Tyrese Haliburton Eager to Work His ‘Magic’

Through hard work, film study and unwavering spirit, No. 0 blossomed from an unheralded recruit to one of the most skilled, impactful playmakers in the nation.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

It started with highlights of the Showtime Lakers, the defining team of the 1980s that blended flashiness with efficiency, on John Haliburton’s television screen.

His youngest son, Tyrese, age seven, would lean in to watch Magic Johnson orchestrate the fastbreak with flair and precision, zipping a no-look pass that left defenders in awe or flipping the basketball in a spot where only a soaring teammate could catch it for an alley-oop finish.

On most days, Tyrese says, he'd head straight home from school, park next to his father on the living room couch and sit for hours, marveling at the 6-foot-9 Lakers point guard who’d implant a valuable lesson in the youngster's mind on how the game should be played.

In the gym, John, a high school referee and girls’ basketball coach in his hometown of Oshkosh, Wis., instructed Tyrese on proper fundamentals from the day his son was old enough to toss a chest pass, and instilled a competitive fire that still burns as hot as ever.

“My dad has been everything in terms of the foundation of the game of basketball,” Tyrese said. “He taught me the game and always talked to me about what was going on when I was growing up. He didn’t let me keep any of my second-place trophies; he threw them all in the garbage. I was only allowed to keep championship trophies in my house. He laid the foundation for me being as competitive and working as hard as I do.”

The ongoing basketball education of Tyrese would continue late into the evening, when he’d flip on Cavaliers or Heat games to study LeBron James, and dive so deep into basketball history that his family members would tease him for being a walking NBA Wikipedia.

So when Sacramento selected him with the 12th pick in the Draft, Haliburton, a self-proclaimed basketball historian, didn’t need a crash course in the Kings of yesteryear. On his first Zoom call with local media, the 20-year-old recited the early 2000s starting lineup from memory, his voice brimming with pride and glee.

On ESPN’s telecast, long-time NBA executive and analyst Bobby Marks was effusive in his praise for the young man’s character and charisma.

“In my 25 years working in the NBA, he is the best interview that I’ve ever gone through,” Marks said. “High basketball IQ, a great kid. Sacramento has a steal here, and he’s going to be in the League for 15 years.”

The Kings draftee, of course, doesn't just say all of the right things in interviews. He does them on the floor, too, either directing an offense or playing off the ball while seldom taking bad shots or making poor decisions.

What makes him even more special is that he's the rare All-Star talent with a role player’s ego and sensibilities, impacting winning with his skills and intelligence, and uplifting teammates with his infectious positivity.

“His spirit, his personality, his charisma — it’s off the charts,” Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm told the Deuce and Mo podcast. “He loves to play, he loves to win, he’s an energy-giver. He just has so much he brings to the table in those regards, that he’s going to do a phenomenal job of just impacting [the Kings] culture and just fitting in.”

That joy for the game and humble demeanor, combined with a strong work ethic instilled in him by his parents, propelled Haliburton from a largely overlooked, three-star recruit, with only a handful of offers from high-major conferences, to a Team USA gold medalist and NBA Lottery pick.

Once he was old enough to drive, the Wisconsin native spent his early mornings shooting alone in the Oshkosh North High School gym. Without a set of school keys, he’d arrive two or three hours before class and pull on every door handle, hoping one was left unlocked, or knock on windows until a janitor would let him inside. Eventually, the new principal issued him a pass to use the facilities around the clock.

The open door helped Haliburton unlock his latent potential. Competing against bigger, tougher upperclassmen humbled him and buoyed his burgeoning confidence.

“Playing against the older dudes really benefited me, just because where I came from, I'd always been the best player in the area my whole life,” Haliburton said. “Being able to play against older guys who were better than me, faster and stronger, definitely benefited me as a basketball player.”

By his junior year, the rising star was being recruited by several mid-major programs, but rebuffed offers to sit on the bench, redshirting all season. Northern Iowa seemed like a perfect fit, and he weighed the pros and cons of Cincinnati and Nebraska, until a conversation with Prohm made his decision easy.

“Coach Prohm never mentioned redshirting; he never blew smoke or anything,” Haliburton said. “He was just like, ‘We feel like you can help our team and we can help you become a better player.’ That was all I needed to hear.”

An injury sidelined starter Lindell Wigginton in the opening game of the season, and once Haliburton moved into his spot, he never relinquished it.

Playing off the ball for the first time — “it was kind of baptism by fire,” he said — in 35 games (34 starts), the 6-foot-5 guard averaged 6.8 points, 3.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, connecting on 43.4 percent from three and ranking second in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.5).

The raw numbers weren’t exceptional and his shooting mechanics were unorthodox, but his length, creativity and feel for the game were enough to catch the eyes of NBA decision-makers and evaluators. High scorers were a dime a dozen, but players with high efficiency and low turnover rates had become a far more coveted commodity.

Later that summer, Haliburton was among 32 players invited to compete for a spot on the USA Basketball U19 World Cup roster, and unseated higher-touted recruits in training camp to not only make the team, but earn a starting job. He averaged 7.9 points on 68.9 percent shooting, a tournament-leading 6.9 assists and 2.3 steals in seven games, helping guide the team to a gold medal.

“I think that was everything, just because it let me showcase what I’d been working on that whole summer and try different things in game opportunities,” he said. “Being with other top guys in the country … I think their confidence rubbed off on me, and I just took off from there.”

Back at point as a sophomore, Haliburton thrived in the spotlight with the Cyclones, leading the Big 12 in both assists (6.5) and steals (2.5); averaging 15.2 points and 5.9 rebounds; and ranking in the top-three in field-goal percentage (50.4) and three-point accuracy (41.9).

A long, versatile playmaker in a mold reminiscent of his childhood idols, Haliburton read defenses and delivered timely dimes with pinpoint accuracy, grasping when to push in transition and when to set up the half-court offense.

Like Magic, he showcased his propensity for no-look passes and ability to contort his body in mid-air to whip the ball by unsuspecting defenders from unexpected angles —all while flashing a smile and high-fiving teammates no matter if they made or missed a shot.

“I guess the easiest way to put it, as my AAU coach always told me, being the point guard is kind of like being the mom of the team,” Haliburton said. “Taking care of everybody, making sure everybody is doing ok; that’s what my mom does in our household. As the point guard, I always have to keep my teammates happy. I have to make sure they’re all getting their touches, stay on them and make sure they’re doing the right things.”

His offensive accomplishments likely would’ve been enough to vault him from a fringe first-rounder to a clear-cut Lottery pick, but Haliburton separated himself from peers with his tenacious defense in both seasons at Iowa State.

In 2018-19, he and top overall pick Zion Williamson were the only true freshmen to record at least 50 steals and 30 blocks. Haliburton was also the only player to rank in the top-10 in both block rate (2.8) and steal rate (2.7 percent) in the Big 12, and would’ve ranked among the conference leaders in 2019-20 if he’d played enough games to qualify.

In an anticipated matchup against fellow NBA Draft prospect Kira Lewis, Jr. of Alabama, Haliburton finished with a near triple-double — a game-high 22 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists — in a landslide victory.

Haliburton, who says he’s added 17 pounds of muscle since the end of last season, allowed only 0.50 points per possession in isolation (84th percentile), per Synergy Sports, and frequently jumped passing lanes to force deflections and turnovers.

“I think that, obviously, (defense) is a big part of the game and I think that’s what wins games and wins championships,” he said. “I think it’s kind of a game within a game, to get stops. I’m coming into a world where it’s the best players and everybody can score the ball at a high rate. I feel if you can defend — and defend at a pretty high rate — you can play in the NBA for a long time. That’s definitely something I take pride in.”

A wrist injury sidelined him for the final 10 contests of his collegiate career, but Haliburton continued to follow scouting reports and actively engage his teammates in video sessions, while waving a towel and hollering instructions as a quasi-coach from the bench.

His unshakable enthusiasm didn’t come as a surprise to those around him, who became accustomed to a player who delights in assisting a teammate rather than scoring himself, and a teenager mature and wise beyond his years.

“I’m just not cut out to even think (any other) way,” he said. “Growing up, (my teams) used to beat up on other teams pretty badly. So when the kids at the end of the bench would get in and I was able to pass to them, let them score and see how happy they were — how excited all our parents were — that really (gave me) a lot of joy. I think that laid the groundwork for me being able to see other guys score and the excitement that brings me.”

The extra free time afforded by the injury — he couldn’t even hold a video game controller, he laughs — also allowed Haliburton to watch even more film and zero in on his own shortcomings. Just as he did with Prohm as a freshman, he’d rewind his game tapes, again and again, to spot anything he might’ve missed the first time.

“To a point, it was a blessing in disguise,” he said, “in the sense that it allowed me to step away from the game of basketball, look at my game from a different point of view, see holes in my game that people point out, and just work on those.”

With his wrist fully healed, the Kings guard reiterates he’s ready to get to work and eager to play meaningful basketball, in any role, for the first time since February.

His experience as the primary shot-creator and decisiveness in the pick-and-roll will come in handy if he’s tasked with leading the second unit at point. His familiarity with playing off the ball and knack for knocking down open shots will serve him well as a floor-spacer alongside De’Aaron Fox.

On catch-and-shoot jump shots last season, Haliburton ranked in the 93rd percentile (1.493 PPP), and was even more impressive on spot-up opportunities (1.431 PPP; 99th percentile).

Haliburton expects Fox’s strengths and his own to complement each other perfectly, with the speedy, eclectic No. 5 breaking down defenses and the do-it-all, high-IQ No. 0 serving as an outlet and the secondary playmaker.

“I think I excel best with other great guards, and obviously he’s a quicker guard, a freak athlete,” Haliburton said. “He’s kind of the perfect guy for me in terms of what I lack, he has.”

On Draft night, Haliburton exchanged congratulatory texts and direct messages with several of his new Kings teammates, including Fox and Harrison Barnes, but as he scrolled through thousands of Twitter mentions on his phone, one notification made him do a double-take.

For a moment, Haliburton was transported back in time, to when he was a grade-schooler glued to his parents’ sofa, gazing at the Lakers No. 32 with childlike wonder.

“I still get goosebumps just thinking about it,” he said with a wide grin. “It wasn't like he just (said), ‘Congrats.’ He called me ‘Little Magic’!”

When he snapped out of his momentary trance, Haliburton vowed he wouldn’t disappoint the five-time champion, hoping the awe-inspiring nickname bestowed upon him would stick with him the length of his career.

“Now there are expectations; now I have to prove something and live up to it,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge and looking forward to competing on a daily basis ... I can’t wait. It’s something I’ve dreamt of my whole life.”

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