The Whiteboard: Tyrese Haliburton, the NBA’s interception king

Nov 19, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) celebrates after a made basket against the Orlando Magic in the second half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 19, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indiana Pacers guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) celebrates after a made basket against the Orlando Magic in the second half at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports /

Tyrese Haliburton is breaking new ground with his assist stats this season. But don’t overlook what he’s doing on defense for the Indiana Pacers.

Tyrese Haliburton is having a remarkable season for the surprising Indiana Pacers, pushing himself into all sorts of outlier statistical territory.

His assist to Andrew Nembhard on the game-winning 3-pointer against the Lakers Monday night gave him a total of 40 assists and 0 turnovers over his past three games, an NBA first. He’s leading the league in assist percentage, at 52.4 percent, and is on track to become just the seventh player in NBA history to finish a qualified season with an assist percentage above 50 — the other six are John Stockton, James Harden, Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, Russell Westbrook and Steve Nash.

His assists may be the most instantly striking aspect of his statistical profile but he’s also averaging 19.9 points per game and within striking distance of joining the 50/40/90 club. Through 20 games, all else being equal, turning just three missed free throws, three missed 3-pointers and five missed 2-pointers into makes would put him over those thresholds.

But for today, I want to focus on an almost unbelievable quirk to Haliburton’s steal totals.

No one in the NBA picks off passes like Tyrese Haliburton

So far this season, Haliburton is averaging 1.8 steals per game, fifth-most in the league. And over his three seasons in the NBA, he is second in total steals (247), behind only Dejounte Murray. In play-by-play logs, steals are classified as either Lost Ball Steals (poking the ball away from a dribbler) or Bad Pass Steals (intercepting an errant pass). The graph below shows the top 500 players in minutes played over the past three seasons with their steals separated out by type.

Haliburton isn’t just an outlier in his total number of steals, he is on a complete island in terms of the percentage of his steals that come from picking off opponents’ passes. Of the 51 players with at least 150 total steals over the past three seasons, just 14 have had 70 percent or more of their steals come from intercepted passes. Haliburton is the only player above 80 percent.

Haliburton’s size (6-foot-5) and wingspan (6-foot-8) are clearly a factor floating in space around the point of attack. But he also has a fantastic awareness of where passing angles are will materialize as plays develop.

It also seems fair to wonder if this skill and awareness can be connected to his own abilities as a passer. He is so good at seeing these angles and knowing where space will open up as an offensive player that he can see the mirror image of on defense.

One of the other upshots of this imbalance, generating steals off passes rather than direct pressure on a ball-handler, is that he avoids a lot of needless fouls. Of the 15 players with at least 200 steals over the past three seasons, Haliburton, Jimmy Butler and Delon Wright are the only three with more steals than fouls.

Putting all the pieces together, we have a picture of Haliburton that is every bit as unique as his offensive contributions and with a two-way foundation that has to make the Pacers feel incredibly optimistic about both their present and future.

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