Down two with about 20 seconds remaining in Philadelphia this week, Tyler Herro had his moment. With the team down to just eight players due largely to the league’s health and safety protocols, Herro had been handed the opportunity to spearhead Miami’s offense and stave off a brilliant 45-point surge from Joel Embiid. Though there were no fans in the stands, you could still hear the anxious gasp as he sidestepped Dakota Mathias and put the ball in the air from the right wing.
Only, he missed. The ball barely clipped the heel of the rim. Miami lost.
It was a far cry from the most memorable shot of Herro’s rookie season, when he turned a late Embiid turnover into a go-ahead transition three that was as shocking for the attempt as it was for the make. That play was classic defense-to-offense, Herro playing the courageous opportunist. Tuesday was different. Just Herro, the ball and the defender. Make the play, or lose.
This young, weird season has meant more opportunity, more touches and more time of possession for Herro, now a fulltime starter, and he’s hit his share of bumps in the road. Moments where he’s looked to pass when the team needed scoring. Moments where he shot when a teammate was open. Defenders that have swallowed him up. Turnovers. An ongoing shooting slump. Things have just been a little out of balance for Herro in a world that hasn’t known balance for some time.
You know what? It’s all perfectly fine. Not in the dog sitting in a burning house sense of fine. Actually fine. It’s all part of the journey.
Chances are some of your favorite movies utilize The Hero’s Journey. It’s as common a framework as any, and easy to recognize. Young person (too often a man, but not always) is plucked from a fairly unspectacular life by a call to adventure. There’s tragedy. A mentor figure. Forces of supernatural origin. Hey, that young person happens to be the chosen one who will fight the great evil. You’ll get the occasional subversion of those tropes such as Blade Runner 2049, but for the most part the formula is followed by many a best-selling story.
Part of that formula is the ordeal. Some personally cataclysmic event which shakes our intrepid hero to the core and make him question. Luke. Neo. Moana. Harry. Dorothy. Frodo. Miles Morales. Daniel-san. They all deal with a crisis of sorts, and they come out on the other end better for it. It’s not all wizards, rainbows and Post Malone.
Tyler Herro isn’t a chosen one. This isn’t a work of fiction. But the story fits all the same, and he’s got the talent worthy of a tale. All athletes endure trials, and as soon as they’re through one another looms on the horizon. The better you are, the more others will conspire to foist tribulations upon you.
He doesn’t have to be rescued, either. There’s only one person he’s ever publicly pointed the finger at.
“I’ve got to be better,” Herro said last weekend. “It’s all on me, it’s not on anybody else.”
What all this talk of sophomore struggles betrays is that even as he’s been somewhat on and off the tracks, Herro has still been very, very good. At time unguardable. In large part because he’s got the touch.
“At this point, it’s crystal clear,” Precious Achiuwa said. “He has the ability to really score the ball.”
As the NBA has entered its modern era – probably better described as post-modern, but that’s a conversation for another time – defenses have been stretched thin. With three-point volume increasing with each coming year going on a decade, teams have been forced to prioritize spaces on the floor. Those with classic rim-protecting big men can’t afford to have them pressuring the ball at 30 feet, so they issue marching orders not to half-step out of the paint. Those with smaller, more mobile personnel can’t afford to give up any north-south driving cushion, so they switch and try to nip potential rim pressure in the bud. Some teams, those with the Bam Adebayo’s and Anthony Davis’ of the world, can live in the cross-section of those two worlds, but coaches still have to make their choices. Unless you’re going to try to sneak a sixth defender onto the floor, you have to give up some real estate.
Enter the modern guard, pulling up from whatever logo is painted on the court. After years of long-distance volume increases due in part to cutting the fat out of offensive diets, replacing spot-up two pointers almost across the board from non-star players, the last half decade or so has been defined by the rise of the pull-up jumper. Great defenses are amorphous blobs, able to quickly suffocate out potential threats. You can’t stand and wait. Use the space while it’s there. With the quickness. With the dribble.
During the three seasons between 2016 and 2019, the HEAT were No. 26 in jumpers taken off the dribble per 100 possessions, and No. 28 in effective field-goal percentage on those shots. Game by game, there were opportunities the defense made available to them that they didn’t take advantage of.
No matter where those opportunities are, Herro can eat. All three levels are in his wheelhouse, and he’s proving he can finish with feathery softness.
“Coming in as a teenager and just having that skill level to be able to finish at the rim, to be able to hit the mid-range pull-up and extend beyond the three, that’s unique in itself,” Erik Spoelstra said.
With one of the best big man defenders in the league, the 76ers like to play a lot of drop coverage. Embiid sits back in the paint, trusts the defender on the ball to navigate a screen or handoff and waits for his moment to strike defensively. Hitting turbo off screens and giving Embiid as little time as possible to react, Herro was up to the challenge.
“I love seeing the drop coverage,” Herro said.
In the first of the two-game series, all with Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Goran Dragic back in Miami, Herro produced 1.19 points per direct pick on 38 possessions. Over a full season, that’s a Top 5 rate. In the first half of Thursday’s game he still put up a respectable 0.89 points per. Then in the second half Ben Simmons decided to start pressuring at mid-court and Herro (who didn’t play in the final period due to back spasms) was back in the ordeal.
“It’s a great compliment because Ben Simmons is one of the best defenders in this league,” Spoelstra said. “That was born out of Tyler playing really well.”
“Throughout my career, I hope to see the best defenders,” Herro said. “That’s something that I would love to see. As a competitor, you always want to go against the best, so whoever guards me, I’m hoping it’s the best defender from the other team.”
That’ll be one of the coming adjustments. How to attack elite length and athleticism. He’s shown he can do it. Not in the isolation sense. Herro isn’t often one to dribble-dribble-dribble into an attacking crossover. Not yet, at least. The elite insta-burst isn’t there. But what he does do is play at high gear, flying around corners before defenders can catch up. This is the player who beat Boston’s switch-heavy coverage in the playoffs to score 37 points in a crucial Game 4. His ability to summon the brakes and get into his shot is a skill that would give any player career longevity.
“He understands how to get to his spots, and he has the pace about him,” Duncan Robinson said. “He doesn’t get sped up.”
So far this season Herro is shooting 48.3 percent from mid-range and 46.9 on non-rim paint shots. Elite numbers, both. At the rim he’s followed up his promising bubble development with 75.9 percent shooting. For a player of any size, that is absurd. Granted that’s only on 29 attempts and there’s shot-selection bias at play. Herro has a good sense of what he’s capable of, so he’s not tilting at very-real windmills.
Some of those numbers will come down a bit, but the craft is real. While Herro showed off his floater touch in a small sample at Kentucky there were legitimate questions about how he would be able to compete among the trees. Against elite playoff schemes those questions still exist. Herro’s shown he can tell the story of right hand-left hand with enough footwork and from enough wait-how-did-he angles that he can find success.
As for the shooting, there shouldn’t be one iota of concern. Not with a player who can do this.
For most that is an absolutely ludicrous shot to take with 18 seconds on the shot clock. Herro is among the few so talented for whom the rules are different. Question those mechanics and that Bolshoi footwork at your own peril.
Teams will adjust. Having veterans back around him will reduce the load, but the more Herro proves himself the more he’ll be targeted. More ball pressure will come, and teams won’t be so quick to keep things in a two-man game as the Sixers were just happy to do so. Help is going to start coming from creative angles and teams are going to force Herro to find the passing lanes. While he’s shown promise there, and the assist rate is up, the true dynamic reads will continue to be an area of growth – one that’s important enough it could eventually dictate what level Herro eventually reaches among his NBA peers.
“He’s more than just a strictly catch-and-shoot player,” Spoelstra said. “He’s very good off the dribble, and this is something that he diligently works on every day with his quarterback reads. And it’s not just finishing. It’s making the reads on what the scheme is and where the weakside is. There’s different coverages based on who you’re playing, and I think he’s growing leaps and bounds with that.”
Defense may be where the Hero’s Journey ends. If you’re expecting an All-Defensive team spot, you likely won’t be able to find that happy ending. Where Herro has all the modern offensive sensibilities, Adebayo and Butler lead the way on the other end. What matters is that Herro has a tremendous amount of one of the most important quantities in the league: give-a-****. Players with enough of that in their tank will play. Especially the self-aware ones.
“On the defensive end, I just have to be better,” Herro said.
Herro isn’t the main character of this story, at least not yet. As important as his development is to the big picture of the franchise, it will take place in a competitive, purposeful environment. Spoelstra isn’t in the business of handing out free reps. Herro won’t be judged on the successes and failures of the team in the same way Adebayo and Butler will be. But this isn’t a film that needs to wrap things up in two hours. The burden, on and off the court, can be his if he earns it.
When they drafted him, before they even acquired Butler and changed their immediate prospects, the HEAT needed Tyler Herro. Well, at least someone like him. Some version of him, with some approximation of his ceiling-raising skillset. The Tyler Herro they got is the Tyler Herro that more than fits the bill both today and tomorrow.
They just happen to have the 20-year old – for five more days – edition of that player. A player for whom the journey is just beginning.