2020 NBA Draft: Do Tyrese Haliburton’s Strengths Overcome His Flaws?

In such an uncertain environment, there is little about the 2020 NBA Draft that is certain. Workouts will be affected, as will combines, testing information and in-person interviews. Scouts no longer have the NCAA Tournament as a one-stop-shop to conveniently evaluate.

How will the draft order even be determined in a season without playoffs?

We’re staring down the barrel of many firsts, though we are starting to see some prominent college players declare for the draft despite all the unusual factors involved.

Even before COVID-19 breached the sports world, this 2020 NBA Draft class was seen as a weak one. Top-end prospects are severely lacking, and few freshmen made both an impact statistically and for their team’s success.

In the face of such a shallow pool, teams can look at this two ways: One is to swing for the fences, as there is a considerable downside in most prospects and for other teams. The other is to heighten the draft value of the dependable guys who have large bodies of work, are easier to project and, while lacking top talent, won’t get a general manager fired.

An under-recruited prospect out of high school, Tyrese Haliburton played two very strong years at Iowa State. As a freshman in 2018-19, he took the role of facilitator and spot-up shooter next to the likes of NBA talent such as Marial Shayok and Talen Horton-Tucker. He was sixth on the team in scoring but quickly separated himself as an analytics darling.

125 assists and only 28 turnovers while shooting 43.4 percent from deep and 68.5 percent inside the arc is the output sure to garner attention.

Haliburton chose to return to Ames for his sophomore year, where he’d get to show what he could do as a focal point of the offense in hopes of improving his view in the eyes of scouts. The Cyclones struggled mightily this year, however, and Hailburton missed ten games due to injury.

But his analytical projection didn’t decline too much. He led the team in scoring while shooting 59.2 percent inside the arc, 41.9 percent behind it and dialing up 142 assists with only 61 turnovers. (His 6.5 assists per game was just outside the nation’s top-10.)

Projecting a player’s abilities at the next level is informed by stats, but not reliant on them. In this way, Haliburton is an intriguing prospect. His output and results are incredibly strong in a relatively weak draft class. But the overall projection of his athleticism, shooting form and ability to create his own shot could alter his NBA role, which would shape his output.

Strengths

Feb 1, 2020; Austin, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Tyrese Haliburton (22) and head coach Steve Prohm in the second half of the game against the Texas Longhorns at Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Haliburton provides the perfect opportunity for a short aside on positions and our need for labels.

The traditional notion of a team fielding a point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center is falling by the wayside in favor of a more fluid view. Taller players are more skilled and smaller players can thrive guarding bigs at times.

That’s why, in thinking of the draft process, we at TBW try not to use those traditional labels for describing what a playing style or position a prospect will hold. Instead, we use six labels: point guard, combo guard, wing, forward, post and athlete.

Point guards are typically the smallest, and they are spending almost all their optimal time in that classic role. Combo guards have the ability to handle but are likely to be tasked in an off-ball role frequently. Wings are likely to be defending players that guards cannot, and are those who thrive in an off-ball role.

Forwards can defend some wings and some posts; They have an inside-and-outside element to their game. Posts are similar to traditional power forwards or centers, anchoring their effectiveness to the interior. By far the most fluid category, Athletes is for players who fall outside any of those descriptors or color too many boxes to be lumped into one category.

Haliburton is 6’5″ with a 6’9″ wingspan and is not the most athletic prospect. He’s not fast enough to be a true point guard on defense, despite his high on-ball usage and fantastic assist-to-turnover ration that would usually be indicative of those who run the point.

With a highly effective catch-and-shoot rating over the course of two collegiate seasons, he can certainly be impactful without the ball, making him a good fit at the combo guard spot.

Placing Haliburton as a 2-guard doesn’t change the fact he’s best-served with the ball in his hands, however.

He’s great going to his right and making reads out of the pick-and-roll. He delivers effective passes and has a next-level ability to shift defenses. Instead of trying to figure out what they’re going to do, he dictates to them with his eyes and shifts defenders into spots he can take advantage of. Give him the ball in the open floor and he’ll make a play.

More than anything, he’s trustworthy. Haliburton avoids turnovers and, especially during his first year at Iowa State with other high-level talents, makes the simple play instead of the fancy one.

Defensively, Haliburton uses his length to bother smaller guards when they try to pass. He’s not a stellar on-ball defender or quick-twitch athlete, but he tries to play angles and gets a ton of deflections by crowding passing lanes.

Those defensive instincts and abilities can allow him to see the floor early in his career while his body adds strength and develops to match the physicality around him. His length may allow him to be a strong option in a switching scheme, something increasingly popular in today’s NBA, particularly during the playoffs or crunch time.

One strength not mentioned in the video is how he performs in catch-and-shoot situations.

Haliburton has an unorthodox push stroke that is slow and a little hitchy, with very little lift off the ground. I’m not a guy who believes players’ have to copy a certain form in order to be great NBA shooters, so his stroke doesn’t deter me from thinking he’ll knock down a high number of treys.

Instead, my worry is how Haliburton can attack poor closeouts. He’s often flat-footed and unexplosive when he shoots, and his stroke isn’t known for its quickness. Any off-ball success he has will come from either wide open catch-and-shoots (since he’s not great off the dribble) or the threat of him creating for others as a re-penetrator.

Improvement Areas

Feb 1, 2020; Austin, Texas, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Tyrese Haliburton (22) looks to pass as Texas Longhorns guard Jase Febres (13) defends in the second half of the game against the at Frank C. Erwin Jr. Center. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA Draft is about translation. So many great college players have failed to make an imprint at the next level, where styles change.

Haliburton undoubtedly thrived at Iowa State where he ran the show and was a heralded playmaker. To command such an NBA role requires the ability to score one-on-one at an incredibly high rate, or at least be diverse enough off the bounce to not be shut down by one particular defense. It also requires perimeter defenders to guard the pick-and-roll with competence.

Those particular areas worry me about Haliburton out of the gate:

Let’s talk about that defense first.

When Tyrese gets screened, he reminds me of a baby deer trying to change directions. Their limbs are too long and center of gravity too high to quickly and deftly navigate the traffic.

He almost has to stand up to get through contact, and by then his footwork isn’t quick enough to get back in front of speedy guards. Going over ball screens would be a tough ask for Haliburton out of the gate. He’s fine when he’s in his stance, but screens take him out of that, and he’d face picks frequently guarding the 1 or 2 in the NBA.

On offense, very few pass-first guards have the ball in their hands late in postseason games. Closers are always guys who can reliably put the ball in the hole since they are the ones who draw help defenders: They’re too good to be guarded one-on-one.

Haliburton hasn’t earned the right to be considered in that category. His reliance on his right-hand is a huge part of this. For as good of a passer he is, he struggles a bit going to his left and isn’t the best handler with his non-dominant hand. He is also easy to force that way.

His strong left-to-right cross will work some of the time, but NBA teams pick up on those tendencies early in player’s careers. He must add to his bag of tricks.

As Haliburton becomes easier to make uncomfortable in one-on-one situations, the numbers indicate a severe disparity between his scoring output and late-clock creation. He was 3-17 in late-clock attempts last year, his first year thrown into that role at Iowa State.

Great individual scorers are ones who can score on three levels: They get to the rim, knock down the deep ball to force guys to guard them, and they can hit pull-ups in the mid-range. Haliburton’s form and funky release make quality pull-up shooting a difficult trait to attain without severe mechanical tweaks. Even if he’s just a two-level scorer, he becomes significantly less dynamic as a passer as a result of his inability to create his own jumpers.

And if you’re not drafting a lead guard in the lottery with the intention or expectation of him being a predominant late-clock scorer, he better not be a miss in any other areas of evaluation.

There are other small areas for Haliburton to clean up, however. As mentioned with his shooting ability, his form doesn’t lend itself to attacking closeouts and getting to the rim. Haliburton has an awful tendency to leave his feet when passing, which can get him into trouble against smarter defenders.

Fortunately, these haven’t prevented him from being successful in the past, and his overall ability to shoot and scan the floor are major strengths of his game.

Overall Analysis and Draft Predictions

Feb 5, 2020; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Tyrese Haliburton (22) drives baseline defended by West Virginia Mountaineers forward Oscar Tshiebwe (34) during the first half at WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

Haliburton passes the box score test. He’s a high-quality shooter, creates without much risk and has always finished at a high level. His body type is also one sought after for guards—he’s got a terrific wingspan and knows how to use it.

Still, there’s something missing for me in the near-consensus around Haliburton as a lottery and potential top-ten pick.

There are only a few things he needs significant work at, but they happen to be areas that are most crucial to him playing meaningful minutes. He has to be able to guard ball screens, and he has to produce enough as a scorer to warrant having the ball in his hands.

If Haliburton is to be seen primarily as a spot-up guy and a playmaker secondly, that surely changes the upside surrounding him and where he should fall in the draft.

Thus, Haliburton strikes me as a guy who will figure most of this out. His physical profile will improve as he adds strength, where at the very least he’s functional in a switching scheme and is better at finishing in traffic.

While he’s likely to be taken anywhere in the 6-to-12 range on draft night, I don’t see considerable upside for him to be a primary or even secondary option on offense, even at his peak. He’s a high-quality glue player who likely needs to be next to an elite scorer or another creating guard to thrive.

Those aren’t guys I’d typically lust after in the lottery, but this draft class is anything but typical.

 

Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of sports-reference.com, Synergy Sports Tech or ESPN.com, and are current as of March 25, 2020.

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