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Rookie Tyrese Haliburton has been a bright spot for the Kings so far

It's early, but the No. 12 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft has looked like a steal for Sacramento.

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton has been impressive to start the 2020-21 season.

It’s always tricky and possibly regrettable when discussing this team and this topic, but here goes anyway: It appears the Kings made the right call on Draft day.

Those words are rarely stitched together, because the calls traditionally made by the Kings wind up being the wrong number. Or a busy signal. Well, you get the idea. Essentially, the Kings’ Draft history is rather putrid, and what makes this even more alarming is the team has selected in the lottery 14 straight years, some years with multiple first-round picks.

How embarrassing is that? For the sake of context, consider the flipside: The Spurs, by virtue of reaching the playoffs 22 straight years (until last season) and therefore drafting outside the lottery, own a far more remarkable Draft track record. For every Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard and Dejounte Murray by San Antonio, there’s a Nik Stauskas and Thomas Robinson and Jimmer Fredette and Georgios Pappagiannis by Sacramento.

That seems almost accidental. The number of stars bypassed by the Kings in the Draft reads like a USA Olympic team: Klay Thompson, Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker to name a few. In the dreaded 2016 draft, the Kings traded down from 8 to 13, missing Domantas Sabonis (11) in the process; used the 13 on Pappagiannis who was out of the NBA in three years; got the No. 22 pick in a trade and took Malachi Richardson and missed on Pascal Siakam (27); and used the No. 28 pick obtained in a trade on Skal Labissiere while Murray was taken with the very next pick by the Spurs.

That’s three first-rounders who, just four years later, are no longer with the Kings or in the league at the moment.

And just to pile on, the Kings had the No. 2 overall pick just two years ago … and took Marvin Bagley III instead of Luka Doncic. This, despite the fact that Vlade Divac, the GM at the time, knew extensively about Doncic ever since the player was just into his teens and had better intel than anyone else. That’s largely why Divac is now the former GM.

But now, the Kings are ecstatic, if understandably somewhat tempered, about the promise of Tyrese Haliburton.

One player cannot erase a history, but he can cause some amnesia, and that’s what the Kings and their fans are hoping from Haliburton. Here in the very early stages of the season, Haliburton has not only shown he’s an NBA player — hey, it’s a low bar for the Kings after that 2016 draft — but his game is more mature and polished than most rookies.

In quick time, the No. 12 pick has earned the trust of coach Luke Walton and a place in a three-guard rotation with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield that has the Kings feeling confident about the present and future of their backcourt.

“I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I worked for this, so I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’m surprised or anything like that,” Haliburton said.

Curiously, Haliburton was expected to go higher in the Draft, and when he fell to the Kings … there had to be a reason why, right? So right away, the situation was cloudy and somewhat familiar in Sacramento. Either the Kings had a steal, or this was another Justise Winslow situation (Heat, 10th pick, 2015), where a highly regarded player dropped and … in hindsight was taken right where he belonged. Haliburton came with a funky shot release that probably frightened some teams, and his 175 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame doesn’t scream a body that’s NBA-ready. Although he did beat out Tyler Herro for the Mr. Basketball title in Wisconsin, he lacked a rich basketball history as a star.

Yet: Haliburton’s ball-handling skills are a bit better than expected, his elbows-out shot is falling with impressive accuracy, and his basketball IQ allows him to make solid decisions with the ball (only four turnovers in 135 minutes).

“He plays beyond his years and we all have the utmost confidence in him with the ball,” Fox said. “He steps up to the occasion. He understands the game so well … you would have thought he’s played a few years already.”

Haliburton is shooting 53% from the field, 87% from the free-throw line and making half his 3-pointers. There’s also the eye test, where Haliburton simply fits into the flow of the game and the system, rarely forcing anything, moves well off screens and without the ball and glides into his spots.

He’s averaging 10.6 points and 4.4 assists, both top-five among NBA rookies, in 26 minutes per game while getting touches at point guard and off the ball. With Fox bringing speed and Hield supplying the deep shots, Haliburton is contributing a mix of both and meshing well with those starters.

The Kings are also encouraged by his presence in tight games. So far, Haliburton is the only NBA rookie to score during clutch time — a period during the last five minutes of a game that’s within five points. He had some takeover moments late in the win over the Nuggets. Against the Rockets on Thursday, Haliburton broke free for an open and clean 3-pointer (and then had words for the Rockets’ bench) in the final moments to create comeback suspense in a game the Kings eventually lost.

During that game, he fell hard and grabbed his wrist, which initially was a concern because Haliburton hurt his wrist at Iowa State. (Update: An MRI revealed a left wrist bone bruise for Haliburton. He will be reevaluated next week).

These are somewhat desperate times for the 3-2 Kings, if only because they own the longest playoff drought in the NBA. This is a franchise that craves and needs stability and more signs of prosperity. Monte McNair is now in charge of the operation and the ex-Rockets front office man is off to a solid start, Draft-wise anyway. Walton had difficulty once arriving as coach last season and the Kings once again failed to make the postseason.

Several times in the last decade, the Kings gave positive signals that turned out to be false. Players came and went and superstars never materialized. Most of all, high Draft picks fizzled, and anyone searching for reasons why the Kings have floundered for so long can start right there.

Tyrese Haliburton can’t change history, but if the rookie is bringing more of what we’ve seen, then he can impact the future.

“My whole life, I’ve just wanted to be the best version of myself and obviously, as a kid, I’ve always wanted to be the best player in the world,” he said. “And those are obviously my aspirations.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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