Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton Is A Basketball Genius

Writing about the NBA Draft often means enduring the less-appealing aspects of college basketball. Sub-20-point scoring halves. Unimaginative offensive schemes. Head-scratching decision-making from young players still deciphering their basketball personas. After watching a whole lot of these extremely college basketball things, you need a reprieve.

Enter Iowa State guard Tyrese Haliburton, who has frequently been the reward for countless games filled with the previously mentioned trials this season. His blissful displays of brilliant passing, basketball genius, and defensive playmaking reinforce the notion that college basketball can still be fun as long as you know where to look.

As a true freshman in 2018-19, Haliburton largely enjoyed an off-ball role while playing next to conductors such as Talen Horton-Tucker, Marial Shayok, and Lindell Wigginton. He sported a usage rate of 9.2 percent, attempted 5.7 shots per game, and only registered 54 field goals inside the arc, all despite playing 33.2 minutes each night. There existed the outline of a potential NBA player but at least one more year in college would be required to explore this potential and turn it into something tangible.

With Horton-Tucker, Shayok, and Wingginton all no longer in Ames, Haliburton has stepped into a primary creator role for the Cyclones, establishing himself as one of the nation’s best and most exhilarating players. His usage rate has spiked to 20.1 percent, he’s hoisting 11.7 shots per contest, and he’s more than doubled his assist rate from 17.3 percent to 36.3.

While this draft class lacks high-end star power, it is stocked with guard play, particularly savvy and creative facilitators. Nico Mannion, LaMelo Ball, and Killian Hayes are three of the headliners, joined by Haliburton, who is the best passer in the country — a 7.1:2.7 assist-to-turnover ratio underlines his elite decision-making. His athletic limitations will, to a degree, quell the functionality of his distributing in the NBA. But he has more than enough in his toolkit to be the type of ball-handler who puts his teammates in optimal scoring situations.

Haliburton’s best trait as a playmaker is not his capacity for merely executing a wide variety of passes. He certainly can, but what distinguishes him from others is the accuracy and timeliness of those decisions. I’ve not seen a better pocket passer than Haliburton this season. In pick-and-rolls, he almost always feeds his big man in stride, enabling them to finish at the rim or promptly elevate for an open jumper. He hits cutters on target and drops skip passes into the pockets of shooters.

“Threading the needle” is often reserved for highlight-reel passes fit through narrow parameters, but for Haliburton, it’s mostly just the norm. He dishes out pinpoint feeds with regularity, which lowers the margin of error for defenses, as they must be quicker to recover and sharper with rotations. Haliburton’s distributing empowers his own team while simultaneously challenging the opposition. That’s not always the case. Sometimes pocket passes, skip passes, or any type of read designed to stress the defense fails to do so.

Haliburton is a proactive playmaker, shifting defenders with his movements and optical trickery. The most obvious indicator of his IQ is the consistency with which he looks off defenders to pry open a previously closed passing window; he treats defenders like pawns on a chess board, manipulating them as he pleases. That, along with his advanced pick-and-roll craft, is the hallmark of his creation for others.

Note the placement of those passes from Haliburton. Aside from the corner three attempt, his teammates do not have to go out of their way to corral the ball, allowing them to focus on the next step. He simplifies the game for others, an important trait for any ball-handler. His flexibility and contortion mean he can whirl feeds from awkward angles and his rare vision only further amplifies the value of such a skill.

The issue, from an NBA point of view, is the degree to which Haliburton should be expected to commandeer offensive possessions as a lead creator. To be entrusted as a primary initiator, you need significant and versatile scoring value, and it’s tough to argue Haliburton does. He’s averaging 15.7 points per game on 62.6 percent true shooting, which is quite impressive given the lack of quality teammates around him and poor efficiency from other guards in this class. For example, Cole Anthony is averaging 19.1 points on 48.2 percent true shooting and Anthony Edwards is at 19.2 points on 52.2 percent true shooting.

But the draft is about projection and the manner in which Haliburton derives his scoring doesn’t feel translatable, particularly because of an aversion to contact and debilitating burst as a driver. Through 18 games, he’s only registered 31 shots at the rim in the half-court, ranks in the 46th percentile efficiency-wise (17-for-31, 54.6 percent) and has a free throw rate of .152. The inability to explode past defenders and unwillingness to consistently absorb contact plays out on film.

Highlighting this concern is the fact that against three of the most athletic teams he’s faced this season — Baylor, Texas Tech, and Auburn — Haliburton rarely applied pressure in the paint. For long stretches in each game, he didn’t even step into the key. Against Baylor — the nations’ fourth-best defense, per KenPom — he hoisted nine triples and three two pointers, settling for deep jumpers and emphasizing his aversion to contact. Three-game samples should not make or break a prospect, but those data points are meaningfully troublesome.

Compounding these downhill scoring flaws are his unorthodox shooting mechanics, which often prevent him from firing off the bounce in cramped quarters and leave me wondering how he produces equity as an on-ball scorer in the NBA. He’s shooting 26.5 percent on pull-up jumpers (13-for-49, 32nd percentile) in the half-court and, anecdotally, it feels like most of those makes come from way deep, without much defensive pressure, after dancing behind a screen.

To his credit, 49 attempts in 18 games is a substantial improvement over the five he logged in 35 games last season. Of course, the spike in offensive responsibilities helps explain that, but the willingness to shoot them on a more frequent basis is somewhat encouraging. He also seems to have quickened the release of his jumper and that should be helpful if the streamlined process affords him added comfort on pull-ups. Even so, I find myself discouraged while watching him toss up looks like these that are almost assuredly low-value propositions.

If Haliburton can’t beat switches off the dribble or shoot over the top, and doesn’t have a consistent jumper or the explosiveness as a driver to exploit drop coverage, it seems unlikely that defenses are going to honor him as a pick-and-roll scorer. This scenario allows teams to sell out to contain rollers and shooters, cognizant of the fact that his optimal creation route is through passing. He will not bend opponents and spark rotations with his scoring threat, at least not consistently. We’ve already seen these issues manifest; Haliburton ranks in the 23rd percentile in pick-and-rolls and when passes are factored in, he’s in the 35th percentile. A dearth of complementary teammates affects the latter mark, but the former is based on individual production, and he falls short.

If he cannot efficiently put points on the board in isolations or pick-and-rolls, with most of his scoring coming as a spot-up shooter or attacking closeouts, his offensive potential is severely capped. Scoring gravity occupies defenses more than any other trait and someone like Lonzo Ball — who lacks it and is unable to maximize his passing genius — establishes a blueprint of the problems Haliburton could face in the NBA without pull-up shooting or rim magnetism.

Working in his favor is the emergence of a floater. Last year, he notched nine “runners” in the half-court, according to Synergy (7.5 percent of his shot profile, 2-for-9 shooting). This year, he’s up to 24 attempts, converted 11 of them and ranks in the 75th percentile (13.7 percent of his shot profile). Turning the floater into a reliable weapon will be important for inside-the-arc scoring.

Where I do have faith in Haliburton is as a spot-up shooter, and there are ways he can leverage that talent into other opportunities. He’s drained 42.2 percent of his career long balls, 74.1 percent of his free throws (78.1 percent this season) and has exhibited remarkably deep range from downtown. As a sophomore, he ranks in the 99th percentile on spot-ups and 98th percentile on catch-and-shoots. Assuming he can hit threes and force closeouts, his IQ, prompt decision-making, and passing acumen all suggest he can thrive in a secondary role for a team that leans on others to puncture defenses. If someone else gets the ball rolling and creates an advantage, Haliburton will capitalize.

Aside from his facilitating, Haliburton’s premier skill is as a defensive playmaker. He is simply an event creator, boasting a career 3.1 percent steal rate and pilfering 2.6 steals per game this season. His reaction time, instincts, and awareness are special, even if he’s prone to off-ball lapses. That’s especially been the case this year, which I think stems from his mammoth offensive workload, as he was more disciplined last season. I fully expect him to be a plus team defender at the next level and his disruptive nature will produce open-floor possessions, which is a boon for his offensive upside (93rd percentile in transition offense). Some of these plays are truly special for a 19-year-old.

In a class discouragingly low on legitimately good basketball players, Haliburton is a gem. Since Box Plus-Minus originated in 2010-11, he is one of seven underclassmen guards with a BPM of at least 12 in at least 400 minutes. The others: Marcus Smart (twice!), Mikal Bridges, Trey Burke, Lonzo Ball, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Zhaire Smith. That’s not a fool-proof list, but there is lesser company to keep than among four guys who, at a bare minimum, are viable rotation players in the NBA (apologies, Burke and, for now, Smith). It’s also worth noting that Haliburton’s BPM of 12.4 trails only Bridges and Smart in this grouping.

His passing, projectable spot-up jumper, defensive playmaking, and high-level intelligence leave me confident he carves out a lengthy career as a positive NBA player. But he is so depleted in crucial areas for primary ball-handlers — strength, explosion, rim frequency, pull-up shooting and free-throw drawing — and that’s where the disconnect arises. Mainstream boards peg him as a top-five prospect. I cannot reach such a level of credence, despite my appreciation for the aesthetic nature of his game and the joy his film provides. Regardless of the many limitations, Tyrese Haliburton is a player with too much goodness to ignore, whose uninspiring ceiling and bankable floor render him a fringe lottery candidate on my big board.