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“I Take Everything in My Life As Motivation”

Tyrese Haliburton was surprised by his fall in the 2020 draft, but proving people wrong has become a necessary step in every part of his basketball career. Now the Rookie of the Year contender is hoping to change the perception of a Kings franchise that will miss the playoffs for a 15th straight year.

Cody Pearson

Tyrese Haliburton is still triggered by the 2020 draft. Reminded of the 11 selections made ahead of him in mid-November, the competitive streak that got him out of Wisconsin and turned him into an All-Big 12 at Iowa State emerges.

First came the Timberwolves, who chose Anthony Edwards at no. 1. No big surprise.

Then James Wiseman to the Warriors.

“I think they liked me,” Haliburton says. “Obviously, I felt like that I’d be a good fit there. But I mean, they need a big, and James is obviously a hell of a player. That was the right pick for that.”

The Hornets took LaMelo Ball, and the Bulls selected Patrick Williams.

“I knew pretty much the day before that they were picking Pat,” he says.

He remained calm until the no. 8 pick, when the Knicks selected Obi Toppin. Haliburton doesn’t want to shade Toppin, but he was flabbergasted New York didn’t pick him.

“There was definitely some added [motivation] there,” he says.

Three more players would come off the board before Haliburton, a projected top-eight or -nine pick entering the night, was finally selected by the Sacramento Kings at no. 12. His fall in what was then considered a weak class was surprising enough that rumors circulated afterward that he might have forced his way to Sacramento, though he recently debunked those claims.

The truth is the slide was a familiar story. Every step of the way, Haliburton has had to work to prove just how good he can be. First, in the AAU scene in Wisconsin, playing in the shadow of Tyler Herro’s more flashy game. Then in high school and college, when scouts would question his shot or wouldn’t come to see him play. He once even used his parents’ unwillingness to buy him Jordans as motivation to pay for them himself.

“My mom, she’s a clearance shopper. She gets deals,” he says. “She says, ‘I’m not paying for Jordans all the time.’ So I was like, ‘OK, then I just ref to make money and then I can pay.’”

Haliburton’s rookie season ended abruptly this week because of a left knee injury; an MRI showed no ligament damage, the Kings announced, but he will be held out of their last seven games. The extended absence likely ends any hopes of a late push to the front of the Rookie of the Year conversation, but Haliburton has set his sights higher: changing the reputation of the Kings.

“I feel like I use everything as a chip on my shoulder,” he says, speaking by phone earlier this season. “I take everything in my life as motivation. I want to prove other people wrong, but I want to prove myself right.”

Milwaukee Bucks v Sacramento Kings
Tyrese Haliburton celebrates during an April 3, 2021, home game against the Milwaukee Bucks
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The game came easier to Tyler Herro. By his freshman year of high school, the Milwaukee native already had offers from Creighton, DePaul, Wisconsin–Green Bay, and Milwaukee. Haliburton, from Oshkosh, about 90 miles north of Milwaukee, was more of a work-in-progress. He was rangy and athletic in middle school, but still wasn’t strong enough to start his shot above his knees.

“To be honest,” Herro says, “Tyrese was a late bloomer.”

But the raw talent was there, which is why Herro and his father Chris recruited Haliburton to play for their middle-school AAU team, the Wisconsin Playground Warriors. Soon, they would see his drive, too.

One summer at a national tournament, when Herro and Haliburon were in seventh grade, the Playground Warriors packed into a hotel room and circled around a game console to watch the two future lottery picks play NBA 2K. Herro won and Haliburton fumed. Following the game, the team prepared to head to the gym to scout an upcoming opponent. Except Haliburton opted to stay behind.

“Tyrese was like, ‘No, I’m not going,’” Herro says. “And we’re like, ‘Why not?’ He was pissed. And he was like, ‘I’m staying back. And I’m going to practice 2K.’”

After a few hours, the boys trickled back into the room where Haliburton was stewing. The next game, he exacted virtual revenge.

“He won, for sure,” Herro says with a chuckle.

Haliburton kept improving, but in eighth grade, the Playground Warriors recruited Jordan McCabe, a 6-foot point guard who would eventually win Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball award over both Herro and Haliburton. McCabe’s game was refined, and he was considered a top prospect heading to high school. In other words, he was everything Haliburton was not. Haliburton could’ve stayed on the team alongside McCabe, but he would have been relegated to a bench role.

“I figured he would leave,” Herro says. “We were all young, but we all were alpha dogs at a young age. That really felt that we were the man in the state. And he just wanted to probably just play, play for our own teams and really be able to have our own teams and do what we want.”

Haliburton had options—most of which were backed by big shoe companies and had the notoriety to draw attention from Division I programs. Herro himself ended up staying with one of them, Wisconsin Playground EYBL. But Haliburton chose a different path, playing instead for Wisconsin United.

Haliburton was good—he would go on to win Wisconsin Gatorade Player of the Year at Oshkosh North High School. Still, he wasn’t getting much interest outside of mid-major college programs.

Neill Berry, then an Iowa State assistant, remembers seeing Haliburton for the first time at a tournament in Atlanta when the prospect was a sophomore. Haliburton was about 150 pounds, Berry recalled; lanky and young. But you could see the rough outline of the player he’d become: the smile, the flashiness, the competitiveness. Barry scribbled his name down as a guy to watch.

“He always just had an infectious personality and unbelievable spirit, and he brought joy to the floor every time,” Berry says. “So we kept tabs with him.”

Film of Haliburton was tough to come by because he didn’t play for a shoe-sponsored AAU team. There was also the issue of his shot.

Players are taught to shoot above their heads for better accuracy—Klay Thompson’s picture-perfect form being the prime example. But Haliburton wasn’t strong enough to start with the ball above his knees, let alone in the shooter’s pocket. When Haliburton was a freshman at Oshkosh North, head coach Brad Weber would put a broom on his stomach so he wouldn’t bring the ball so low. The practice continued into his sophomore year, much to Haliburton’s chagrin.

“He had me crying and stuff at practice,” Haliburton says. “But again, it’s exactly what I needed in my life at the time.”

Haliburton’s shot has never been pretty—sometimes there’s a hitch; other times, he’ll execute a formulaic set jumper—but it was good enough one day in Las Vegas to seal a scholarship from Iowa State. (The push shot is still around, even now that he’s in the NBA.)

Haliburton was ready for an offer, but the Cyclones staff needed to see him in person one more time, at the famed Fab 48 tournament. Berry couldn’t make the tournament, so he asked head coach Steve Prohm to go to see for himself.

“I think it was probably still in the first quarter, but he made about a second 3 and he pulled up from real deep,” Prohm recalls. “That was just like, ‘All right, we got to have him. There are no questions about it. ... This is our guy.’”

Haliburton verbally committed a month later. And though his freshman stats were modest in comparison to those of teammates like Marial Shayok and Talen Horton-Tucker, both second-round picks in 2019, he once again managed to leave an impression on anyone looking close enough.

After a standout performance from Haliburton at the Maui Invitational, including a nine-point, eight-rebound game against San Diego State, Prohm recalled a scout saying to him, “Hey, you got a really good team. You got a lot of good pieces and you’ve got some guys that are going to go on and play in the NBA. But he’s going to be your highest draft pick.”

He was right. Even though he dropped lower than he expected, Haliburton became the highest-drafted player in Iowa State history since Marcus Fizer went fourth in 2000. He also went one spot ahead of Herro, the 13th selection in 2019.

“He was always good. But he didn’t really come into his own where he became a real killer where he could play in those real big tournaments until probably 10th grade,” Herro says. “Then he went to Iowa State and he just started killing it. Iowa State—that’s when he really became a lottery pick.”

Sacramento Kings v Minnesota Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton heads to the basket in an April 5, 2021, game against the Minnesota Timberwolves
Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

In the days leading up to the draft, Haliburton couldn’t stay off his phone, or stop himself from looking at mock drafts.

“Before the couple of days leading up to it, I was like, ‘Man, I got to get off here. I can’t do it anymore,’” he recalls. “I just felt like the chips would fall where they would fall in. I can’t do anything at this point. I’ve put in the work. I’ve done everything I got to do. It was definitely hectic.”

He says he knew Sacramento wanted him. Kings GM Monte McNair told him they were willing to trade up for him. Still, on draft night, as the picks began to trickle in and his name wasn’t being called, a familiar feeling began to set in.

“It was definitely a little bit of a surprise, but not too crazy,” he says. “We talked about it my whole life, so why would it stop now? Why would that stop happening to me? I was a little surprised. But at the same time, I’m like, ‘You know what? It is what it is.’”

Not long after he was drafted, he looked through the Kings’ schedule, preparing a mental checklist of the teams that passed on him. Then he set about crossing them off: Fifteen points against the Suns. Seventeen points, seven rebounds, and six assists against the Bulls. In January against the Knicks, he had 16 points, including a couple of key plays to lead the Kings to victory. Afterward, he punctuated the performance with a sassy meme.

“I just like to mess around with people, man,” he says. “Like at the end of the day, regardless of the 11 guys picked before me, I have to have the confidence that I should have been picked. If I don’t have that confidence, then I probably shouldn’t be playing this game.”

But for all of the motivation the slights provided, Haliburton may have landed in the perfect spot. While Herro stars for the Miami Heat, helping to propel the big-market franchise to the NBA Finals as a rookie and enjoying the spoils of South Beach off the court, Haliburton is back on a team looking to be taken seriously. And he’s still trying to prove himself against Herro, whom he’s yet to beat as a pro.

“I think I had 29 on them,” Herro says, referring to his 27-point game against the Kings in February. “I’m happy to have a little bit of bragging rights right now. It’s still early.”

The Kings haven’t been to the postseason in 15 years. Since coming one memorable Game 7 shy of the 2002 Finals, there’s been attempts to move the franchise out of Sacramento, an ownership change, and too many failed rebuilds to count. Three months before the draft, the Kings parted ways with general manager Vlade Divac and hired McNair, formerly an assistant general manager under Daryl Morey in Houston.

But the past doesn’t seem to bother Haliburton. He sees an opportunity to start something new.

“I just want to be a part of it,” he says. “I just want to be somebody who’s a contributing member to that. But more than anything, I just want to be able to help. I just want to be able to help the Kings get where the organization belongs.”

The organization’s efforts to change, however, haven’t affected the bottom line much. After looking like a playoff contender early on this season, Sacramento has bottomed out as of late, with matching nine-game losing streaks in both February and April. De’Aaron Fox was recently ruled out because of COVID protocols, all but assuring another losing season and another trip to the draft lottery.

“I hate losing,” Haliburton says. “And the NBA’s a long year. So you’re going to lose. … It’s just a part of the growing process.”

But Haliburton has managed to shine amid the losses. His scoring numbers don’t jump off the page like Edwards’s, and his passes don’t make as many highlight reels as Ball’s, but the 21-year-old’s cerebral game has become beloved by anyone paying close attention. His all-around impact is reflected in his stats: 13 points, 5.3 assists, 3.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals, and 0.5 blocks. Most importantly, the shot has translated: 40.9 percent from 3 on just over five attempts a game.

Some questioned the logic of adding another point guard to the Kings’ crowded backcourt of Bogdan Bogdanovic, Buddy Hield, and Fox, especially after Sacramento handed out pricey extensions to the latter two. But Sacramento declined to match Bogdanovic’s offer sheet from Atlanta in restricted free agency, letting him walk for nothing, and Haliburton’s versatility has allowed him to fit in lineups next to Hield or Fox, or both.

“He’s been great,” Fox said in a January appearance on the All the Smoke podcast. “You would have thought he’s in his second or third year the way that he’s out there playing. And for these rookies to not get any summer league, a short training camp, just come in and you got your team, you find out who you was playing with a month before the season starts. That’s a lot of adversity that you really got to overcome.”

The “killer” Herro recalls is also starting to show up. In five games without Fox, Haliburton averaged 17 points and eight assists, and helped lead the Kings to three wins—two of which came against the Mavericks and Luka Doncic, the player Sacramento famously passed on drafting in 2018. Kings coach Luke Walton, one of Kobe Bryant’s trusted lieutenants, sees a similar drive for success in Haliburton that he saw in the Hall of Famer.

“For him, I’d say right now, don’t try to limit it,” Walton says about Haliburton’s competitiveness. “Don’t try to hide it. We love how he competes. We love the energy he plays with, we love how contagious that is. We’re on him about a lot of things. We’re hard on Tyrese because we believe in how good he’s going to be. But even if he’s making mistakes, we want him looking to let all of that hang out and really learn through the experience of playing. Definitely err on the side of him being more of a gunslinger than trying to control it at all right now.”

Haliburton made it clear that he sees no issue with the fit between him and Fox, saying they’re a “perfect match.” But it’s also clear he wants more for his career than being a super role player.

“I want to be a starter. I want to be a star. I want to be a superstar,” he says. “Of course, that’s what I want to do. I mean, that is up to me to decide. For me, I just want to be the best player that I can be more than anything.

“I got a lot of time and a lot more work to be done. I feel like it’ll happen if I keep working for it. … Everybody in the NBA, or any professional sport, it feels like they’re always given a ceiling and it’s their job to break it, you know? So I don’t take offense to that by any means. I mean, every guy has been given a ceiling and it’s their job or not if they want to do more.”

Although it ended prematurely, Haliburton’s rookie year has been a clear success, earning him adulation from his peers and the public—and now, his own shoe deal with Nike. But his mindset remains the same, the chip forever on his shoulder.

“I think that’s what I’ve been just shooting for my whole life is proving myself right first before I prove others wrong,” he says. “I definitely do use every little thing to get me going. I think that’s what the great ones do. So, it definitely sits in the back of my mind. But at the same time, I think everything happens for a reason. God put me on this path for a reason. And at the end of the day, he’s the only one that I care about their opinion.”

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