NBA Draft: Tyrese Haliburton is a safe pick, but might lack superstar potential

NBA Draft prospect Tyrese Haliburton (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
NBA Draft prospect Tyrese Haliburton (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

Tyrese Haliburton is a lock to be a top pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, but he lacks star potential

Has Wisconsin suddenly become a prospect pipeline? Tyler Herro – one of the breakout stories of the NBA Orlando bubble – was the highest-ranked recruit from the Badger State since the disappointing duet of Diamond Stone/Henry Ellenson, and as we know spurned the Red and White for Coach Cal and Worldwide Wes (and fill in your own blank…).

Though coming with far less fanfare, a three-star Iowa State commit in the very same graduating class was actually named Mr. Basketball in Wisconsin over Herro. That player? Tyrese Haliburton. Haliburton, long an analytics darling since making a shocking appearance in the top-ten of Kevin Pelton’s draft model in 2019, fills up the stat-sheet at nearly-unprecedented levels.

Since 1993, only two players (Jason Kidd in 1994 and Eddie Gill in 2000) have matched his sophomore season per-game averages of 15.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, and 2.5 steals.

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Haliburton shot 62.1 percent on 2-pointers and 42.6 percent from deep in his two years at Iowa State, which no qualified NCAA player has ever done for their career. So how will Tyrese Haliburton make use of this incredibly unique portfolio in the NBA?

Despite his statistical brilliance, the Cyclones did not sport a particularly inspired offense. They averaged (an adjusted) 109.3 points per possession, ranking 39th out of 87 high major schools. The team managed a solid, yet unspectacular 108.3 offensive rating in the 10 conference games that Haliburton suited up for.

At the same time, you can look at the fact that Iowa State lost four of their five top scorers from 2019 (Talen Horton-Tucker and Marial Shayok to the NBA, Lindell Wigginton and Nick Weiler-Babb to other professional leagues) and played nearly exclusively with two traditional bigs/non-spacers on the floor this year. They went 2-8 when Haliburton was sidelined with a wrist injury, including an embarrassing home loss to Florida A&M.

But the former points raise some valid concerns. After a minuscule, P.J. Tucker-like usage of 9.2 percent as a freshman, Haliburton underwent a drastic build-up to… 20.1 percent. The chase for efficiency is admirable, but part of being alpha/main offensive engine is generating buckets when nobody else can – even if it results in a stat line that isn’t always clean and sparkly. Something is clearly amiss when the shooting numbers for a team look like this, which begs the question: Is Tyrese Haliburton inherently too unselfish, or is he merely incapable of soaking up a greater burden?

To answer that, I don’t envision Tyrese succeeding in a primary, on-ball role in the NBA. He just has too many limitations that impair his ability to create shots versus a set defense. Because of his unconventional shooting form, defenses are likely going to slide under screens in pick-and-roll – Haliburton made just eight non-assisted threes on the season and ranked in the 37th percentile (0.684 points per possession) on jumpers off the dribble overall. Haliburton is clever about dancing around re-screens, but this strategy still constrained Iowa State in the halfcourt.

Even against different types of coverages, Tyrese didn’t pose enough of a threat. His lack of burst and upright posture allows defenders to pressure up and keep attached to his hip through screens, often without much effort. You don’t see him turn the corner consistently against hard hedges. Haliburton is extremely limited as a ball-handler, rarely piecing together any dribble combinations or utilizing anything more than quick crossovers (mostly to reject screens) or an occasional hesitation.

It’s almost as if he’s trying to dribble through a minefield with oven mitts on. As left-hand dominant as Killian Hayes is, Haliburton may actually be more extreme in terms of one-handedness – to counteract this he’ll usually either go to a two-handed jump pass or kill the dribble and turn back right (the wrist injury, which appeared to dog him for much of the season, may have factored into this).

Loopers like this are getting no-fly zone’d at the next level. He’s an expert at the pocket bouncer, but NBA defenses are always going to play him to pass first. (I’ll never understand why college teams didn’t – a few games he’d go entire halves without scoring).

These athleticism and handle deficiencies stifle Haliburton’s ability to attack even the more plodding NCAA centers –  he attempted just 28 field-goals at the rim (non-transition/put-backs) and 45 free throws total for the entire season. And on plays where he did try to push the envelope, his subpar explosiveness and contact eversion were brought to the forefront.

At least Tyrese combats this with excellent touch and a silky floater game, quelling the fear that he’ll shoot a Lonzo Ball-ian percentage from inside-the-arc. Switching defenses exposed his non-existent space-creation tactics in one-on-one isolations.

The good news is that Haliburton is a highly scalable player, meaning that he’ll be extremely valuable in a secondary/tertiary role for a contender (as long as he’s never ever asked to create his own shot). He’s a near-genius play-maker, even with underwhelming dynamism and a poor situation (flawed spacing, talent disadvantage) he still picked teams apart.

He holds off the tagger with his eyes until the last possible second. He’ll regularly toy with defenders on his signature jump passes. Put Tyrese in an off-ball role (like on Team USA in the 2019 FIBA U-19s) and his special spatial awareness/pattern recognition gifts will shine. It’s difficult for our brains to grasp the value of certain things in basketball – not ball-stopping (and letting precious seconds dwindle off the shot clock), not turning the ball over, not killing a possession by an inopportune cut.

Haliburton has this sort of latent impact on offense – with his instantaneous decision-making and hit-ahead transition passes, are we sure that he’s not a long-lost Ball brother? There’s even the…interesting…shooting mechanics as well.

There are no two ways about it: Tyrese Haliburton’s form is really weird. I can definitely imagine it scares some people off. It’s an old-school set-shot where he brings the ball in front of his head and taps his feet close together. He’ll often get side-spin on it as opposed to the desired tight back-spin. I’m still a believer in Haliburton as a 40 percent guy going forward. The numbers have always been stellar (over 80% from the foul line across all levels) and he doesn’t hesitate over heavy contests or even on the move.

While I’m less sanguine about Haliburton as an off-the-dribble shooter, it wouldn’t surprise me if he morphed into an Eric Gordon-style bomber from 30-feet. But as we’ve seen time and time again, respect in shot-up situations is just as much about form and release time as it is raw percentages. Will Tyrese carry off-ball gravity in the NBA? Who knows, but it’s possible that this eats into his overall offensive value.

Defensively, Haliburton doesn’t guard anyone. That’s not to say that he can’t , but there really isn’t a whole lot to glean from his college film. Iowa State nearly always hid him on the other team’s least-threatening perimeter player, where he’d use his length and intelligence as a free safety on the back-side. Tyrese’s effort here actually disappointed me a bit (how much of this can be attributed to the toll from the minutes/ball-handling load, the wrist injury, the overall ineptitude of the rest of the team?), as his rotations were spotty and he generally wanted no part of scrapping with big men.

On-ball, Haliburton has the size and reasonably quick feet, and he’s excellent at deflecting passes through timing/anticipation. But his approach (playing off and giving ground, using length to contest) only worked because NCAA players are bad. You can’t just simply mirror NBA ball-handlers and hope they won’t notice like Sgt. Al Powell in Die Hard. A major element of defense is making your opponent feel you, and it’s fair to wonder if Tyrese has the strength or intensity for that.

Since he isn’t going to be a lead guy, Haliburton’s role on defense becomes much more critical for his NBA career. The hope is that he’ll develop into a somewhat adequate option against non-star guards and wings with his size and instincts. Switching onto bigger forwards and centers likely won’t ever be in the cards, however, even after he puts on weight to his slender frame. Haliburton will surely add some value on the weak-side, but overall I see him as around a neutral or slight-negative defensive player – and one who doesn’t fit in a wide variety of schemes.

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Even in a weak draft, it’d be tough to justify selecting Tyrese above the 7-10 range – unless the team is already a ready-made title hopeful (*cough*Warriors*cough*). I project Tyrese Haliburton as a solid fourth/fifth starter in the league, without much star/bust potential in either direction. Perhaps he has some sort of bizarro upside that we can’t foresee – just because his game is so unorthodox and his skills are additive to an offense – but I wouldn’t get my hopes up.