Tyrese Haliburton’s great rookie season is fueled by his scoring development

Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images /

Tyrese Haliburton is a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year, and his scoring ability is one of the most important factors in his successful season.

I was very wrong about Tyrese Haliburton. Pull up old tweets, reference any discussions I had behind closed doors, read my scouting report on him. All of it leaves egg on my face. I pegged him as a late lottery talent, citing athletic concerns that limited his on-ball creation and scoring workload. Woof, that looks foolish.

Approaching the NBA All-Star Break, he’s in a two-man race with LaMelo Ball for Rookie of the Year, and few classmates have brighter futures than him. Through 30 games, he’s averaging 13.2 points, 5.4 assists (1.5 turnovers), 3.2 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on 61.9 percent true shooting (.494/.433/.833 splits). Dazzling with ingenious passing, preternatural event creation defensively and impressive shot-making, he’s been, roughly, a starting-caliber guard as a rookie — quite the accomplishment for any first-year player.

That final trait, the impressive shot-making, is the driving force behind him exceeding all expectations I incorrectly established. His rapid development as a scorer is highly encouraging, both in the interim and long-term, and it was something I failed to properly account for in my evaluation.

As a sophomore at Iowa State, he was 16-of-57 off the dribble, which ranked in the 35th percentile. His unconventional shooting mechanics and struggles shooting in traffic led me to the conclusion that pull-up scoring would be a hole in his game for the entirety of his NBA career.

Yet he enjoyed significant on-ball gains from his freshman to sophomore season, shifting from low-usage spot-up shooter and connective passer to primary initiator who averaged 15.2 points a night on 63.1 percent true shooting. While I acknowledged his growth, I did not price it into my analysis, a pitfall of how I ultimately viewed Haliburton as a prospect.

“To his credit, 49 attempts in 18 games is a substantial improvement over the five he logged in 35 games last season,” I wrote. “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.”

The indicators for sustained progress were prevalent and I saw them. But I zoomed in on his current state instead of viewing the entire developmental track and trying to assess where he may be in a year, given the obvious strides between year 1 and 2 of college. That was a mistake in my scouting approach.

What has Tyrese Haliburton shown in the NBA so far?

This season, Haliburton, still sporting his anomalous shooting stroke, has eradicated the most pressing concerns from the above excerpt. After further streamlining his release, he exhibits much more comfort off the dribble and burns defenses for sagging off in pick-and-rolls or providing too much space when the ball is in his clutches.

He’s in the 70th percentile off the dribble and has netted 26-of-69 (37.7 percent) pull-up 3s. Thirty of those 69 attempts have come over the past seven games, too. They compose 31.3 percent of his total shots, whereas he took 31 in the initial 18 games, which composed 18.2 percent of his field goals.

The film reinforces this data that suggests a rising belief in his pull-up attack. Haliburton is dancing around less and stalling fewer possessions against drop coverage, confronting the limits of his self-creation more regularly.

Last season was the beta version of his off-the-bounce game. All the bugs were made available for the public to see and judge. In an aim to expand his portfolio, he considerably upped the volume but was inefficient, and the displeasing nature of his shooting form, as well as some ugly attempts, spurred easy confirmation bias about his lack of viability as a pull-up shooter.

A 30-game sample is not the entirety of why that perception needs correcting. It’s merely another entry in the catalog of Haliburton’s year-by-year maturation that emphasizes the layers he consistently implements each season.

Some of the pull-ups he’s hit this season seemed inconceivable based upon his college film. The dude turns into a bona fide bucket-getter at times, and the commonality should only increase moving forward because 21-year-old rookies typically are not capable of this stuff, let alone those who essentially integrated it into their arsenal over the past season.

Haliburton’s other means of self-creation has been a floater, often as a driver in pick-and-rolls or around screens. After adding a skillful floater last year, he’s built upon it with the Sacramento Kings to craft a useful intermediate package and reduce low-proposition attempts at the rim, where his lack of strength and vertical explosion hinder his volume.

He’s taken 59 floaters — 22.3 percent of his shots, up from 14.1 percent at Iowa State last year — and slots into the 78th percentile in efficiency (1.068 points per possession). When Haliburton does get to the basket, he’s been successful, but after just 18.4 percent of his half-court shots occurred at the rim in 2019-20, he’s down to 15.9 percent in the NBA. Both times, he’s ranked in the 67th percentile, so he’s an adept finisher when there, but he misses the physical tools to frequent the cup with regularity, and that’s a similarly paramount piece of interior scoring success.

To maintain scoring equity near or in the paint, he’s diversified and widened the utility of his floater again. As a freshman, nine total floaters were 7.5 percent of his entire diet, so he’s nearly tripled the volume across three seasons. It’s his preferred avenue for 2-point scoring among a jumper, runner and layup. The range and varied delivery systems, lofting from an array of angles, as well as his penchant for disguising lobs as floaters, thrusts defenders into a guessing game they tend to lose.

One of Haliburton’s best assets is his spatial awareness. He manipulates space and openings as a distributor, tricks offensive players into thinking space for a pass exists before closing down on said space and finds pockets of room to launch as a spot-up shooter.

Now, that spatial awareness is translating to on-ball creation, a context in which any bit of real estate is his playground to debut budding shot-making prowess. His skill development has arrived in waves over the past few seasons. My error was zeroing in on the current wave instead of stepping back and looking onto the horizon, where another one could’ve been foreseen.

He’s a tremendous young player who recognizes how to remain effective in whatever role necessary and addresses any area for improvement. Tyrese Haliburton represents an important case study in prospect evaluation.

His evolution as a shot-maker has him jockeying for Rookie of the Year supremacy. It has the Kings organization ecstatic with their selection, an apt backcourt mate for franchise star De’Aaron Fox. And it has me altering my scouting philosophy, all the while enjoying this lanky rookie guard who surprises at every stop of his basketball career.

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