Can A One-Dimensional Player Change His Game With A New Team? Ask Buddy Hield.
Few players in the NBA were one-dimensional as Buddy Hield was as a Sacramento King.
Hield came into the league a 3-point shooter and spent the next half-decade growing in that area, improving his per-game attempts from 4.6 as a rookie to 10.2 in 2020-21. But his other counting stats grew only marginally over his first few seasons and had shrunk back down to marks comparable to those of his rookie season by this year’s trade deadline — 1.9 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.3 blocks per game.
The singularness of Hield’s output is close to unique across the NBA: Even adding his non-scoring box score stats together, he attempted more threes per game than he collected assists, rebounds, steals and blocks by the eighth-largest margin in the league through Feb. 8.
Hield was among the most one-dimensional shooters
NBA players in the 2021-22 season with the greatest difference between 3-point attempts and combined non-scoring box-score stats (rebounds, assists, steals, blocks), through Feb. 8
|Kelly Oubre Jr.||16.3||8.1||4.1||1.2||1.2||0.4||1.2|
|Gary Trent Jr.||17.9||8.0||2.6||2.1||1.9||0.3||1.1|
Sacramento traded Hield on Feb. 8 to the Indiana Pacers. But then a funny thing happened to the sixth-year veteran on his new team: He began to excel in the very areas in which his growth had plateaued for so long.
After averaging just 1.9 assists per game in Sacramento this season, Hield is up to 5.0 per game in Indiana. That’s a monstrous jump, as shown by his assist rate moving from average for a wing to the 94th percentile, and it can’t be explained only by the 7.8 extra minutes per game he’s playing in his new home; in addition to those extra opportunities, he’s making different choices on the court. For example, per Second Spectrum, he passes out of pick and rolls at more than twice the rate he did this year in Sacramento, and the Pacers are scoring 1.130 points per chance on those plays — his most efficient pick-and-roll outcome this season.1
In Sacramento this season, the plurality of Hield’s assists were perimeter passes, according to Second Spectrum.2 While he has slightly increased his rate of perimeter assists in Indiana, he has increased his rate of the more daring attacking and kickout assists by a larger margin. Such passes involve more north-south movement of the ball than perimeter passes, which tend to move east-west.
Unlocking Hield’s newfound passing game is his newfound driving game. In Sacramento this season, he averaged 6.687 drives per 100 possessions, scoring a lowly 0.797 points per chance, per Second Spectrum. That frequency has improved to 13.109 drives per 100 possessions in Indiana at a sparkling 1.140 points per chance. At his number of drives (156) or higher, that’s the sixth-highest efficiency in the league since the trade deadline. While his frequency and efficiency on shots inside the arc have improved in every area of the court, one shot type that stands out in particular is pull-up 2-pointers; he’s attempting almost triple the rate in Indiana and converting them more than 20 percentage points more efficiently.
His all-around play has been the lifeblood for Indiana’s offense, which is 17.9 points per 100 possessions better than opponents with Hield on the court — the second-best mark for any player in the NBA this season.
It’s worth asking why Hield’s game has changed so much in Indiana. Huge, sudden improvements are expected for NBA rookies or sophomores, perhaps, but rarely for 29-year-olds who have been one-dimensional players their entire careers. Some of Hield’s growth must be attributed to opportunity. He’s averaging a career high in minutes per game (36.4) since the trade. And he’s also more involved in the minutes he plays; the 71.7 touches per game he has averaged in Indiana dwarf his previous career high, set in 2018-19, of 55.9. But it seems like there’s something else that’s different in Indiana.
Basketball is fluid, and shooting is supposed to be a cascading skill; a shooter spaces the floor, and when he receives the ball, defenders have to run him off the line, giving up drives. When they clamp in on the drive, the pass becomes available. That never happened for Hield in Sacramento, where he rarely played in lineups with multiple plus shooters.
In Sacramento this season, Hield played alongside three shooters who attempted at least one 3-pointer per game and connected at a rate of 32 percent or better.3 In Indiana, Hield has so far appeared alongside eight of those players, including Tyrese Haliburton, who made the trip with Hield to the Midwest.4 Defenders used to be able to cheat into the lane against Hield’s drives from their man, giving Hield less space within which to pass or attempt pull-up 2-pointers. That’s not true anymore.
Hield’s success in his new NBA home raises the question: When can context unlock the varied and buried skills of erstwhile one-dimensional players? If a general manager were to know the secret, it would be an advantage in acquiring players through free agency or the trade deadline.
A revealing comparison to Hield is another one-dimensional shooter — 11th-largest in the gap between 3-point attempts and rebounds, assists, blocks and steals through the day he was traded — whom the Pacers traded for Hield: Justin Holiday. Faced with spacing in Sacramento comparable to what Hield experienced (minus Haliburton, to compound matters), Holiday’s game has moved in the opposite direction. His assist rate has fallen slightly despite his usage rate rising, and his finishing percentage at the rim has cratered from 67.4 in Indiana to 47.1 in Sacramento.
Hield and Holiday’s numbers are to some extent results of the small sample sizes with their new teams. But it’s possible that some skill sets require more supportive environments to flourish on the court. Shooting carries over; Hield and Holiday both average similar 3-point attempts after the trade as they did before, though Hield is on a cold distance-shooting streak. But their secondary skills seem to be either encouraged or suppressed based on the players with whom they play. Hield is enjoying more space than arguably ever before, while Holiday is struggling in cramped lineups.
When general managers acquire new players, they always have to think about what latent abilities those players might have that can emerge in a new environment. But just as important is the idea that a team’s unique environment might affect what an incoming player’s latent abilities are and how they manifest. In Hield, the Pacers acquired a multi-talented offensive force who had been a one-dimensional shooter, while the Kings’ one-dimensional shooter … stayed the same. Understanding the impacts of environment is just another way team builders can find a competitive advantage in the NBA.
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