There was a 12-hour day ahead, but when Jamelle McMillan walked into a Long Beach, Calif., gym last summer, one player was already drenched in sweat at 8 a.m., getting in a full-scale workout. A New Orleans player development coach, McMillan quickly realized that then-Oklahoma guard Buddy Hield was in the midst of a two-hour individual session, despite the fact that the Adidas Nations camp ran daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.
“That was impressive,” said McMillan, who coached Hield’s team at the camp, attended by numerous elite college players each year. “Most kids treat it like it’s (a leisurely summer) camp. He treated it like an opportunity, a job, almost like an interview. It wasn’t fake. He wasn’t in there working out with an NBA player (so he’d be noticed). He had an Adidas guy, a trainer, anybody who happened to be around and would rebound for him. To me, it was authentic.”
Without a doubt, Hield’s gym-rat tendencies, work ethic and off-court intangibles are among the reasons why the Pelicans were excited to land him with the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft. The native of the Bahamas steadily progressed during his college career, averaging 25.0 points as a senior and leading Oklahoma to the Final Four.
“He brings maturity,” said David Booth, the Pelicans’ director of player personnel, who studied Hield extensively on and off the hardwood. “Being a four-year player, you get a kid who has a high level of maturity. Off the court, his personality is infectious. Everyone we talked to in the past said what a great kid he is. He’s kind of a pied piper, where people just want to be around him. He brings leadership qualities.”
Asked during the Pelicans’ draft-night radio show what New Orleans should know about Hield, Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger said, “You’ll love him. He’s a terrific kid. He’s a great worker, a great teammate, he’s all about winning. The fans will love him. The front-office folks will love him. He’s just very genuine and loves to play the game. He has a great appreciation for the opportunity he has.”
In his first week as a member of the Pelicans, coaches and staff members have already noticed how frequently Hield references his family and homeland in conversation. Now 22 years old, he moved to the United States in 2010, before enrolling at Oklahoma in ‘12, with the goal of someday becoming an NBA player.
“With his background, everything is family-driven,” said McMillan, whose father is Nate McMillan, the new head coach of the Indiana Pacers and a legendary former Seattle SuperSonics guard. “Everything he does revolves around his family and is for them, in (representing) his last name and something to be proud of. Country-wise, the Bahamas are like his everything. He wants success for the right reasons. He has a priority list and is extremely religious. I think that helps with his spirit, bringing a positive energy to everything he does, and a belief in himself.”
It was something McMillan witnessed first-hand last summer on a daily basis. Although players aren’t necessarily aware of it, NBA personnel often watch to see how prospects carry themselves and interact with others in everyday situations, to get a read on their character or decision-making. At last summer’s Adidas camp, Hield quickly became popular among teammates, even though some played for rival schools such as Kansas.
“He was a guy who never shut up on the team bus,” McMillan said, meaning that in the best way possible. “He got along with everyone, regardless of who they were. He just brought a positive energy, a positive spirit. Guys had a lot of fun with him. He’s very supportive of his teammates. He’s always saying, ‘Let’s go fellas; we gotta make more shots fellas; we’re good fellas, don’t worry about it.’ He was the ultimate teammate.”
“I love Buddy Hield, because his personality is just so effervescent,” NBA.com writer David Aldridge said on NBA TV’s draft recap show. “He’s just a terrific kid.”
“Buddy will be your happiest guy every day,” Kruger said. “He’ll walk into the room and make everyone feel very good. He’s a culture-changer. He is the most popular on campus, in the community, with his teammates. He’s a guy coaches love to work with, because he’s so fired up about getting better every day. You’ll love him. He’ll become one of your favorite guys.”
Hield was already well on his way to earning a spot near the top of the draft, but for some NBA evaluators, his performance Jan. 30 in Baton Rouge against LSU helped seal the deal. In a dramatic 77-75 victory for Oklahoma over the Tigers and eventual No. 1 pick Ben Simmons, Hield piled up 32 points and went 8/15 from three-point range. The Pelicans had a home game later that Saturday evening, but McMillan caught some of the NCAA matchup on a TV in the Smoothie King Center. Once again, he came away impressed by Hield, long before he had any idea that Hield would eventually become a Pelican.
“When the game was tight, he ran off I don’t know how many threes in a row,” remembered McMillan, himself a former Arizona State guard. “There are guys who are really good in college, and then there are guys who make sure it is noted how good they are. It was a marquee game and he delivered. He took some tough shots and made them, but the fact he took the shots in the moments he did, to me that can’t be taught. But he really trusts his preparation, and because he’s so prepared, he felt like it was just another situation.”
“He’s a guy who steps up in big moments,” Kruger said. “He wants to take big shots and is very confident. He’s a guy who will make the play that needs to be made.”
Kruger also attributes Hield’s clutch ability to the amount of accumulated time the player has spent in the gym, something the Pelicans have already noticed. After being drafted June 23, the rookie immediately jumped into workouts at the team’s Metairie practice facility, spending every weekday prior to the holiday weekend there.
“This kid knows his craft, respects it, lives it,” McMillan said. “He respects the game. It was something that I saw (last summer), where I was like, ‘That kid is going to himself every single opportunity to be successful.' ”