This NBA Draft has been called a two-horse race between Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, and it makes sense. Both of those guys are spectacular talents that look like sure bets to succeed at the next level (then again, we said that about Greg Oden and Michael Beasley in their drafts, too).
So who's third?
To most, the answer probably depends on fit. If the Suns are picking third, they might want a small forward like Jaylen Brown to play alongside potential cornerstone Devin Booker. If the point-guard-and-shooting-needy Sixers fall to third, they might take a guy like Jamal Murray. A team looking for a franchise-changer might take international player Dragan Bender.
But this shouldn't be so complicated: Buddy Hield is the third best player in the draft, and you can tell with just two plays.
Play #1: The Euro Step in Transition
(It runs from 6:05-6:09 if you want to re-watch it.)
Everyone has a Euro step these days, so why is this one particularly special? Well, a few reasons.
Firstly, because it's an unnatural motion. Every Euro is, which is why most players pick up the ball before they use their Euro: it's easier to keep the ball secure that way, and it allows a player to solely focus on the difficult change-of-direction footwork. Watch almost any player in the NBA do a Euro step, and you'll see them pick the ball up, take two steps, and shoot a layup.
But that's not what Hield does in this video. Instead, he uses a crossover dribble while doing a Euro step, pushing the ball to his left and simultaneously moving right to create an appearance of a straight-line drive. Try doing this on an empty court without anyone around, and you'll find it's more difficult than it looks - it's sort of like the ball-handling equivalent of trying to rub your belly and pat your head at the same time.
That dribble is key - it's not only what freezes a help defender who should have been in a gap, but it allows Hield to get all the way to the rim instead of settling for a ten-foot floater.
It seems simple, I know, but that's a credit to Hield and not a statement about the difficulty of the play.
I understand this is a transition bucket. Fancy footwork or no, you expect a top-3 prospect to finish a play like this - and probably with an emphatic dunk. But what really impressed me about this play is not just the level of difficulty. It's also a play that proves Hield is a real student of the game.
There's only one player in the NBA - James Harden - who uses this move, and he doesn't use it very often.
Look at that. James Harden made this move last season, and it was so peculiar that I made a note of it. The fact that Hield not only noted the same play, but then went into the gym and taught himself how to do it - and not just at a base level, but to the point where he could pull it off, on the road, in a conference game against a ranked opponent - shows just how seriously Hield takes his craft.
Play #2: The Half-Court Heave
Maybe this is going too far - the shot didn't even count, and luck obviously played a large role.
But didn't you sorta think this had a chance when Hield let it go?
There are only a couple of guys at any level who you just assume are going to make every shot they take, and Hield's in that group. Again, that's a credit to his hard work. After knocking down just 202/587 3-pointers in his first three seasons in Norman (34.4%), Hield has made 127/274 this year (46.4%). His free throw percentage is up to 89.5% as a senior after hovering around 80% his first three seasons.
And while this year might just be an outlier, there's reason to think it's not. Hield makes as many 3's per game (4) as Justin Anderson, a streaky shooter who improved his deep-ball shooting from 29.4% to 45.2% in his final season at Virginia before shooting poorly in his rookie season in Dallas, attempted. He's not Stephen Curry, but he's making more 3's per game than even Curry did in his final season at Davidson - and he's making them at a higher rate than Curry ever did. That sort of sample size, taken into consideration with his free throw percentage and the types of shots Hield takes (and makes), implies this guy is a legit shooter with NBA range right now.
At a time when shooting has never been more valued by NBA teams, that's a massive difference between Hield and almost every player in the draft. Jaylen Brown is only a freshman, and he will improve, but he's also shooting just 65.1% from the free-throw line. Can you really be certain he'll ever develop an NBA 3-pointer? Is it even likely? Kris Dunn is a below-average college 3-point shooter, and his high release point doesn't translate naturally to an NBA line. Even Brandon Ingram, who most project as a Paul George/Kevin Durant type is shooting below 70% on his freebies.
By my count, there are just 4 possible lottery prospects who we know can shoot at an above-average NBA level - Hield, Jamal Murray, Denzel Valentine, and Grayson Allen. And yet, even in this elite category, Hield leads these guys in points, field goal percentage, 3-point field goal percentage, and free-throw percentage.
Buddy Hield has somehow turned himself into not only the best player in college basketball, but the best shooter as well.
You just can't overlook this sort of improvement.
Every sports league in America drafts on potential, but I disagree with people that say youth implies potential. Improvement implies potential, and senior or not, no one in the country has shown as much improvement - and thus, potential - as Hield. Why should we look at the player he is right now and say he can't get better? He improved his scoring by 8 points per game this season, after people said the same thing about him last year. Draymond Green has gotten better every year he's been in the NBA, and he came out after his senior year. Doug McDermott is just beginning to find his way in the NBA in his second season.
Heck, C.J. McCollum will probably be the NBA's Most Improved Player this season, and if he is, then he will become the fourth four-year college player to win the award since 2008-09. By contrast, Kevin Love is the only one-year college player to win the award over that time.
By that same logic, why should we assume younger players like Jaylen Brown will improve? And not only that, but improve at a quicker rate than Hield? Sure, he's gotten bigger during his time at Cal, but unless he shot about 50% from the free-line or 20% from 3 last year, his shooting hasn't gotten better year over year.
So what question marks are left for Hield? He has a true position and NBA athleticism. He's the best shooter in the draft, and, most importantly, he gets better every year.
Why isn't he the clear-cut third best player in this draft - at worst?