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Luke Walton’s vision for Buddy Hield is simply unrealistic

Sometimes a shooter is just a shooter.

Sacramento Kings v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Buddy Hield’s season hasn’t exactly gone according to plan. After signing a 4-year extension in the $100 million range this summer, Hield was expected to be a key contributor in a potential playoff run for the Sacramento Kings. Instead, his shooting has regressed from elite to average, his defense has deteriorated from below-average to catastrophic, and his team has actually been more successful with Buddy on the bench rather than in the game. Not exactly the level of production the front office imagined when Vlade Divac inked Hield to that massive deal in October.

Hield’s struggles can’t be identified in one bullet point or be assigned to one cause, either. As with any complex situation, there are layers upon layers of issues at hand. First and foremost was De’Aaron Fox’s early season injury, as perhaps no player was more adversely affected by Fox’s absence than Buddy. The fourth-year guard was forced to pick up more of the offensive load, especially with Marvin Bagley III also out of the picture, and opposing teams knew that if they could send waves of defenders at Hield, they would take Sacramento’s sole dynamic scorer out of the game. Buddy’s individual play and attitude are also massive factors in not only his performance, but also his reputation with the fan base. He’s forcing bad shots on a nightly basis, taking more pull-up three-pointers than ever, and hasn’t exactly endeared himself to fans through multiple nasty comments to the media about his teammates and coaches. No person is more responsible for Buddy Hield’s play and reputation than Buddy Hield.

Yet, beyond the myriad of injuries and poor decision-making both on the court and in the locker room, another negative factor has made a major impact in Hield’s performance this season: Luke Walton. For whatever reason, the Kings Head Coach has taken it upon himself to take Buddy’s worse attributes on the defensive end of the floor and highlight them, while also diminishing the most important aspect of his skillset: his elite catch-and-shoot abilities.

The December 28th matchup against the Phoenix Suns serves as a perfect example of the inexplicable nature of Walton’s standards for Hield. De’Aaron Fox missed the game due to back spasms, so the Kings started Cory Joseph, Buddy Hield, and Harrison Barnes on the perimeter: two above-average defenders and Hield. Instead of shifting Buddy onto Ricky Rubio, a slower-footed, non-shooting distributor, Luke Walton immediately stuck his starting shooting guard on Devin Booker, one of the premier one-on-one scorers in the NBA. Buddy ended up guarding Booker for more than twice the number of possessions than any other Kings player, and the results were unsurprisingly grim. However, instead of adjusting his game plan or giving Hield a break on a lesser player, Walton decided to punish Hield in the fourth quarter by benching him for the entire period, even though he was missing two of his most reliable scorers in De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley. The Kings lost by two points.

This insistence that Buddy Hield suddenly transform into an elite, or even average defender is the stuff of Zach Randolph’s pipe dreams, and the results of this strategy have been horrific. Hield is getting roasted by top-tier bucket-getters on a nightly basis, to the point of posting the worst overall defensive field goal percentage (the percentage an opponent’s average field goal percentage increases or decreases when guarded by a player) in the entire NBA. Buddy’s certainly never garnered the reputation of a high-class defender, but he’s never bottomed-out at this level either.

Defensive Field Goal Percentage Differential

Location 18-19 Differential 18-19 Percentile 19-20 Differential 19-20 Percentile
Location 18-19 Differential 18-19 Percentile 19-20 Differential 19-20 Percentile
Overall +1.4% 29th +7.6% Worst in NBA
Three-point -1.5% 77th +4.4% 8th
Rim +2.5% 25th +12.7% Worst in NBA

The other side of the court has been similarly perplexing. Last year under Dave Joerger, Hield’s role on the offensive end was relatively simplistic: sprint to the corners in transition, jack up open catch-and-shoot three-pointers, and make as few key decisions as possible. That was the perfect situation for a player like Buddy, as his shooting is far and away the most important and elite aspect of his game. Instead of choosing to build on that success, Luke Walton has turned that vision on its head, insisting that the fourth-year guard play the role of half-court distributor on offense, despite Buddy’s lack of dribbling prowess or court vision. Hield often handles the point guard duties when he’s paired with Joseph, and he’s now running the pick-and-roll on 27% of his possessions, compared to just 16% of the time during the 2018-2019 campaign.

Taking one of the league’s most elite volume three-point shooters and forcing him to dive into the teeth of the defense time and again has been disastrous for all parties involved. Hield is scoring just 0.91 points per possession in the screening game, and he’s turning the ball over on more than 18% of his possessions, a far cry from his 1.14 points per possession in catch-and-shoot situations and turnover percentage of only 4.5%. The shift strategy is akin to planting De’Aaron Fox in the corner and pushing him to jack up three-pointers all night, while also discouraging attacks at the rim. It’s straight bonkers.

Luke Walton isn’t the sole cause of Buddy Hield’s struggles this season, but there’s also no indication that he’s done anything the help the situation. One of Walton’s main duties as the head coach is to leverage every ounce of a player’s strengths, while also doing everything in his power to diminish and hide weaknesses, but in a stubborn stand against reality, Luke has chosen to take the opposite approach with one of Sacramento’s most important and one-dimensional contributors. This vision of Buddy as a multi-dimensional guard who can take on the league’s best scorers is laughably unrealistic, and it’s past time for Luke Walton to put one of his best players in a position to succeed, rather than finding ways to punish a square peg for not fitting into a round hole.