University of Oklahoma senior guard Buddy Hield is the most thrilling player in college basketball. This is not really a controversial statement. Any number of games or plays might be related to support it—he has scored at least 30 points eight times already this season—but the clearest example came in early February in Norman, Oklahoma, where the Sooners and the visiting Texas Longhorns were tied at 60 with seconds remaining.
Oklahoma had trailed throughout the game, but Hield had brought them back late with characteristic verve, scoring nine straight Sooner points in a span of three minutes, the prettiest of these coming when he darted between two double-teaming defenders and swerve-jumped past a third for a left-handed layup. As time ran down, neither team had much doubt what Oklahoma would do with the ball. Hield caught it on the left wing, crossed over his defender, rose, and canned a three-pointer. Oklahoma won, and the reputation of its star grew another few degrees. It was as if Hield was trying to summarize the first three months of his season for non-college hoops fans who had happened upon the nationally televised game, to get everyone up to speed.
Hield's final college campaign has been a masterpiece, and a welcome one for college basketball at large. This season has, even more than usual, been defined by unsteady play, shockingly shoddy refereeing, and massing scandal. The year started with touted recruits roaming the hinterlands of eligibility and will end with some of the country's best teams disqualified from the postseason due to various strains of misconduct, and all this will continue to unfold within a self-parodying system of amateurism.
In this context, it is tempting to fashion a four-year player like Hield into a savior, or at least as proof of some residual goodness in the moral desert of big-money college sports. This positioning, though, both oversells his importance and undersells the immediate experience of watching him. Hield doesn't solve college basketball's problems; he transcends them.
You're late. — Photo by Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports
Hield is considered by most prognosticators the favorite to win this season's Naismith award for college basketball's most outstanding player, which is remarkable enough given where he started, and when. He arrived at Oklahoma in 2012 as a willing but none-too-impressive three-point shooter, evolved over his sophomore and junior seasons into a better marksman and more rounded scorer, and has become in his senior year an all-aspects dynamo making more than half his shots and averaging over 25 points per game. It's easy to see the instrumental use of this trajectory, for those inclined to use it—it really did take four years for Buddy Hield to get this good.
His jumper is a pleasing blend of old-school and new, his non-shooting hand pulling away from the ball early in a way that recalls textbook midcentury methods even as his legs launch him high off the court. He has a probing dribble and a knack for sensing the discrete layers of a defense. In a sport whose best players tend to fit one of two molds—the freshman stopping over on his way to the NBA and the upperclassman devoted to the subtleties of defensive positioning and swing passes—Hield marks out his own category. He has grown as a player, but his game reflects none of the rigidity of doctrine.
Most anyone who's had a chance to see Hield play this year can tell a story about witnessing something spectacular. In a triple-overtime loss to the Kansas Jayhawks in early January, Hield scored 46 points in 54 minutes, adding eight rebounds and seven assists and receiving a postgame ovation from the opposing fans at Allen Fieldhouse. In a showdown with LSU and presumptive number-one pick Ben Simmons later that month, he scored 32 on the strength of eight three-pointers. This past weekend, on the road against a hard-elbowed and tireless West Virginia team, Hield breezed around the court collecting 29 points, and Oklahoma handed the Mountaineers just their second home loss of the season.
Hield has reached that rare sphere in which his exploits are simultaneously jaw-dropping and mundane. Watch him catch a pass at a full sprint, turn, and lift a jumper over two reaching opponents, and you will find that you expect it to drop even as you register the shot's difficulty. Watch him with the ball in transition and three defenders assembled in front of him, and you'll wait to see how, not if, he manipulates these unfriendly odds for a layup. Hield is strong and quick, but his success doesn't come primarily from either of these qualities. He seems to subsist on a kind of unconquerable optimism and assurance—a sense, constantly confirmed, that there's no harm in trying.
Already looking past you, dude. — Photo by Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports
If you have been lucky enough to catch Hield in person this season, you likely heard little other than the assorted loud noises of a bunch of very impressed people. If you have watched him on television, though, you have probably been treated to a different soundtrack. To many of college basketball's broadcasters, Hield is a callback to the NCAA's glory days, an ambassador from a time when the relationship between athlete, university, and governing institution was happily presumed to be mutually beneficial. To all you youngsters out there, these guys intone to an imagined audience of high-school phenoms, this is why you stay in school.
To be sure, Hield has benefitted from his time in college. By the end of his high school career, he was a fine but hardly flawless player, rated about the 150th best prospect in the country. The tutelage of Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, a veteran of both college and professional ranks, has helped both Hield's current game and his future prospects. Forecast to be a second-round selection in the NBA draft if he left following his junior season, Hield is now tabbed as a potential lottery pick. He has earned all of this.
He is not, though, evidence of a working system. Even as he has learned, Hield has been subject to the hypocrisies intrinsic to the amateurism model. He has sold tickets without receiving compensation; his growing fame has enriched television networks, the University of Oklahoma, and the NCAA but not Hield himself, at least not yet. The stay in school chorus presents him as someone wise enough to forsake immediate earnings for future ones without acknowledging that, in a more just enterprise, the two wouldn't be mutually exclusive.
It is hard not to see Hield as an exemplar of certain qualities. His trajectory affirms him as a willing learner and a hard worker, and all available testaments agree that he's a gracious and giving teammate. The NCAA and its attendants claim Hield's success as the result of their benevolence and present his admirable traits as their own. They should be so lucky.