The Kid Can Play
But If You've Been Listening To Tyler Herro's Teammates This Season, You Already Knew That
Nathaniel S. Butler
“Most people in that situation wouldn’t even take that shot.”
Tyler Herro is bringing the ball up in the open court. Jimmy Butler had just poked the ball away from Joel Embiid down two in the last ten seconds of a game, and Herro now has a decision to make. He spots a defender ahead of him about to cut off the driving lane, so he peels back to the right wing. There’s two timeouts left, but Erik Spoelstra watches as Herro dancer-steps his way behind the arc and drains a contested three with six seconds to spare.
“He believed he really should. That, ‘Why would he not take that shot?’ That’s the coolest thing,” HEAT assistant Chris Quinn says. “A lot of people would not in that situation. Maybe they play it safe and try to find Jimmy [Butler] or someone else.
“But that’s why he’s Tyler.”
Players say things. They have to say things because it’s part of their job, and the longer they’ve been in the league the more they understand the power of those things they say. Spending time around them means not only listening to the what, but sorting out the why. What purpose is there to these words beyond the fulfilment of daily requirements? Spend enough time around a player and you’ll speak their language soon enough. It just takes time.
When Jimmy Butler arrived in Miami, everyone was still getting to know him when he couldn’t stop putting Tyler Herro over with praise. It was only preseason.
“He’s a player, man.”
Herro had certainly performed well to that point, following up a strong Summer League showing to score 18 points in his preseason debut and 23 points a few days later. Still, it was unusual for a veteran and established All-Star to break out the anointing oil so early. Some healthy skepticism, at least as far as slowing the proverbial roll, was deserved.
But Butler kept saying it, over and over until you knew what to expect anytime you mentioned the rookie’s name in his vicinity. As time wore on and Herro added more performances to his resume – scoring 29 in his first week against Atlanta, hitting five threes in a clutch win over Chicago, stealing the ball from Devin Booker in the fourth quarter after insisting on the defensive assignment – more bites would join the rotation.
“He really cares.”
“I love that kid.”
“He wants to be great.”
Turns out, it was true. All of it. Butler just saw it and was willing to say it before anyone else.
Half a year after his Sam Cassell-dance worthy shot against Phildadelphia, Herro is again bringing the ball up the court after a turnover. This time it’s in a potential closeout game against the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, two days after the team let a potential sweep slip through its fingers despite three late threes from Herro.
This time, the result is no surprise at all.
In between the Philadelphia and Milwaukee shots, Herro changed. For all the big moments during the regular season, he was still just a rookie and he had the impact of a rookie. Of all of Miami’s players to play 1000 minutes before the season was suspended, Herro had the lowest on-off court impact of all of them. The HEAT were 8.2 points per 100 possessions worse when he was on the floor. It wasn’t a cause for concern, common as it can be for a player so young, but it was a fact. The offensive production hadn’t caught up to the clear projection, and the defense was, kindly, a work in progress.
“Tyler is a significantly different player than he was in training camp back in October,” Erik Spoelstra said.
“He had a lot of growing pains over the course of the year and he brought a great humility and consistency to his work. He allowed himself to be coached.”
That last part shouldn’t be taken lightly. Chris Quinn was assigned to Herro’s player development program, and from Day One he was struck by all the same things Butler was regularly preaching.
“You could tell right away how driven he was. He’s definitely a basketball junkie type of guy. You could tell he’s someone that wanted to be great. What everyone notices right away is that swag he has. That confidence about himself which you can see translates to his play.”
For some, that level of confidence can get in the way. Such strong belief on the court can lead to an unwillingness to learn. It’s not always easy to find the distinction between confidence that got you to where you are versus confidence that can prevent you getting to where you want to be. With Herro, that was never a problem.
“Like anyone he’ll get frustrated, but he’s very self-aware,” Quinn said. He’s not someone that is going to hide from mistakes or weaknesses. He wants to get better at all the stuff. He came in here with a great growth mindset. He learns from the coaches, he learns from Jimmy, he learns from Goran. He’s very open to criticism and trying to get things right.
“Normally it’s not that easy. Obviously, people will put up a wall sometimes. He’s very aware, he wants to attack things to make himself a great player. He’s here, he’s reading books, he’s watching film every day. A lot of that is just his commitment to wanting to be better than he is now and wanting to be great.”
Good day or bad day, he was always back in the lab with a pen and a pad, sharing notes with Quinn.
“Me and Quinny are very close,” Herro said. “Ever since I did my pre-draft workout here, he was someone that I built a relationship with. I put my trust in him. He trusts me. We continue to put work in every single day. We watch the film, jot down notes on what we see. We share it with each other. We look at what I’m doing wrong and continue to try and get better at that and improve my weaknesses.”
For long stretches after the NBA season was suspended, that note-sharing process all took place digitally. Quinn would send video packages of players Herro could pull from. Watch how Ray Allen moves without the ball. Watch how Steve Nash manipulates the defense in pick-and-roll. See how Devin Booker and CJ McCollum operate as both playmakers and scorers with the ball in their hands.
The word Quinn keeps coming back to is vast. Herro’s skillset was already so diverse, they didn’t have to focus on any one archetype. He had the ball-of-your-feet footwork to emulate Allen. He had the court vision to work on Nash-like reads. He had the ball-handling and pull-up-ability to work in traffic like Booker and McCollum. That didn’t guarantee Herro the success of any of those players, but it was all in his wheelhouse.
By the time league regulations allowed them to get back on the court together, where they would discuss hoops, family and fashion, the plan was clear.
By the time Herro was in the Orlando bubble playing seeding games, the plan was paying off. Already known as a deadly shooter, Herro’s layup package expanded. He was never going to be LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo thundering down the lane, but he could be a three-level scorer in his own way. He shot 18-of-21 at the rim in seeding games, and in the playoffs he was doing this with his off hand.
With the game slowing down as it does for most young players between their first and second season – effectively, Herro is no longer a rookie – the assist rate has jumped in the playoffs. As Goran Dragic re-joined the starting lineup, Herro became the de-facto point guard for the second-unit. Following a career-high 10 assists against the Phoenix Suns in Orlando, Herro has made passes like this a regular occurrence.
“What’s really cool about Tyler is he’s able to make quick adjustments and make quick applications to things he’s working on based on maybe how a team is guarding him, what their coverage is in a pick-and-roll, now he’s learning the techniques to take advantage of different coverages,” Quinn said.
With the playoffs putting more emphasis than ever on having multiple players on the floor who can put the ball on the floor and make plays, Herro established himself in the team’s closing lineup. Of the team’s 23 clutch playoff minutes, Herro has played 19 (on 4-of-8 shooting from deep).
20 years old, and he’s earned the trust.
“Tyler is a bucket getter. He has a tremendous offensive game. We trust him with the ball to make plays for us,” Dragic said.
Defense remains the sticking point. After being pulled in favor of offense-defense rotations against Indiana after regular one-on-one attacks from the likes of Malcolm Brogdon, Herro called attention to the target on his own back.
"It's no secret who they're going at, they're going at me and Duncan [Robinson],” Tyler Herro said.
“He’s very aware,” Quinn said. “He wants to get it right.”
It won’t be perfect, but it won’t be a lost cause. Herro isn’t physically gifted on that end like some his longer, rangier teammates, but as with many HEAT draftees he has a tremendous degree of Give-a-**** on that end. He gets beat, but he competes. Quinn says as he’s able to put more work in on his body that will help him hold up against the more demanding matchups, but there’s no lack for determination. As he works to become a more consistent defender, he still finds ways to make plays on that end.
And it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s fourth on the team in defensive-rebounding percentage in the playoffs.
The HEAT have a type. They don’t shy away from that. Some people fit, others don’t. Where they have been remarkably successful of late is in identifying young players who fit that mold. Whatever everyone else saw in last season’s draft, they saw someone different, like them. They saw a player who was more than a skillset.
“A kid with confidence like that, I feel like it has to be in the right situation, right organization,” Andre Iguodala said. “They tend to break kids confidence a little bit.”
“He’s just so comfortable, so confident,” Butler said. “He plays with a swag that you’d think he was going on 31 like me. And we love him for that. We won’t change him. We want him to stay that exact same way.”
Sure, it helps that the skillset is perfectly suited to modern basketball in every portion of the season. But it wouldn’t work the same if Herro wasn’t the who he is that makes him more than the what he is. His teammates don’t just see a very particular set of skills acquired over a very brief professional career. They see a kid they can trust in the middle of a deep postseason run. And they’ve been saying it all year, simply but in a manner that means something for those who know, to anyone who wanted to listen.
The kid can play.
When a players’ teammates and coaches continually tell you who a player is, you eventually have to believe them.