Iowa State coach Steve Prohm is a man uniquely qualified to opine on point guards.
He fittingly dished an assist to answer the question of whether lead guards are born or made.
“Flip Saunders had a great line I read one time,” Prohm says. “Great point guards come from heaven. I believe that. You’ve just got to find them.”
Prohm has then, by measure, been luckier than most when it comes to finding them. At Murray State, he coached future NBA players Isaiah Canaan and Cameron Payne and had Jonathan Stark sitting out as a redshirt transfer before taking the Iowa State job. Stark went on to become the 2018 Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year.
At Iowa State, Prohm inherited Monte Morris, the NCAA’s all-time single season (5.21-1) and career (4.65-1) leader in assist-to-turnover ratio. After Morris left, Nick Weiler-Babb capably handled point for two seasons.
Weiler-Babb’s replacement was Tyrese Haliburton, who might just become the best of all Prohm’s point guards.
Haliburton’s 2019-20 season was cut short by a broken wrist suffered in early February, but the 6-foot-5 sophomore was already certain of his next move. In March, Haliburton declared for the NBA Draft and relinquished his final two years of eligibility. Draft analysts agree with that decision. Most list Haliburton — then averaging 15.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 6.5 assists, 2.5 steals and shooting 41 percent from 3 — as a high lottery pick. There’s speculation the Warriors, possessors of one of those golden lottery tickets, would love to see what Haliburton could do after being air-dropped into a lineup with the Splash Brothers and Draymond Green.
Haliburton’s quick ascension prompted the question of Prohm: Is Haliburton a product of his environment, or was he born to be a point guard? After dropping that Saunders quote, Prohm thought about it for a second, and then amended his answer to 80-percent born, 20-percent made. And then, recalling that Haliburton is a notorious gym rat, he dropped the percentage a bit more: 75-25.
“A lot of it’s in the DNA,” Prohm says, before listing Haliburton’s inherent qualifications to play the point: “Unselfish. In his heart, Tyrese is a giver. Feel for the game. Ability to make people better. Charismatic. Personable … He’ll be the governor of Wisconsin [Haliburton’s home state] when it’s over. He can own any room.”
And then there’s Haliburton’s work ethic, which comes from his parents, John and Brenda. John, a huge Lakers fan when Magic Johnson and the Celtics’ Larry Bird ruled the NBA, insisted his son watch all the game tapes of Johnson he could. Tyrese did as he was told. It was no surprise that when he grew to love the NBA as much as his father, he gravitated to another player in the Magic/Bird mold, a convention-defying, position-less playmaker who could make his teammates better and defined an era—LeBron James
“LeBron was my favorite player growing up,” Haliburton says. “Watching Magic, and then LeBron, I learned a lot. Video games helped, too. I’d play video games and then go outside and play ball in the driveway. Studying those two helped get my basketball IQ where it is.”
Haliburton has always gotten the most joy from the game by helping his teammates score, especially those on the end of the bench who seldom played.
Hard work is also a Halliburton hallmark. Once again, a tip from his father was an important building block. Iowa State assistant coach Daniyal Robinson remembered Haliburton saying his father had told him, ‘Once you get to Iowa State, find the best player, and do what he does.’”
“[At the time,] Marial Shayok [currently on a two-way contract with the 76ers] was a fifth-year senior and our hardest worker. This guy was a machine in terms of his workout regimen. He worked out pretty much three times a day to go along with whatever we were doing. After a couple of weeks, you see Haliburton working out with Shayok, shooting, doing extra ball-handling work, staying after practice. That happened the rest of the summer, and you saw the growth in Tyrese.
“He was going to be the backup point guard and one of the first guys coming off the bench. We felt good about that. Then when Lindell Wigginton got hurt the second game of the year, we threw Tyrese in there, and there was no turning back. He had a bigger impact on the games than we ever thought he could.”
Haliburton started 34 games his first season, averaging 6.8 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.5 steals. He also shot .434 from 3, outstanding for anyone, let alone a freshman. In the footsteps of Monte Morris, Haliburton fashioned a 4.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, second in the nation and fourth-best in school history.
With Weiler-Babb around, Haliburton wasn’t asked to play the point, but he learned Prohm’s system and quickly excelled. Ample evidence of that came in an early December 2018 blowout of Southern during which Haliburton handed out 17 assists, breaking a school record that had stood for 44 years.
“He’s just got something about him,” Prohm said after that game. “That’s what he’s all about. He just wants to win. Some guys have got it, and he’s got it.”
There’s another important factor in Haliburton’s rapid development — Prohm’s system. Prohm and his staff keep recruiting great point guards because at Iowa State, the man who plays that position has certain rights and privileges.
“The system opens up the floor for them,” Prohm says. “We put a lot of confidence in that position and allow the point guard to make plays that make people better. Everybody steals stuff. We try to steal from the NBA. The floor’s spaced and open, which can help our guys.”
Typical of Haliburton, he didn’t rest on his freshman year laurels. Few players in the country had as productive a summer of 2019 as Haliburton. He started by helping the USA Basketball U-19 team win the World Cup, played in Greece. The coach was Kansas State’s Bruce Weber, who had gotten a front-row seat to Haliburton’s point guard skills during the 2018-19 season. In two games against Weber’s Wildcats, Haliburton averaged 5.5 assists.
“Coach Weber knew what he was doing when he brought me along,” Haliburton says. “He contacted coach Prohm and made sure I would be at the tryouts. I can’t thank coach Weber enough. He had a lot of confidence in me just like Coach P did. He told me from the jump to play loose, enjoy what I was doing, keep learning. I wouldn’t be where I am without that USA experience.”
He was going to be the backup. Then Lindell Wigginton got hurt in the second game, we threw Tyrese in there, and there was no turning back.
Iowa State assistant coach Daniyal Robinson
Asked about Haliburton at the Big 12 Media Day last fall, Weber was effusive in his praise.
“I loved him,” Weber told the media. “The thing that surprised me was his athleticism. He did some things I never thought he could do. Obviously, we knew he could shoot. He’s a great young man. He was a great leader.”
Haliburton earned a spot on the tournament’s All-Star Five team after averaging a tournament-high 6.9 assists, shooting 68.9% from the field and draining 10-of-18 3-pointers.
Less than a month after returning home, Haliburton was off to California for the Nike Skills Academy, where his confidence, already lifted by his USA Basketball accomplishments, multiplied times 10.
“That was big for me, to know that I belonged,” says Haliburton, who had been rated a three-star recruit out of Oshkosh North High School in Wisconsin. “I performed well with other guys who had been hyped up for the majority of their lives. It was big time.”
No sooner did Haliburton return to Iowa, he was on a plane with his teammates, headed for a playing tour of Italy, The Cyclones won all three of their games, and Haliburton averaged 6.6 assists.
“Another great experience,” Haliburton says. “I racked up some miles last summer.”
All that preparation paid off for Haliburton, who was a serious contender for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation’s top point guard, before he was injured in a game against Kansas State.
“He tried to block a shot,” Robinson says. “He went down on the same wrist that had been bothering him all year. So he goes in the training room at halftime and says, ‘I’m OK. I’m playing.’ He came back and played seven minutes in the second half. He’s a tough kid. Physically and mentally.”
Haliburton was disappointed when he found out he was done for the season, but not for himself. He would have done anything to help the Cyclones — who ultimately finished an uncharacteristic 12-20 — win more games.
The injury did nothing to dissuade Haliburton from finalizing the most important decision of his basketball career. He deemed himself ready for the NBA, and there were no dissenting opinions from the ISU coaching staff.
“You talk to a lot of NBA people, and they’ll tell you there’s a lot more to the really great players than performing on game night,” Robinson says. “There’s a tremendous amount of preparation that goes into it. That won’t set back Tyrese. He’ll be able to hit the ground running when it comes to preparation. He’s like a sponge. He soaks up information, and he’s not intimidated by guys being older or having more experience.”
Prohm says Haliburton will be “blessed wherever he ends up,” but he’s got a spot in mind.
“My son is 5, and he’s just starting to fall in love with basketball,” Prohm says. “He asks me all the time, ‘where will Tyrese end up? I hope he ends up with Golden State or San Antonio.’ ”
“He’d be great [for the Warriors]. He’s a ball mover, and he can play the 1, 2 or 3 at the next level. And he’s all about winning, all about doing the right things, a lot of the things I’ve read about what the Warriors do as a team.”
Haliburton has spent the offseason in Milwaukee, working with a strength coach and his former AAU coach Bryan Johnikin. He talks often to Shayok and other former ISU players in the NBA, like Georges Niang. He knows what to expect, and he’s ready to meet the challenge. His meteoric rise, from underappreciated and under-recruited high school recruit to a potential lottery pick, hasn’t fazed him. Haliburton is just following the script—the 75 percent Prohm described—and adding 25 percent of sweat equity.
“I wouldn’t say if you asked me when I was 18, I would have thought I’d be where I am now,” Haliburton says. “But I can’t tell you it’s a surprise to me now, just because I’ve worked really, really hard. It’s kind of the fruits of my labor at this point. I went about things the right way and prepared to get to where I am.”
* * *
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.