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The NBA Draft’s Most Polarizing Prospect Is a Walking Analytics Experiment

Tyrese Haliburton doesn’t jump out of the gym nor do his stats jump off the page, but the Iowa State sophomore might be college basketball’s best-kept secret

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Tyrese Haliburton didn’t know what to expect when he arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs this summer. The Iowa State sophomore was one of 32 players competing for a spot on the 19-and-under World Cup team. Most of his new teammates were elite high school recruits who had been making trips to the sprawling campus in the Rocky Mountains for years. Haliburton was taking it all in for the first time.

“I think [the experience] was big for me. Getting to play with all those top high school kids. Those kids ooze confidence,” Haliburton said.

No one was talking about Haliburton at this time a year ago. He was a three-star recruit from rural Wisconsin who had never been outside the United States. There was no recruiting battle for his services. The only other schools from major conferences to even offer him a scholarship were Nebraska, Minnesota, and Cincinnati. His own mother thought he would redshirt once he got to Iowa State.

“I would tell her, ‘I’m going to play this year.’ Me and [Cyclones] Coach [Steve] Prohm never discussed redshirting. It was just friends and family and critics,” he said. “She didn’t really believe me. She was like, ‘OK we’ll see.’”

Haliburton, who turned 19 in February, is a late bloomer who still very much looks like a high-schooler. At 6-foot-5 and 175 pounds, he struggles to add weight to his slender frame. He’s a good athlete with long arms, but he doesn’t jump out of the gym and his per-game averages last season (6.8 points on 51.5 percent shooting, 3.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.5 steals, and 0.9 blocks) don’t jump off the page. It takes some digging to see why he earned an invitation to Colorado Springs. Haliburton was the sixth-leading scorer on his own team last season, playing in the shadow of two future NBA second-round draft picks—Marial Shayok and Talen Horton-Tucker.

“Last year, as [NBA] people came in to watch us play ... he was the one constant that they talked to me about,” said Prohm. “Not necessarily to come out of school last year but to say this one has a chance to be special one day.”

Haliburton is the poster child for the type of player who might have slipped through the cracks a generation ago. The advanced numbers tell a very different story about him than his relatively pedestrian traditional stats. Calling him “undervalued” only scratches the surface. He might have been one of the most valuable players in the country last season. The analytical model developed by ESPN’s Kevin Pelton rated Haliburton as the no. 6 prospect in college basketball last season, and the no. 2 prospect this year, behind only UNC freshman Cole Anthony.

What the model picked up were all the things Haliburton didn’t do on the floor. He rarely missed shots or turned the ball over: He shot 68.5 percent on 2-point field goals and 43.4 percent on 3s and had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 4.5-to-1. A player like that supercharges an offense by spacing the floor and keeping the ball moving, allowing everyone around him to thrive.

Haliburton would have been incredibly valuable for his offensive contributions alone. But he was also a great defender, with an elite steal rate (2.7 percent) and block rate (2.8 percent) for a perimeter player.

The result was a quietly historic season. There is no one else in the Sports-Reference database, which goes back to 1992-93, with a season that combines his offensive efficiency with his defensive numbers. Haliburton is the rare teenager who can dominate a game while rarely touching the ball.

“The day he had 17 assists [a 101-62 win over Southern last December] he was never the dominant ball handler. He was a secondary ball handler. That makes him the perfect fit at the pro level. … It’s about being efficient. It’s a numbers game now,” said Bryan Johnikin, who trains Haliburton and was his AAU coach in high school. “His numbers really are silly. I don’t know what else you want him to do. Even if he had come out last year, his numbers were stupid. They bring up numbers for certain people and the rest is stargazing.”

But for all the ways that analytics have changed the game, one of the most interesting things about them is how often they reinforce what coaches already believe. Prohm understood Haliburton’s value, making him sixth among all freshmen in Power Five conferences in minutes played per game. It was the same story for Kansas State coach Bruce Weber, who faced Haliburton three times last season in the Big 12 and then coached him at the U19 World Cup in Greece.

“He told me I was going to have to be a leader being the oldest guy on the team. Just be who I am and play basketball the right way,” said Haliburton.

The tournament was a coming-out party for the point guard, who beat out more highly touted players in training camp and then directed the offense on a team loaded with future lottery picks. He led Team USA to a 7-0 record and a gold medal and was one of two Americans, along with Mississippi State sophomore Reggie Perry, named to the All-Tournament team.

Haliburton’s individual numbers for Team USA this summer wouldn’t surprise anyone who followed him at Iowa State. He was ninth on the team in scoring (7.9 points per game), but was first in 2-point percentage (85.0), 3-point percentage (55.0), minutes (24.7), assists (6.9), and assist-to-turnover ratio (6.9-to-1); second in steals (2.3); and fourth in blocks (0.7).

FIBA has comprehensive stats for every U19 World Cup, which is typically played every two years, going back to 1995. Future NBA stars like Klay Thompson, Jayson Tatum, and Aaron Gordon have played in the tournament. None shot as well as Haliburton. He’s the third most efficient player in its history, behind Pelicans big man Jahlil Okafor (2013) and Clippers center Ivica Zubac (2015). They were physically dominant big men who towered over teenage defenders. Haliburton, a 6-foot-5 guard, is the only player under 6-foot-8 to shoot higher than 61 percent from the field in more than a decade.

“He’s going to be one of the most controversial prospects in this year’s draft,” one NBA executive told me. “Not because people don’t know what he can do but because they don’t know how to value it.”

Before each season, Prohm brings every Iowa State player into his office at the practice facility in Ames to discuss their role. His meeting with Haliburton was a little different. Prohm usually tries to sell his players on shooting less. He wanted his star point guard to shoot more. The Cyclones, after losing their top three scorers from last season to either graduation or the NBA, needed more offense from their best player.

“I told him I never want to change who he is at heart. Obviously he’s a pass-first guy. That’s just who he is. It’s in his DNA,” said Prohm. “But there are opportunities that he had last year to score that he needs to be more aggressive with this year.”

The way Prohm is trying to change Haliburton’s game points back to one of the oldest debates in analytics. There is usually an inverse relationship between usage and efficiency. The more an average player has to create offense, the less effective he is at it. What separates the best players is their ability to combine a high usage level with efficiency. Haliburton was on the opposite end of the spectrum last season: a player who rarely shot but was incredibly successful when he did. He had one of the lowest usage rates (9.2) and highest true shooting percentages (66.6) of any starter in the country.

Pelton said it’s “incredibly unusual” to see a player of Haliburton’s ilk with a sub-10 usage. “Usually a guy like that will be a big man who starts and plays 15 minutes a game. A token starter. This was someone who played 33 minutes per game.”

Haliburton was essentially a walking science experiment as a freshman, taking an analytically friendly playing style to its logical extreme. Shayok and Horton-Tucker, his more high-profile teammates, had more traditional NCAA statistical profiles for an NBA prospect. They weren’t as efficient as Haliburton, with true shooting percentages of 61.2 and 48.8, respectively, but they were also in ball-dominant offensive roles, with usage rates of 28.2 and 26.2.

“Early in high school all I did was pass the ball, too, and eventually I had to become a scorer. It’s just situations and knowing when is the best time to get other people involved and when to get yourself involved,” said Haliburton. “People call me a pass-first point guard, which is cool. But I feel like I can score as well. It’s just knowing where I am.”

Turning him into more of a scorer has been a work in progress for Iowa State, which has a 3-1 record this season headed into the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament, which they open against Michigan on Wednesday. The sample size is too small to draw any conclusions, but the trend lines are interesting. Haliburton is scoring more than last season (10.8 points on 47.1 percent shooting) while passing as well as anyone in the country (10.3 assists and 1.8 turnovers) and filling out the stat sheet (4.8 rebounds and 3.5 steals). But his usage rate is still only 15.9, and his true shooting percentage has dropped to 56.2.

Their lone loss, an 80-74 defeat at Oregon State, was the perfect example of the balancing act that Haliburton has to walk. His stat line looked great—15 points on 6-of-11 shooting and 12 assists with zero turnovers—but almost all of his offense came in the second half.

“I was kind of frustrated at myself at halftime just because I probably only took one shot,” Haliburton told the media after the game. “I’ve got to be more aggressive for us to be successful during the year, so I knew in the second half I was going to have to come out and be aggressive.”

Go through his film this season and you will still see a lot of plays where Haliburton passes up an open shot to set up someone else:

What NBA scouts will be watching closely are the types of shots he does take. Most of his offense came on spot-up jumpers last season, and there’s a lot of debate about how his unorthodox form can translate to more difficult attempts. He currently deploys a set shot that he releases in front of his face:

There isn’t much data to judge Haliburton on. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he has taken 19 off-the-dribble jumpers in 46 games at Iowa State and the U19 World Cup in the past two seasons. And while free throw shooting is typically one of the best indicators of a player’s underlying shot mechanics, those numbers don’t yield much information, either. Haliburton has taken only 35 free throws in the past two seasons. The question is whether his lack of aggressiveness is because he doesn’t want to take more shots—or because he can’t.

The comparison for Haliburton that I’ve heard most from NBA people is Lonzo Ball, and there are a lot of similarities between the two. They are both supersized pass-first point guards with high basketball IQs and elite defensive ability but only average athleticism at the next level. Lonzo, like Haliburton, was an incredibly efficient offensive player in college who broke the analytical models despite an odd-looking jumper. But that jumper ended up holding him back so much in his first two seasons in the NBA that he rebuilt it from the ground up this summer. Haliburton, for his part, is not fazed by the idea of tweaking his mechanics.

“If you think my shot now is ugly, my shot when I first got to high school started at my knees,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t really care what people say about my shot as long as it’s going in. I know I’m going to have to alter it. I’m altering it right now just because it’s going to be tougher with being guarded more. But this is how I’ve hooped my whole life. And it’s been working. It’s just now about repetition and putting time into it.”

Bryan Johnikin took one look at his new player’s jumper and knew he had no time to waste. Haliburton was a promising ninth-grader who had joined Wisconsin United, the AAU program that Johnikin worked with, the year before. Johnikin had been active in the youth basketball scene in the Milwaukee area for more than 30 years, coaching future NBA players like Devin Harris and Deonte Burton. He recognized that for Haliburton to have a future in basketball, his pupil would have to change his shot.

The two spent countless hours in the gym together during the next year, rebuilding the teen’s shot from the ground up. They started with the George Mikan drill, the classic shooting exercise made famous by the first great big man in basketball history. Haliburton would drive one and a half hours each way from Oshkosh to Milwaukee just to stand under the basket and alternate between left- and right-handed layups.

“It’s really not about shooting jumpers. It’s about shooting correct shots. The only time you ever shoot the ball correctly when you are little is when you are shooting a layup. You have the ball over your head and your elbow over your eye. So we did the Mikan drill a lot,” said Johnikin. “I never count chickens before they hatch. … But he showed me in the 10th-grade year the work ethic that could get him [to the NBA].”

The hard work paid off and Haliburton became one of the best players on Wisconsin United. That was when he was faced with a pivotal decision that would shape his career. The program was not affiliated with any of the three shoe companies—Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour—that dominate the AAU game. A player who doesn’t compete on one of those circuits might as well be invisible to the national recruiting services. Nonetheless, Haliburton stayed put, showing loyalty to the program that helped make him. He led Oshkosh North High School to its first state title in school history as a senior—but it barely made a splash. Reputations are made on the summer shoe circuits.

“I almost forced him to go onto a shoe circuit. We lost five kids. And [Haliburton] was like, ‘Bryan, you taught me everything.’ He wasn’t going to leave. And I couldn’t believe it. But he wasn’t going to leave,” Johnikin told me, still sounding a little incredulous all these years later.

Miami Heat rookie Tyler Herro, who was taken in the lottery after one season at Kentucky, was one of those five. Haliburton and Herro played together in middle school, but Herro left Wisconsin United to become one of the most high-profile recruits in the nation. The two competed for the Mr. Basketball award in Wisconsin, even though Herro was playing in All-Star games and Haliburton was a virtual unknown outside the state.

“I value relationships more than anything in this world. Coach Johnikin and the DeBakker family [the directors of Wisconsin United] put so much time in me that there’s no way that I could leave them high and dry and leave that program and not follow through with it,” said Haliburton.

It all worked out in the end for Haliburton, who has found a home at Iowa State. His fate at the next level, though, is still up in the air. He’s unlikely to slip out of the first round, but even some of the analytics staffers that I’ve talked to in NBA front offices want to see what he does in a bigger role on offense in college before putting him in the lottery.

Just like LaMelo Ball, another prospect who has been compared to his brother Lonzo, Haliburton’s ceiling at the next level will depend on his jumper. If he can make 3s behind the deeper NBA 3-point line, his all-around game and basketball IQ will help any team, whether he is running an offense or playing off the ball.

The best description I’ve heard for him is a “super role player.” In other words, he can be more valuable within a smaller role on offense than the vast majority of players. The best players in the NBA all need the ball. Haliburton is one of the rare guys who can be great without it. A player like that makes everyone around him better. It has been that way his entire life. That won’t change once he gets to the league.

“I think he’s just got a pure heart. If I had to focus on one thing, I could tell you a lot about his basketball IQ, his ability to make shots, his character. But I think he just has a pure heart,” said Prohm. “He’s just a giver. A confidence giver. An assist giver. He makes people better.”

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