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Know the Prospect: Tyrese Haliburton

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A strong, weird player.

Iowa State v Texas Photo by Chris Covatta/Getty Images

Good evening, fellow armchair scouts. I’m here to talk to you about the draft’s biggest oddball, Tyrese Haliburton! He is the 20-year-old sophomore guard from Oshkosh, Wisconsin and is 6’5”, with a wingspan around 6’8”, and 175 pounds. For 2 years at Iowa State he played both on and off ball, and was unquestionably the best player on both ends of the court for his team. Despite that, he was only the fifth-highest usage player on the team. Why? How? Read on, comrade!

Tyrese is famously interesting because of his tremendous statistics at all levels of play: high school, college, and for the USA FIBA U-18 team. Despite lacking any freakish athleticism, lacking a normal-looking jump shot, lacking normal lead guard ball-handling abilities, he has flat-out produced, full stop.

That unerring production causes some folks watching him to reduce the analysis to “the kid figures always it out, so pick him...and let him figure it out since he’s a safe pick” rather than nitpick at his flaws and quirks. Especially in a draft like this one where the consensus has consensed that most players in the top 10 are uninspiring, non-franchise altering talents. I would submit are that his flaws are actually very meaningful, and do in fact change his floor. But his strengths, at the same time, are pretty damn great. So where does that leave Knicks Fans? Let’s get into it!

DEFENSE

Team D/Help D/Scheme D

Hali is a tremendous help defender. His steal rate is 3.8% and his block rate is 2%, both great numbers for a guard, and backed up by the footage. He is very aware of what is occurring around him, and does a great job of digging down on driving ball-handlers and tagging cutters/roll men.

As a freshmen, his great hands and instincts would work against him and he’d sometimes sell out for help defense and leave his man open for backdoor cuts and wide open for kick-outs. That still happened as a sophomore but much less, which is a good sign. He’s still sometimes prone to being overly eager as a help defender but usually he walks the line well.

His pick-and-roll defense is OK (see below) — definitely less impressive especially compared to his team defense. This is where his so-so quickness and skinniness come into play — they snowball, and he gets hit hard by screens and takes odd angles to get back in the play. In the NBA, once he’s switched onto bigger guys it will like become a bigger problem too. It’s actually weird...when Elfrid Payton dies on screens, he DIES. Haliburton, on the other hand, just looks like he begins to move in molasses. The best way I can describe it is that he has very VERY below average ability to accelerate for an NBA guard on defense after taking contact, so even a little contact slows him up more than it should.

One-on-one Defense

Hali can at times be a pretty effective one-on-one defender, especially when he is defending smaller guards who can’t physically impose their will on him, which was often the case in college. His size and length at the 1 are a plus (not really the case when he’s playing the 2 though), and as you see in the clip below vs Kira Lewis Jr (who he outplayed in this game), he can for sure be effective one-on-one.

As mentioned earlier, some issues stem from physicality, and his problems with one-on-one defense in the NBA will come with stronger bigger players. He won’t be a tire fire or anything versus those players, but he’ll be fighting an uphill battle, especially if he has to play minutes next to a smaller guard (i.e. if he has to play the 2 — more on that later). He beat the odds once to go from 160 to 175-ish over the last year, and I think he has the frame to get to at least 200. That will help a little. He’ll need to be one of those lean guys who punches above his weight strength wise (like Frank), but with a narrower frame and higher center of gravity it might be hard. He’s probably a two-position defender in terms of switchability.

OFFENSE

Shooting

Hali is a GREAT catch and shoot sniper, with range way past the NBA 3. He’s been over 40% for over two years now — both guarded and unguarded — and his makes will often barely touch the rim at all. His form is kind of screwed up, and he does this thing where he has to take a quick step before shooting and barely uses his legs, but it works. A smart team will maximize this by letting him stand and space well beyond the three-point line when he’s off-ball.

On the other hand, he is pretty terrible off the bounce right now because of those mechanics. He shot 28% on off-the-dribble jumpers. He minimized the damage caused by his poor skill by just not taking many of them — only around 12% of his shots were jumpers off the bounce. As I mentioned earlier, he was fifth in his own team in usage despite being “The Man” because he would forego bad shots. His best bet is developing a good one-dribble jumper so he can at least utilize screens to shoot, even if it isn’t as accurate as his catch-and-shoot threes.

As you can see above, given some runway he’s not ground-bound — but on the whole, he is similar to RJ Barrett in that his hops don’t help him much outside of full-momentum cuts, transition, and oops. He uses his open court hops, his vision, and solid finishing to be a pretty good transition player.

Outside of transition, Hali is interesting around the rim. He shoots 64% around the rim in the halfcourt, but that number doesn’t mean much because the sample isn’t high. He never gets to the rim in the halfcourt — he only had 28 attempts at the rim the entire year. In two years, he only had two left-handed finishes. Here they are courtesy of Spencer Pearlman:

Even this shot he makes below is a gentle two-handed lay-in when nine out of 10 guys would bust out the left. I don’t know if it’s that he doesn’t have the handle or footwork or left-handed coordination but this guy is one of the more one-handed players I've seen around the rim.

Passing

Hali is a great passer, both in transition and in the halfcourt. He uses his height and vision well and is equally comfortable hitting the roll man with a gentle lob and with firing frozen ropes to open shooters. He even uses it to bail out his awkward, uncomfortable drives, firing passes to shooters while falling out of bound around the hoop at least once a game. He had an assist percentage of 35% which is a great number, despite his team being outlandishly bad at converting his potential assists.

The best, most useful description I can offer regarding his passing as an NBA player is this: He’s great at exploiting mistakes and he’s great at executing what he intends to execute.

In the NBA he’s not going to bend the defense often or cause defensive mistakes often compared to other guards — 1’s and 2’s alike — because of his mediocre handle and burst. If he is often receiving the ball against a bent defenses (which are more mistake prone) or against bench players (more mistake prone also) rather than initiating against starters, he might be able to actualize his potential as a passer.

Look at these assists (video courtesy of @esiddery): beautiful works of art, all manner of passes!

Handles/Creation

His biggest flaw aside from his off-the-dribble jumper is his mediocre handle and burst. His free-throw rate is historically bad for a point guard prospect in the lottery. It’s even worse when you consider his usage is low compared to most lottery PGs (or even wings), so the raw total of FTs is even worse: 71 free throws in 56 career games. He had fewer free throws per minute than Frank did in his rookie year, for comparison, despite playing against future HR managers.

Because of this, he would end up in some interesting sequences and created an interesting playing style to accommodate! He just simply doesn’t do what he isn’t good at. Quite an elegant solution! The question is, will those flaws be exposed more in the NBA. Will he be forced to do more self creation, more handling? Will we see more of this?

This is a pure ISO situation. If Hali is playing off of another creator then he won’t have to do this as much but recall how much Jamal Murray (on a good Nuggets team) or Cam Reddish (on a bad Hawks team) still has to try and create and penetrate despite playing next to high usage engines like Jokic and Young. There’s likely no way he can avoid this — the best bet is for him to call for picks in this scenario and try to take advantage of defenses who suck at pick-and-roll defense. But even then he still would be shooting off the dribble. This is why he might be better served as the third or fourth option on the court, like Lonzo on the Pelicans.

When the defenses prepare for him, you get a lot of this:

The good news: he was solid at floaters, at 45% this year. It’s still a risky way to make a living in the paint, of course. Even this make — fading away from the hoop — is probably something the defense takes:

In college, defenses are stupid. Rule of thumb. They depend on packing the paint and often don’t adjust plans player to player, even for stars. I will never forget Lonzo chasing De’Aron Fox over screens, for no reason, when they duked it out a few years back.

Watch the sequences below - this is the most important video in this whole article (video courtest of NBA Draft Junkie’s Rafael Barlowe :

In each of these, to varying degrees, the big doesn’t get too aggressive confronting Hali. They hang back — sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. In each one, his defender goes over the screen without being rushed much. This is going to be the book on him in the NBA when he’s using screens. And while that’s true of most guards in this class who are still proving they can shoot off the bounce, he’s the only one who just won’t for the most part. Merely getting over the screen ensures he won’t shoot a good shot off the dribble since you don’t have to contest an off the dribble 3 — you merely have to get him to go inside the arc.

What does this mean for him as a potential Knick?

Like I have hinted, him playing off another real initiator alleviates the pressure on him to score off the dribble — even though he still has to be able to do that better no matter what. “Ball mover” PGs who we think of as engines often still have the ability/experience of being penetrating guards. Pat Beverley’s free throw rate in college was over double Tyrese Haliburton’s. George Hill got to the line eight times a game in college.

Another initiator or two means Hali can focus on probing after ball rotations, and on spotting mistakes and exploiting them with his passing and with straight-line drives to the hoop. The Knicks, despite what RJ’s most ardent fans think, do not have that player yet. RJ literally played point guard to begin the year in case we erased that Fizperiment from our memory, but his ability to use up possessions and his ability to pass well when he is outside the arc should not be conflated with being able to run an offense or reliably create for others from scratch. Forcing either of them to do those things diminishes their efficiency and value significantly. Like he was in college, Hali’s best role is as a third, fourth or even fifth highest-usage jack knife carving up moving defenses.

Now, if you really love Haliburton’s game and insist his floor isn’t a skinny Kyle Anderson, the way to do it is as a 2 guard/combo guard. Sure he won’t have an off-the-bounce game that is impressive, but he has plenty of other skills that work at the 2 on offense. If the Knicks signed a Fred VanVleet or even a Goran Dragic or Reggie Jackson type, slid Hali in at the 2, and RJB at the 3, you’d be looking at spacing from the 1 and 2 and passing from 1 through 3.

There are two downsides to that though:

  1. If you’re looking for a 2, Devin Vassell is bigger and better at everything but passing and is also the best defender in the draft, and...
  2. The less time Hali spends defending PGs means the more time he spends defending larger, stronger wings who would give him more trouble.

On the whole, I’d still take him as a 2/combo than as a guy cast as an engine-type point guard. It’s not unlike the situation Lonzo finds himself in on the Pelicans where at any given moment 2 of Jrue, Zion, and Ingram are on the court and alleviating his weakness at halfcourt creation off the bounce. Unless you have a crystal ball and know that Leon Rose is gonna luck into Cade Cunningham the year after, I would likely pass on Haliburton, even if the Knicks are picking even at 8 or 9.