklahoma, the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, and he might be the nation’s best player.
No one is more efficient. Hield, a 6-foot-4 senior guard, is averaging 25.8 points on 16 shots, meaning every one of his attempts is worth 1.6 points. He leads the Big 12 in scoring and ranks second nationally.
27.5 Scoring average for NCAA leader James Daniel (Howard)
25.8 Buddy Hield (Oklahoma)
25.6 Kahlil Felder (Oakland)
25.5 Jack Gibbs (Davidson)
24.9 Josh Adams (Wyoming)
All eyes will be on Hield when he takes the court Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum and Oklahoma plays K-State. He seems to be the center of attention everywhere he goes. Fans at opposing venues have stood and applauded him after games, such as a triple-overtime loss at Kansas in which he scored 46 points.
“He is better than he was last year across the board,” Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger said. “He is bigger, stronger and he handles it better in a crowd. He is attacking the rim better. It is hard to imagine anyone playing more efficiently. Some of the games he has had, they are just really impressive.”
Few expected such a quick ascent from Hield. Before he left the Bahamas, he says he weighed 120 pounds and used “goofy” shooting mechanics. Today, he weighs 214 and sports one of the smoothest shots this side of Stephen Curry. He has made 51.7 percent of his threes this season.
He has transformed into a future NBA lottery pick. Believe it or not, Hield isn’t surprised.
“I saw this coming,” Hield said. “My mindset was different as a kid. I always had the mindset that I was going to make it. No matter who was in front of me, I was going to pass them and keep working until I got to where I wanted to be.”
Still, his margin for error was thinner than a sheet of paper. Growing up in a country that lacked basketball tradition, there were few opportunities for Hield to prove himself. In fact, there was only one.
Every year, college and high school coaches convened for a showcase of local talent. Hield saw it as his only avenue to a basketball career and practiced tirelessly to make a good impression.
When the event arrived, the pressure was unimaginable.
“That was the only chance I had to go off to school, my only way out,” Hield said. “You had to be ready and locked in. I think that is what set me up for what I am doing now. I have dealt with pressure my whole life.”
It was a long process. He tried once and failed. A year passed and he tried again. Finally, he played well with the right coach in attendance.
When current Wichita State assistant and then-Sunrise coach Kyle Lindsted watched him light up a scrimmage, he approached Hield about enrolling at his high school.
Hield agreed immediately. He was headed to Wichita, where the real fun was about to begin.
Kruger heard about Hield when he lived in the Bahamas, but he didn’t recruit him until he arrived at Sunrise and assistant Steve Henson told him he might have found an overlooked talent.
“We went up to Sunrise to watch one of his teammates, but came back saying there was a younger kid who owned the gym,” Kruger said. “That was Buddy. He played with lots of enthusiasm and loved to play. He had a funny shot, but we thought he had a chance.”
Kruger was new to Oklahoma when he recruited Hield, and quickly made the Sunrise product his primary target. He faced competition from Wichita State, which offered Hield a scholarship, and Kansas, with Bill Self attending many of his AAU games. Colorado and other schools were also in the picture.
Hield considered Kansas, but said he chose Oklahoma because of his relationship with Kruger and the Sooners’ style of play.
Rival coaches wish he made a different choice.
“He could score,” Self said. “Obviously, a very good athlete. He was probably more of a volume shooter back then than now, because he is one of the best pure shooters in the country. We liked Buddy a lot. Probably the most attractive thing about recruiting him was his personality. You could just tell he loved playing.”
Kansas State’s Frank Martin didn’t recruit Hield, but Bruce Weber says he would have had he been hired a year earlier. Weber saw Hield on his first recruiting trip with the Wildcats, a visit to Sunrise to scout Hield’s teammates — Hield had already signed with OU — and could hardly take his eyes off Hield.
“He was radiant,” Weber said. “You know him. You know his body. I was like, ‘Why the heck is he at Oklahoma?’ He talked for 2 1/2 hours straight. They played pickup and he played hard the whole time. I loved him. At the time, I was like, ‘Golly, why isn’t he at Manahttan?’ ” You just appreciate a kid like that.”
Full of confidence
Hield expects to make every shot he attempts.
2,661 Points for OU scoring leader Wayman Tisdale (1982-85)
2,281 Points for OU’s Jeff Webster (1989-94)
2,275 Points for OU’s Tim McCalister (1983-87)
2,097 Points for OU’s Choo Kennedy (1983-87)
2,008 Points for OU’s Stacey King (1985-89)
1,946 Points for OU’s Ryan Minor (1992-96)
1,907 Points for OU’s Buddy Hield (2012-16)
That’s the kind of confidence you get from scoring 30 or more points in eight games and topping 40 in another.
“It’s a different mindset,” Hield said. “Every time I shoot the ball, even when I miss, it doesn’t bother me, because I know what to do to make the next one.”
That confidence is spreading. Oklahoma, 19-2 overall and 7-2 in the Big 12, is experiencing a basketball renaissance with Hield leading the way. The Sooners are traditionally known as a football power that struggles for basketball attendance, but they are regularly playing in front of sellout crowds this season. They are conference championship and Final Four contenders.
Oklahoma’s rise would be notable under any circumstance, but Hield’s star power has made the spotlight even bigger.
Hield received so many interview requests in January that Kruger intervened, asking to spread out his media appearances so he could still spend time in his favorite place — the indoor sanctuary he discovered six years ago.
“No one spends more time in the gym than Buddy,” Kruger said. “He is in the gym every day at least once before practice, if not twice. This group has spent more time in the gym than any team we have ever had — by far — and it all started with Buddy. I think his time in Wichita really helped. That’s when he first got in the gym, and he has never left.”
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett