Tyrese Haliburton knows how it feels to be undervalued. Coming out of Wisconsin’s Oshkosh North High School, Haliburton suffered from a serious lack of exposure largely because his grassroots club (Wisconsin United) operated independent of the high-profile shoe company circuits that attract the country’s top college coaches. He was a considered a mid-major recruit and a strong lean toward Northern Iowa until Steve Prohm extended him a scholarship to play at Iowa State the summer going into his senior year.
Even after earning Gatorade Player of the Year in Wisconsin (over a field that included Tyler Herro) and leading his team to a state championship in his final high school season, Haliburton arrived in Ames outside of the top-150 recruiting rankings. He was the third highest-rated prospect on his own team in a Cyclones class that also included Talen Horton-Tucker. Recruits like Haliburton aren’t supposed to break into the starting lineup immediately, rewrite the program’s record books, and leave school early to become an NBA lottery pick, but that’s exactly what he did
When he declared for the draft, Haliburton was projected by many as a top-five pick. He ended up slipping all the way to the Sacramento Kings at No. 12 on draft night. While there were legitimate concerns about Haliburton’s long-term ceiling as a top pick, the fit with the Kings always felt like a nearly perfect match. He’s already showing why only a few games into his rookie season.
Haliburton was the breakout star of the Kings’ 125-115 upset win over the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. He’s proving the unique skill set he flashed at Iowa State can translate seamlessly to the NBA while the roster construction around him can cover up some of his own shortcomings. This is what’s making Haliburton one of the league’s best looking rookies early in the season.
Haliburton is a role player who fills every gap
The knock on Haliburton coming out of college was that he couldn’t put pressure on the rim as a lead ball handler. Haliburton posted on a lowly 18 percent free throw rate as a sophomore at Iowa State and rarely showed an ability to finish over length in the paint. If Haliburton didn’t project as the lead engine of an offense because of his struggles to breakdown the defense off the dribble, it’s his ancillary skills that made him an ideal complementary piece.
Haliburton has a few things going for him as a playmaker: he makes remarkably quick decisions as a passer, has the vision to see teammates all over the court, and has a historic ability to avoid mistakes. While he won’t often collapse the defense with his dribble penetration, his ability to move the ball quickly from side-to-side is something every good offense needs. It’s already paying off for the Kings.
Kings go back to the same set, this time Haliburton comes off, draws the defense in, sees Bol Bol overhelping and hits Bjelica for an open 3. pic.twitter.com/d3Nf80x1Ea
— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) December 30, 2020
Through four games, Haliburton has 21 assists to three turnovers. One of those turnovers came at the end of the win over the Nuggets when teammate Buddy Hield passed him the ball at the end of the shot clock so the rookie would register the turnover. That’s a continuation of what he showed at Iowa State, when he was second in the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio as a sophomore and second in the country in the same stat as a freshman.
Haliburton also has a knack for making plays on defense despite a thin 175-pound frame that makes him one of the lightest players in the league. Haliburton posted a sky-high steal rate of 3.8 percent as a sophomore at Iowa State by using the same instincts and anticipation that makes him such a good passer on offense. He had three steals in the win over Denver by putting himself in the right place at the right time.
If he continues to hold up defensively early in his career, it’s going to be hard for the Kings to keep him off the court given everything he brings offensively.
Haliburton is a great spot-up shooter with deep range
Haliburton has an unorthodox release on his jump shot, but it’s impossible to argue with the results. He hit 43.4 percent of his threes as a freshman on 113 attempts, and made 41.9 percent of his threes as a sophomore on 124 attempts.
Haliburton isn’t going to burn the defense from deep after running around screens like JJ Redick, but he’s a great shooter from a standstill. He finished in the 98th percentile of spot-up opportunities last season at Iowa State, scoring 1.49 points per possession on such play types.
Does he have the range to hit from the NBA line? Oh yes, he does.
After hitting 3-of-4 threes against Denver, Haliburton has started his career 8-of-16 from three. Following the win over the Nuggets, Hali had a message for critics who questioned his jump shot heading into the NBA.
They said the jumper wouldn’t translate
— Tyrese Haliburton (@TyHaliburton22) December 30, 2020
Haliburton is also going to be a reliable free throw shooter even if he isn’t getting to the line much. After making 82.2 percent of his free throws as a sophomore at ISU, he’s started his pro career 6-for-6 from the charity stripe.
Haliburton found a perfect match with the Kings
It’s easy to see Haliburton’s early season performance and think of him as the steal of the draft. He’s been perhaps the most impressive rookie through the first week of the new season, but the reality is he couldn’t have landed in a better situation than Sacramento.
While Haliburton has been considered a point guard since entering college, his game is at his best when he’s not the primary initiator of the offense. The best case for scenario for Haliburton’s development was always going to be playing next to an aggressive downhill attacker in the backcourt. That’s why De’Aaron Fox is such a nice complement to his game, and vice versa.
Fox is at his best using his speed to get into the teeth of the defense, forcing help defenders to rotate to the rim, and getting to the foul line. Haliburton has an opposite skill set: he’s a ball mover and spot-up shooter on offense who is always going to make the right play rather than forcing his own look. Both have made each other’s lives easier early in the season: Fox has scored 20 points or more in three of the Kings’ four games, and Haliburton is generating early Rookie of the Year hype. This is what a mutually beneficial on-court relationship looks like.
Would Haliburton look this good if he was taken by, say, the Knicks and asked to run a steady of diet of pick-and-rolls with high usage? While he’s certainly smart enough and skilled enough to find some level of success in any situation, the roster around him with the Kings does a wonderful job of accentuating what he’s good at while not asking him to go outside his comfort zone.
Whether Haliburton has All-Star upside remains to be seen, but it sure feels like the Kings found themselves a winning player with the No. 12 pick in the draft. A player who has consistently exceeded expectations since he entered the basketball consciousness is doing it again.