Let’s start with the viral video. It’s a late September night in 2017 at the CheckRock streetball league in Wilmington, Delaware and a crowd has gathered to watch Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland (the-then 17 year-old streetball legend and now-20 year-old Denver Nuggets first round draft pick) play one-on-one against two guys who don’t seem to know what they’ve gotten themselves into. Game to seven, scored by ones, make it take it.
Up first, Green Shirt. After 30 seconds, Green Shirt is down 3-0, his lineless oval face progressively scrunches with frustration as he’s beaten 7-3. White Tank Top fares much worse, losing 7-0 and only ever touching the ball when he embarrassingly tosses it at Hyland’s head to try to save face. None of this is remarkable on its own; in fact, Hyland can’t even recall exactly who those guys were or why they deserved such ignominy. But the message—the cascade of double stepback jumpers on unforgiving double-rims—is clear.
“I’m a killer, straight up,” Hyland said as he prepared for the NBA Draft. “When we’re on the court, I need you to know that you can’t guard me.”
To a degree, this video (appropriately named Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland Destroys Two Philly Trash Talkers) is really a public service announcement, introducing its 3.3 million viewers to not just Nah’Shon Hyland, but Bizzy Bones, Hyland’s on-court alter-ego. Whereas Nah’Shon is polite and affable, Bizzy Bones (Bizzy because he gets busy with the ball; Bones because he’s so skinny and long-limbed) is ruthless. Nah’Shon is a basketball player; Bizzy Bones is a hooper. Nah’Shon wants to laugh with you; Bizzy Bones wants to make people laugh at you.
“Off the court, he’s energetic, he’s joking around, he’s lampin’,” said Thomas Jackson, a quasi-big brother figure for Hyland and the CEO of the Wilmington-based streetwear brand Carry My Own Weight. “But when it’s game time, there are no more jokes and no more friends: he’s going at you.”
When Hyland was ten years old, he made the neighborhood YMCA his personal exhibition space, transforming a children’s’ rec-league into a showcase where he would unveil the crossovers and dribble moves that he learned from watching AND1 YouTube mixtapes of Hot Sauce and spent the last seven days practicing in the mirror. More, this was where Bizzy Bones was born.
“I was, like, 10 years-old, dropping 50 points just about every weekend,” Hyland remembered. “I was making ten threes in a half. The other kids were just looking at me like, ‘Damn, there’s nothing I can do about that.’”
For four years at St. Georges Technical High School, Hyland continued his reign of terror over the Wilmington youth basketball circuit. As such, he quickly became a celebrity—or at least the Delaware high school equivalent of one—as people swarmed to watch him exhibit the depth of his scoring bag.
“Our gym was always full,” said Rodney Griffin, Hyland’s high school coach. “From his Junior year on, no matter where we went—New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland—the games were sold out. People would show up to root for Bones and watch him play.”
With good reason.
“There was one scrimmage where Bones got super hot—he was shooting from everywhere, he could shoot it from the ocean,” Griffin said with a laugh. “During a timeout, he comes up to me and tells me he’s going to shoot from behind halfcourt. So, on the next play, he does and he splashes it; the net doesn’t even move and the crowd is going nuts. And right away, the other coach calls the game—he ends the scrimmage because he said he’d seen enough.”
Although Hyland held scholarship offers from basketball powerhouses like Michigan and UConn, he ultimately committed to Virginia Commonwealth University because they were committed to him—not only were they one of the first notable teams to offer him a scholarship, but they never wavered in recruiting him, even after he tore his patella tendon so severely by jumping from the window of a burning building that doctors feared he’d never play basketball again.
After a relatively muted freshman season at VCU, Hyland fully emerged as Bizzy Bones during his sophomore year. Despite only being named to the Atlantic 10’s preseason third-team by the conference’s coaches, he became the conference’s clear star and best NBA prospect. By season’s end, he was named the conference player of the year. He proved to be unguardable—although A10 is perennially one of the best mid-major conferences in college basketball, no team was equipped to handle Hyland’s combination of game-breaking shooting and speed. Over the course of 12 conference games, Hyland averaged 20 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists, shooting 37.6 percent on nearly eight three point attempts per game and hitting an array of shots so difficult and mind-bending that at one game, his defender couldn’t help but congratulate him.
As Hyland stands at the precipice of a professional basketball career looking back at his amateur basketball days, he has only one regret: he wishes that positive COVID-19 tests on his VCU team hadn’t abbreviated their 2021 NCAA Tournament run before it began.
“I broke down when I heard the news [that we had been disqualified], because I thought that I lost my shot to show the world who I am,” Hyland said. “Before the game, I swear to God, I had a feeling I was going to go crazy [against Oregon in the first round]. I was gonna get 40. I knew it.”
Next, Hyland imagines, his Rams would’ve continued their run to the Sweet Sixteen by notching an upset against a second-seeded Iowa team that spent the bulk of the year ranked in the top ten. “They were too slow for us,” Hyland declared. “We would’ve run them off the court. We were going to put [Luka] Garza in the pick-and-roll and I would’ve made him fall.”
Now, looking forward to the NBA, the first league that he won’t be able to dominate on talent alone, Hyland is unfazed. As predicted by mock drafters and media pundits, Hyland was selected towards the end of the first round, picked 26th by the Denver Nuggets as the 16th guard off the board. If there are 15 better guards than him in the draft, that’s news to him.
On the competitive dynamics of the pre-draft process: “During all this pre-draft stuff, I haven’t run from anything—I’ve played in any workout, I scrimmaged at the combine. Other guys get caught up in all this ranking stuff and have been ducking me [in workouts for teams] because they know it’s not gonna end well for them.”
On his status compared to his peers: “I’m the best scorer in the draft. I’m way shiftier with the ball than any other guard. I shoot it better and I shoot it with more range and I can create space with my stepback to get it off.”
I’m the best scorer in the draft.
On his worries about Patrick Beverly and the elite defenders that await him: “I’ve played against defenders better than Pat Bev. He’s just aggressive and I’ve faced aggressive defenders before—I use that against them and they get themselves in foul trouble.”
Cocky? Maybe, but self-doubt is incompatible with the way that Hyland plays: hoisting jump shots from 30 feet away with your momentum carrying you away from the hoop requires a certain fortitude and strength-of-will. It’s this kind of confidence—a physical charisma that radiates outward from him like a heat shimmer—that allows Nah’Shon to become Bizzy Bones.
The important thing about Bizzy Bones is that just about everybody likes to watch him play basketball; the important thing about Nah’Shon Hyland is that just about everybody likes him. Talk to enough people in his orbit and a common theme quickly emerges: he sparks joy.
“Coaching him was so much fun,” said Griffin. “He plays with a lot of joy. More than scoring, I think the source of his joy is setting up his teammates—making passes and getting everybody involved. Whenever Bones would pass to one of our good shooters, he’d be running back on defense with three fingers in the air before the shot even left the guy’s hand.”
Similarly, “I met him in 2017 or 2018,” said Jackson, “and I could tell that he’s different almost right away. There’s just something about his dedication and his leadership that draws people in.”
Beyond his immediate inner circle, Hyland shares a special bond with the city of Wilmington. In 2018, the city rallied around him in the aftermath of an unimaginable family tragedy (Hyland’s grandmother and little cousin died in a house fire that he managed to survive by jumping out of a window). “Nobody else can know what he’s been through,” said Jackson, “but it’s our responsibility to give him a space where he can feel understood.” In addition, a family friend set up a GoFundMe that raised over $23,000 from people all over the state who wanted to help Hyland’s family recover.
“The city has supported me and my family,” Hyland said. “Since it happened, I’ve felt like everybody really welcomed us with open arms and that people care about me and my family. Sometimes it feels like all of Wilmington is embracing us and giving us a hug. It’s really opened up the world for me and helped me realize the ways I can make a difference outside of basketball.”
Accordingly, Hyland puts on for Wilmington and Delaware, in ways both big and small. His left arm is a billboard for his hometown. Across the outside of his forearm, “WILMINGTON” is tattooed in unmissable block letters; keep looking along that same latitudinal place and TG4L—a tribute to Tressi Gang, the collective that he formed in high school—is visible on the side of his hand, a touch below the pinkie.
A portmanteau of tres (three) and si (yes), Tressi Gang is a testament to the snowball-effect of Hyland’s good vibes. What began as his friend group’s inside joke morphed into a larger collective of talented young players and then into a minor regional movement with a de facto theme song—the music video for “Tressi Bop” by local rapper Shizz Nitty has nearly 60,000 views on YouTube and features a dancing Bones Hyland.
“With Tressi Gang, we’re basically kinda putting our own style on three-pointers,” Hyland explained. “But bigger than that, we’re a bunch of kids from the inner city and we want to show people that there’s a road out of the streets and that you can go down it together.”
In a league full of players who have had any public-facing personality smoothed away by media-training and PR-speak, Hyland is refreshingly unpolished. He speaks eagerly and engagingly, punctuating most sentences with a laugh. Even when he dips into standard pro-athlete fare, he sounds genuine and thoughtful.
On his travel itinerary during the pre-draft process: “It’s actually been great, honestly. I’ve been flying all around—East Coast, Midwest, West Coast—and it’s fun to see all these cities I’ve never been to before.”
On his work-ethic: “When I take stepbacks and deep threes in a game, those aren’t out of the blue. At St. Georges and VCU, I’d get to practice early and stay late working on those moves and the coaches would see the effort I’m putting in and feel confident even when I’m taking tough shots.”
On his larger purpose: “I just want to put smiles on people’s faces and help them out in the best way because I know that the blessings will come around tenfold.”
We’re a bunch of kids from the inner city and we want to show people that there’s a road out of the streets and that you can go down it together.
Even during the stale, empty ritual of a post-draft press conference, Hyland brought energy. Whereas most prospects unconvincingly stumble through how they definitely grew up a lifelong Sacramento Kings fan, Hyland spoke with real enthusiasm. He talked about rapping for the Nuggets’ braintrust during his pre-draft interview; he discussed his fit with the roster and what he’ll add to their offense. He confessed: “I feel like I’m the real Bones though—all due respect to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. I’m the real Bones.”
Just as the Bizzy Bones/Nah’Shon dialectic has defined Hyland thus far, his ultimate NBA success will hinge on his ability to maintain his signature flair while scaling his usage to fit within the framework of his team. Viewed pessimistically, Hyland is stuck between traditional basketball archetypes: his frame (6’3” and only 170ish pounds) renders him too small to defend shooting guards, but his negative assist-to-turnover ratio at VCU makes it untenable for him to conduct an NBA offense. His shot-making and accuracy in a variety of contexts (pull-ups, stationary catch-and-shoots, off-ball movement shooting, etc.) may guarantee that he commands minutes, but it could be tricky to construct lineups to fit those minutes within.
“The shot-making is there,” said a member of a Power Five team’s coaching staff, “but the combination of his limitations as a passer and slight frame leave him without a natural position.”
Optimistically, Hyland defies myopic basketball conventions because he fits within a more modern conception of the sport. Players have become skilled in such diverse and sundry ways that basketball in 2021 has transcended the game’s original positional template. The idea of point guard-iness and how it’s in conflict with shooting guard-dom has largely faded into obsolescence, replaced by a broader understanding of how players can fit together on the court.
“To me, Bones is a combo guard, meaning that he’s equally capable playing on or off the ball,” said Rashad Phillips, a former pro player turned NBA Draft analyst and player development trainer. “The best situation for him is one where he’s given the freedom to play his game and be creative, but in ways that don’t pile too much responsibility on him right away.”
Appropriately, the Nuggets play with a peerless weirdness, led by Nikola Jokic, the reigning MVP and the goofiest great player in recent memory. Every NBA team’s offensive philosophy is built to some degree upon the concept of gravity, using their personnel to alternately force defenders to cling to shooters along the three-point or collapse to the paint; the Nuggets, alone, incorporate centripetal force. With Jokic as the slick-passing axle, the other four Nuggets orbit him, creating passing opportunities and disorienting defenses through this regulated chaos. This at once alleviates some of Hyland’s most glaring offensive weaknesses while presenting a new host of challenges: Jokic’s playmaking will scale down Hyland’s creation load and allow him to focus primarily on different ways to weaponize his jumper, but it will also require Hyland to adapt to a novel role without the ball.
“I think in a lot of ways this fit can be mutually beneficial,” said PD Web, the anonymous mayor of Draft Twitter and the director of research and development at Cerebro Sports. “The Nuggets get a shooter while he gets an easier volume of shots. It’s going to be really interesting to see how a guy can handle going from being a mega-on-ball, do-it-yourself creator to being a very good shooter who can leverage his gravity, while also maintaining those other skills.”
In this sense, the Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland Experience requires a kind of enlightened ambivalence, an ability to hold two separate, potentially conflicting ideas, simultaneously and without friction. To PD Web, Hyland’s success with the Nuggets could hinge on how easily he can adjust to subsisting on easier looks. To Rashad Phillips, he needs a structure where he can play free of structure. To Rod Griffin, Hyland is a conscious-free scorer who launches such outrageous shots that opposing coaches rage-quit scrimmages, yet who somehow finds greater delight in simple passes. To Thomas Jackson, it’s impossible for anybody to truly know Hyland and it’s his duty to try to understand him. But what image does Hyland want to project to the world?
“I want people to think I’m an enthusiastic, kind person,” said Nah’Shon Hyland, adding with a Bizzy Bones laugh, “but also that I’ll destroy them if I need to.”