Tyrese Haliburton wowed Sacramento Kings fans and the NBA landscape alike with an uber-efficient and productive rookie season, which ended with him finishing third in the Rookie of the Year race behind Anthony Edwards and LaMelo Ball.
Halliburton’s versatility was apparent the second he stepped foot onto the hardwood and he promptly displayed why the Kings came away with a steal during the 2020 NBA Draft. Had an alien come down to Earth and landed in Sacramento at The Golden One Center last season, they would have been shocked to learn of Halliburton’s rookie status — Haliburton just looked like a 10-year pro.
Whether it was peppering opponents with floaters, feeding Richaun Holmes’ lobs out of the pick and roll or raining threes at a high clip, Haliburton was able to really put his imprint on the game and his team as a rookie.
Heading into the draft, Haliburton was largely considered a safe prospect considering his well-rounded game, but at the same time, a low-ceiling prospect due to his lack of athletic ability. But based on what we saw from him as a rookie, there could be more in Haliburton’s future than that.
Far too often, athletic ability is considered an indicator of a player’s upside or lack of it, when we’ve seen that isn’t always the case. Slower, more feel-oriented players like Haliburton often can continue to make leaps yearly and discover more ways to impact the game.
Here is the roadmap for how Haliburton can break through and shatter his perceived pre-draft ceiling and become one of the premier guards in the NBA.
Scale-up efficiency as offensive load increases
Haliburton’s rookie season resembled the rookie season of another skinny and not-particularly-athletic combo guard, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Gilgeous-Alexander showed a bit more off-the-dribble game than Haliburton, Haliburton shot the ball at a better clip, but both went in the late lottery and made better-than-expected contributions as rookies. Since that rookie season with the Clippers, though, Gilgeous-Alexander has blossomed from an interesting young piece to one of the premier young guards in the NBA in two years' time.
His growth has gone a bit under-the-radar because his move from Los Angeles to Oklahoma City, but his year-by-year improvements have been incredibly impressive and something Haliburton should hope to emulate.
While it will be difficult for Haliburton to exactly follow Gilgeous-Alexander’s footsteps, it’s not crazy to think he can have a similar growth curve.
With Buddy Hield and his 10.2 three-point attempts a game from last season likely elsewhere at the start of next season, Haliburton should soak up some of those shots left unaccounted for at the other guard position next to De’Aaron Fox.
Haliburton’s slower shot mechanics make it unlikely he will reach Hield’s shooting volume. If he can up his attempts from the 5.2 he averaged last season to seven or eight per game, while continuing to shoot at or around 40% from three, it bodes well for his upside moving forward.
Generally, in the NBA the best guards and wings are able to take and make self-created pull-up threes. Gilgeous-Alexander, for reference, shot 40.9% on pull-ups in 2020-21, which has become a real staple of his game and a major driving force of his leap.
As a rookie, Haliburton flashed some ability in this area, shooting 37.9% on pull-up threes on 2.1 attempts per game, but there should be a little more room for growth here for Haliburton.
Presumably, Haliburton will have a starting role with the team whether the team trades Buddy Hield or not. If Haliburton starts, It would be nice to see him near the 35.1 minutes per game his backcourt mate, De’Aaron Fox averaged in 2020-21. The Kings current logjam at the guard spot could make this part a bit difficult, but even still it’s tough to argue that Haliburton doesn’t deserve more playing time than he saw as a rookie.
With the likely increase in shot attempts and other teams having more of a focus on him, it will be interesting to see how Haliburton adjusts.
Can Haliburton remain efficient while taking on a higher role within the offensive hierarchy? We will likely find out the answer to that in 2021-22.
At just 185 lbs., Haliburton is extremely slight considering his 6’5 frame. Haliburton does his best to make up for his lack of heft with floaters and finesse around the rim, but he just isn’t able to finish with power on a very consistent level yet.
The lack of size hurts Haliburton on defense as well, as heftier guys are able to punish him despite his best efforts.
With the Kings drafting 6’1 Davion Mitchell in the first round, it’s likely that Haliburton could see some time playing the small forward next to Fox and Mitchell in smaller lineups. Even if this only happens in shorter stretches, it would really behoove Haliburton to add strength so he at least poses some threat to wings.
Haliburton’s backcourt mate, Fox, is a good look at what multiple years in an NBA weight training program can do to a skinny player.
He doesn’t need to become Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson physically, but adding some functional strength would only serve Haliburton’s game on both sides of the ball.
Become more assertive offensively
One of the only downsides to Haliburton’s rookie season was the lack of offensive assertiveness in looking for his own shot. Playmaking is part of what makes him so special but far too often, his first inclination on the offensive side was to set up his teammates, even when he had the hot hand.
For a team like the Kings that lacks self-creation, aside from his backcourt mate De’Aaron Fox, Haliburton needs to realize his abilities in that area are crucial for the growth of the team.
One game that illustrates Haliburton’s potential in this facet was the team’s April 25 game at Golden State where Haliburton entered the fourth quarter with just 9 points on 4-of-13 shooting but completely took the game over. In the fourth quarter of that game, Haliburton almost single-handedly led the Kings back from a double-digit deficit, putting up 15 of his 24 points in the fourth.
With Fox sidelined for that game, Haliburton took creation duties into his own hands and looked completely at ease. Haliburton’s feel and ability to go at his own pace were impressive to watch and indicative of something more down the line.
If Haliburton continues to improve each of the aforementioned facets of his game, there’s no reason he can’t become one of the better guards in the league at some point. His ceiling is much higher than the general NBA landscape realizes. His combination of overall feel, playmaking, and elite shooting is a rare combination in the NBA that typically correlates to success.
The idealized All-Star version of Haliburton down the line could completely alter the Kings’ future as an organization and give the franchise a lot more hope going forward as another star creator next to De’Aaron Fox.