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On the continuous spacing of Buddy Hield

And the impact he has as a shooter without shooting.

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Spending most of the offseason on a “trending topics” sidebar near you in relation to what doors the Los Angeles Lakers should be knocking on to find a taker for Russell Westbrook and his gargantuan contract, here are three factual statements about Buddy Hield, who either will or won’t be traded at some point before or during next season.

  1. He shot a career-worst 36.2 percent from three in 26 games with the Pacers last season.
  2. He led the Pacers in three-point attempts in 20 of those games.
  3. He averaged 8.5 three-point attempts on 72.8 possessions per game, which means he finished roughly 88 percent of his trips on offense doing something other than hoisting shots from deep.

For that reason, although he has rightfully earned his reputation as having somewhat of a tendency to be a loose cannon in terms of shot selection (i.e. trying to lull a big to sleep against a switch during crunch-time of a game in which he had started 1-of-9 on triples), what’s arguably more important to parse with regard to his value as a shooter — whether to the Pacers, Lakers, or some other team — isn’t so much his dip in conversion rate as what he does and what effect he has when he isn’t shooting.

Defensive Perception

After all, when tallying together his makes with both Indiana and Sacramento from last season, he only canned 20 fewer threes in Year 6 (262) than Year 5 (282). As such, defenses still largely perceived him as a threat. Just look at how much of a difference his presence made on this possession from his first game with the Pacers.

With Tyrese Haliburton dribbling off the consecutive ball screens, see how Dean Wade has his entire body planted outside the free throw circle, positioning himself nearer to Hield?

Now, with two bigs as the screeners, make note of how Kyle Kuzma is keeping at least one foot in the paint, even at the risk of straying from Myles Turner, who at this point in the game had scored 38 points on 19 shots.

Again, Hield shot a career-worst 36.2 percent from three, but over 56 percent of his attempts were contested, compared to 25 percent for Turner. Plus, for better or worse, he doesn’t blush at shooting from way downtown, launching six attempts per game from 25 to 29 feet out — which was good for eighth in the league. Accordingly, because longer shots oftentimes require longer closeouts, Wade’s choice between drifting toward the roller and staying home, with Hield stationed further behind the three-point line, is more exaggerated than what was the case for Kuzma earlier in the season.

Decoy Gravity

Of course, in addition to standing still, Hield also manages to bend defenses when swapping places with Haliburton as the screener. Make no mistake, the arrangement of players, here, with regard to who is doing what is very intentional. Given that Boston is chasing over and switching on off-ball screening actions, the Pacers are leveraging Hield’s gravity as a decoy to unlock Haliburton’s playmaking from the middle of the floor.

In this way, rather than potentially struggling to gain traction against length, Haliburton has the opportunity to beat the switch on the move — startling Robert Williams by immediately veering into space — thanks in large part to how much attention Hield commands as an off-ball mover.

As evidence, look no further than this freeze frame of Marcus Smart, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. Strikingly, he still has his back turned to the action, tugged several steps outside the arc, even with Hield standing on the logo, nearly out of frame.

Reignition Screens

And yet, despite playing on a team that finished with the fifth-worst record in the league and closed out the season dropping 10-straight games, what’s more about Hield is that he didn’t often just look for rest stops to park at when he wasn’t directly involved in the action. Instead, by means of darting here, there, and everywhere, he stays engaged, purposing himself to move, particularly when the ball stops moving.

For example, ghost screens, in which the screener fakes the ball screen and sprints away into space, proliferate throughout many of Indiana’s set plays, but where Hield differentiates himself is with his feel for improvisation and delivery of emergency aid. Generally speaking, when it appears as though the offense is about to stall, he rushes to “set” what should be referred to as a reignition screen, jetting across the free throw line to provide a spark for his teammates as if striking a match.

Granted, the Spurs basically laid out a red carpet for Duane Washington Jr. to dunk on that possession with their miscommunication on the switch, but there also wouldn’t have been a switch to miscommunicate on without Hield inserting himself as a bridge to the next action. For point of reference, spot the difference, here, when Terry Taylor simply clears out from the wing to the corner, with Washington in a similar predicament.

Rather than benefiting from a moment of indecision, Washington runs out of real estate around the rim with his defender staying attached to his hip. Meanwhile, Trae Young doesn’t exactly follow Taylor to the corner, instead, opting to enjoy the vibes in the lane.

Gap Credibility

To that point, even when his reignition screens don’t produce the desired effect of transforming the defense into an anthropomorphized version of a swirling, ubiquitous buffer icon, Hield’s man typically runs with him and stays with him. Although this subtle change of scenery may seem insignificant, consider how much wider the entry point is for Haliburton to drive with the dunker’s spot occupied as Hield moves in front of the ball.

Granted, that tiny relocation doesn’t result in a reaction from the defense as far as hesitating or switching the big off the ball, but consider the distance between Oshae Brissett in the left corner and Hield on the right wing. In addition to doubling the size of the gap from what would’ve been the case with Hield staying put at the top of the key, Cole Anthony also very notably isn’t straying from the perimeter to pinch the driving lane.

Admittedly, Haliburton ends up relying on a stride stop turnaround from mid-range rather than separating from the switch and getting to the rim, but at least the credibility of the gap, forged by Hield’s continuous spacing, provides a potential model for how to perhaps nurture the nature of the star guard’s shake into deeper drives over the long-term.

In the shallows

In addition to widening driving lanes, Hield’s movement away from the ball also has the potential to distort defenses in terms of who should be the tagger. In retrospect, it isn’t entirely clear if this relocation from one 45-degree angle to the other was actually scripted to coincide with pick-and-roll action or just happened to occur by accident out of a broken play at the same time as Jalen Smith was also approaching as the screener, but the former possibility might actually provide some utility against more aggressive defenses.

For example, if Boston had been trapping Haliburton instead of switching, then Hield’s shallow cut underneath the ball screen, here, would either open him up as a pass release when his defender stays in the lane to tag at the nail; or, more likely, would occupy the potential tagger, as he relocates from one side of the floor to the other.

Here’s a diagrammed visual of what that would look like with Derrick White jumping out above the level of the ball screen, especially with Isaiah Jackson simultaneously corner cutting to clear out that entire side of the floor.

Once again, while not necessarily “stretching” the defense, Hield’s short jaunt is “stressing” the defense, creating space with tension, even without any guarantee to receive the ball.

3-man actions

Plus, there are spots where those same sprints can also have an impact on stationary defenders away from the ball. Typically, when thinking about 3-man actions from Indiana’s playbook, what first comes to mind with regard to Hield is stack action (i.e. Spain pick-and-roll), where he acts as the back-screener in the lane. Pan over to the side of the floor, however, and he can also be found subtlety playing a role as a tertiary piece.

To understand why and how, fix your eyes on where Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is standing on this possession as Hield makes his move to the opposite side of the floor. More often than not, that defender will either be sagging in the lane or have at least one foot in the paint. As such, when Hield cuts straight across the free throw line, there’s a lot of pressure on that second defender to suddenly recover to the ball in space.

For added juice, if Haliburton circled around an exit screen from Isaiah Jackson in the opposite corner instead of filling the same corner as the ball, Shai would likely have to hold to bump him as the cutter, providing Brissett with even more added breathing room.

Either way, whether always planned or sometimes occurring by-the-by, the way in which Buddy Hield strategically dissects the arc, tracing line segments like a chord connecting any two points on a curve, can’t be overlooked. He doesn’t just chuck shots, and in the starting role he’s long been vocal about preferring, he didn’t treat plays that weren’t called for him as an invitation to deactivate. None of which is to mention that he also posted a career-high in assist rate, no doubt benefiting from the swing passes that Haliburton throws against switches, allowing his teammates to knife into the paint with the rim protector occupied on the perimeter, just as he reciprocates in creating space for Haliburton.

Above all, though, from encouraging defenders to stay home while standing still to eliciting hesitation and manipulating help defenders as an off-ball mover, Hield makes an impact as a shooter, respacing the floor and reshaping defenses, even when he isn’t shooting. For the Pacers, who scored a glistening 117 points per 100 possessions in 745 minutes with Hield on the floor alongside Haliburton, the question — with Bennedict Mathurin and Chris Duarte waiting in the wings — is how much of an impact and whether the answer, depending on to what degree Myles Turner can improve the defense and how long of a view the team plans on taking amid a rebuild, might be too much.