By Brandon Niles EBS Sports Columnist
For the past few years, NBA scouts and media have been keenly watching the progress of young phenom Ben Simmons, a tremendous athlete destined to be a basketball star. Simmons entered his freshman year at Louisiana State University this season as the consensus No. 1 draft prospect, with little debate over his superstar potential.
Some pundits have started looking at talented Duke University wing Brandon Ingram, and Croatian big man Dragan Bender as possible top picks, but Simmons is still expected to hear his name called first when the draft kicks off in June.
However, following March Madness, all three of these players have been knocked down on my draft board.
University of Oklahoma shooting guard Buddy Hield blew away the competition during the tournament. Not only did he post impressive numbers, including a 36-point explosion against Virginia Commonwealth University, he looked like a man among boys each time he stepped on the court. When I look for a player with No. 1-pick potential, the biggest question I ask is, “Who looks like they don’t belong on the court?” Hield is that guy.
Hield is not considered an elite prospect by most media sources. Several have him ranked in the top 10, but very few believe he’s in the conversation with Ingram or Bender, let alone the exalted Simmons. Critics argue he’s too old at 22 years old, and that he has a low ceiling. Some say he’s too small at 6-feet-4-inches tall to be a top-level pro shooting guard. Some say he’s a bad defender. I say the critics are wrong.
With most top-level players choosing to enter the draft after their freshman year, guys like Hield who stay in college four years are viewed as having less talent. However, the same criticism was said about Portland Trail Blazers’ star point guard Damian Lillard when he came out of Weber State University in 2012, and Lillard has emerged as a top-five player at his position.
Defense is often a problem for rookies, but can be improved with good coaching. Also, with the NBA emphasizing perimeter shooting and small-ball lineups, being slightly undersized isn’t really a big deal. At 6 feet 4 inches, Hield may be on the lower end of the prototypical height for a two-guard, but Miami Heat superstar Dwyane Wade is the same height, and he’s been one of the best in the game for over a decade.
What Hield lacks in size and youth, he more than makes up for with shooting and explosiveness. Hield drives to the basket with purpose and is dangerous from the outside. His experience in college has helped him maximize his athleticism as a rebounder, he makes good decisions with the ball, and his court awareness is elite at this stage of his career.
While Simmons was stuffing box scores, threatening triple-doubles on a losing team night after night, Hield was being a leader on the court and playing his heart out, advancing Oklahoma to a number two seed in the tournament. While I love Ingram’s skill set, and Simmons and Bender certainly have upsides, Hield is the closest thing to a sure-fire star in the upcoming draft.
The top pick should be the guy you can hang your hat on and expect to lead your team to victory by sheer will. He should be coachable, resilient, and have that proverbial “it” factor. Buddy Hield has demonstrated all of this and more. With Hield, you get a star-caliber player who can take over a game when you need him to, and can still grow into an elite two-way player at the next level. To me, there’s no argument.
Brandon Niles is a longtime fan of football and scotch, and has been writing about sports for the past decade. He is a fantasy football scout for 4for4 Fantasy Football and is co-host of the 2 Guys Podcast.