The New York Knicks have been looking for a lead guard for so long. They might find him in this year’s point guard-heavy NBA Draft.
He may not have the size and the athleticism of Magic Johnson and LeBron James but Tyrese Haliburton has their combination of vision, high basketball IQ, charisma, and leadership qualities.
Haliburton has closely watched both guys growing up with Johnson belonging to his father’s generation and James from his generation.
“I watched a lot of old, throwback basketball like the 80s and 90s stuff growing up because my dad is an old head. For me, Magic Johnson has always been my guy,” Haliburton said during his Draft Combine interview.
“His passion and spirit on the court but his vision and his impact on winning, I don’t think people really understand how much of a winner Magic Johnson really is. That probably is my inspiration.”
Magic Johnson has won five championships with the Los Angeles Lakers during the 80s. James, on the other hand, is fresh from winning his fourth title also with the Lakers, his third team.
There was a time when the 6’9” Johnson played center in the NBA. And James too as a 6’8” point forward. Haliburton grew up like them in Wisconsin alongside recent NBA Bubble breakout star Tyler Herro of the Miami Heat.
Haliburton was the tallest kid during his fifth grade that he was pigeonholed as a center.
“I hated being a big man,” Haliburton recalled.
A young Haliburton reached his breaking point during one of their team practices. He grabbed a rebound and began to run the ball up the court, directing play.
“I told coach, ‘I can play the point, let me play the point’,” Haliburton said.
And he made his point with conviction, playing as the tallest point guard. He’s played that position ever since except for his freshman year in college.
Haliburton and Herro went separate ways in high school and carved their own basketball path.
Haliburton went to Oshkosh North High School and developed into the best point guard in Wisconsin. Herro blossomed into a big-time scorer at Whitnall High School.
Haliburton said he’s gotten a lot of insights from Herro since he declared for the NBA Draft.
As a high school senior, Haliburton led Oshkosh North High School to a 26-1 record averaging 22.9 points, 6.2 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 3.5 steals, and 1.7 blocks. He capped off his phenomenal senior year with a 31-point effort, including 24 in the second half and a perfect 18-of-18 trip at the line, to win the Division I state championship. He was named Wisconsin Player of the Year.
Despite his high school accolades, he was only rated as a four-star recruit. But Iowa State head coach Steve Prohm saw something else in Haliburton.
“He’s been a rock star here since Day One. I think that attracted us and that made him a priority in our recruiting process,” Iowa head coach Steve Prohm told Empire Sports Media.
Prohm’s program at Iowa has produced the likes of Georges Niang, Monte Morris, and Talen Horton-Tucker in the NBA. He has zeroed in on high-character guys and great personalities.
“When we talked to him on the phone, sat with him in their living room, and watched him play, he checked all those boxes,” Prohm recalling his recruitment of Haliburton.
Two years later, Haliburton has emerged as the potential first lottery pick from ISU’s basketball program under Prohm’s watch.
In just a short time with the Cyclones, Haliburton has been to the NCAA tournament, won a Big 12 tournament, and a gold medal with Team USA U19 with a performance that catapulted him into one of the best prospects in this year’s NBA Draft.
Behind his competitive spirit on the hardcourt, Haliburton has that infectious smile and the charisma of a Magic Johnson.
He’s just got an unbelievable spirit and phenomenal personality. And I always joked with him that when he’s done playing, he’ll be the governor of Wisconsin,” Prohm said. “He can walk into any room and can have an amazing presence.”
Like Johnson, Haliburton has only played two years in college before declaring for the NBA. But unlike the former Laker legend, Haliburton isn’t the consensus top overall pick. He’s not even the most highly-touted point guard in the Draft. That label belongs to LaMelo Ball.
And Haliburton’s case as the second-best point guard in the Draft has met a strong resistance from Frenchman Killian Hayes.
But Haliburton has the supreme belief that he’s the best facilitator out of the group, something that he molded himself after the playing styles of Johnson and later on James.
“LaMelo is scoring the ball at three levels. I think I’m the best facilitator out of the group and I think Killian defends at a high level,” Haliburton said of their different strengths.
It’s not hard to see why Prohm can see a vision of Haliburton being a Wisconsin governor someday. Just by listening to Haliburton eloquently answering each media question, showing grace under pressure, is just half of the equation.
He says all the right things. But he’s also done things the right way.
The other half of Haliburton’s brilliance can be seen in the body of work he’s done on the court.
Bleacher Report’s Draft analyst Jonathan Wasserman has indicated in a recent appearance on KnicksFan TV that Haliburton had A+ interviews with teams. Haliburton has gone on record that he has talked to three teams so far — New York Knicks, Golden State Warriors, and Detroit Pistons.
And if the Knicks would have Hayes and Haliburton available for the eighth pick, Wasserman believes they would choose the Iowa standout.
But it seems that the Knicks’ interest in Haliburton is not as strong as the other prospects such as two-way wingman Isaac Okoro whom the they have “inquisitively scouted and liked from the jump” according to Ian Begley of SNY.
Prohm said he’s never met with the Knicks yet and admitted that his communication with them was just confined to text messages.
“I have not talked to the Knicks personally. Just a little bit of texts with one of the guys that’s new over there. But that doesn’t mean that my staff has not talked to them. I don’t ask them all the teams they talk to,” Prohm told Empire Sports Media.
Regardless of how the Knicks view him, Haliburton sees his potential fit in New York.
“I like the Knicks roster and I think they are an up-and-coming team,” he said. “Obviously, they have a lot of guys that can play the point guard spot in Elfrid [Payton] and Dennis [Smith Jr.] and Frank [Ntilikina] but I’m prepared to do whatever I have to do, so if it was the Knicks I’m prepared to do whatever is asked of me. If that’s play the one, or slide to the two or come off the bench or start, it doesn’t really matter. I’m ready.”
Haliburton’s Draft projections have been all over the place. The uncertainty of this Draft presents a strong case for Haliburton to be one of the sure things.
Aside from his phenomenal vision and high-efficiency play on the court, Haliburton brings flexibility at the backcourt.
When he arrived in Iowa, Haliburton was pegged to become the backup point guard behind senior guard Nick Weiler-Babb. But an injury to their starting shooting guard Lindell Wigginton had prompted Prohm to slot him in the starting unit right away next to Weiler-Babb.
But even playing outside his natural position didn’t stop Haliburton from making an impact on the team.
“As a freshman, the goal was to put them in a position to have immediate success and gain confidence. We had a senior guard (Weiler-Babb) who was phenomenal at the position. With the way we play, and what we always emphasize — spacing and ball movement, Tyrese was still able to be the second in assist to turnover ratio as a freshman and he almost led our team in assists as a freshman,” Prohm said.
Haliburton started in 34 out of 35 games as a freshman and averaged 6.8 points, 3.6 assists, 3.4 rebounds, 1.5 steals, and almost a block per game while shooting over 51 percent from the field and 43 percent from the three-point region. He ranked third in the nation in offensive rating (136.8) and his 4.5-1 assist-to-turnover ratio was the second-best in the nation and led the Big 12 Conference.
He also broke the 44-year school record with most assists in a single game when he dished out 17 against a lone turnover in a blowout win against Southern.
“He’s such a willing passer and a giver that he’s so good in the pick and roll and his vision is phenomenal. He’s a high-assist, low-turnover guy and off the floor, he’s all about the right things. You talk about character and what’s the right thing for the team,” Prohm said.
On the defensive end, Haliburton joined last year’s top overall pick Zion Williamson (Duke) as the only true freshmen nationally with 50 steals and 30 blocks.
“That’s why Tyrese is good at understanding scouting reports. He has great anticipation and a great feel. He’s really good away from the ball. He really understands how to trap, double the post, understand rotation,” Prohm said of Haliburton, who has been watching and breaking down game films since his middle school.
His stint with Team USA in the summer before his sophomore year has shot up his confidence even more. He returned to Iowa in high spirits ready to embrace a bigger role in Prohm’s system.
In a clean seven-game sweep, Haliburton averaged 7.9 points, 6.9 assists, 2.4 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in 25 minutes per game in the 2019 U19 FIBA World Cup. He also shot 56 percent of his three-pointers on his way to being named to the tournament’s All-Star Five.
Haliburton showed elite playmaking next to elite talents in a team that boasts of tournament MVP Reggie Perry, next year’s potential top picks Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, Evan Mobley, and fellow Draft prospect Kira Lewis, Jr.
His phenomenal play in the world championships turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg.
“Obviously, we lost a lot of those guys from his freshman year that he moved into the primary point guard responsibility and he flourished with that. But the other thing he did a great job is he’s really shown people that he can score as well,” Prohm said.
Haliburton had a breakout season in his sophomore year that led to his decision to declare for the NBA Draft.
When the college season was cut short by pandemic, Haliburton was sixth in the Big 12 in scoring (15.2), second in FG percentage (50.4), first in assists (6.5), first in steals (2.5), second in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3), third in 3FG percentage (41.9) and 13th in rebounding (5.9).
He has destroyed all Big 12 point guards this season including Lewis, Jr. of Alabama. In their matchup in the Bahamas late last year, Haliburton has outplayed his Alabama counterpart leading the Cyclones to a 104-89 rout.
Haliburton almost had a triple-double finishing with a game-high 23 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists. He also shot 4-of-7 three-pointers.
In contrast, Lewis, Jr. struggled with 3-13 field goal shooting and was limited to just eight points, four boards, and five dimes. He also went 0-of-4 from three.
Haliburton though hasn’t seen action since February due to a wrist injury but if there’s something positive that came out of it is that he showed what he’s really made of.
After injuring his wrist late in the first half, Haliburton had his Mamba moment. He still started the second half and played through the pain. Playing essentially with one hand, he helped the Cyclones build a 49-35 lead before sitting out the last 16 minutes of the game. His teammates held on to the victory, 73-63.
He was later on diagnosed with a left wrist fracture that prematurely ended his final year with the Cyclones.
“When he got injured, one thing he showed us is he’s all about the right things. His parents still traveled to the games. They still came to the home games. He still followed the scouting reports. He still communicated from the bench. He’s waving the towel. He’s talked to his teammates. And he was all-in to the very end,” Prohm said.
“He was crushed because he doesn’t want to leave this place but he needed to go pro. It was his time and he’s more than ready.”
Analytics guys would fall in love with Haliburton’s high-efficiency play. But his lean frame and unorthodox shot have made him a polarizing Draft prospect.
Aware of those knocks on his game, Haliburton has locked up in Wisconsin in preparation for the Draft training with his former AAU coach Bryan Johnikin. He said he worked three times per day doing lifts in the morning and spending the rest of the day on the basketball court working on his shot, primarily off-the-bounce and his on-ball defense.
From 168-lb, Haliburton has checked in at Impact Basketball in Las Vegas recently with 18 lbs additional muscle — a product of his six days a week lifting in the weight rooms for two months.
And what about his shot?
Haliburton and the people around him have the “why fix it if it ain’t broke” mentality.
“I think it’s so overblown the stuff about my (shooting) mechanics because I don’t think film or numbers lie,” Haliburton said.
“I think I shot the ball really well both years. If people watched, they know the range is not a problem for me. If that’s what people want to talk about, go ahead. But we can revisit that question in a couple of years and see what people will say,” he added.
Prohm didn’t even try to tweak it. And why would he do that if Haliburton’s shooting is off the charts?
“I didn’t [tweak it]. He shot over 40 percent from threes for two years in a row. It’s gone in ever since I’ve seen him play. He’s got great range and size. I didn’t really want to change his shot. In the next level, they may, they may not,” Prohm said. “If you’re shooting over 40 as the top guy in the scouting report, that’s pretty good.”
NBA Draft analyst Matt Babcock of Babcock Hoops and his Director of Scouting Derek Murray have watched tons and tons of film on Haliburton throughout the year.
Murray also saw Haliburton multiple times during the Big12 play.
“While his shot is funky, it goes in, and goes in often. Everywhere he goes — he is the one of the best shooters in the gym, so I don’t see a need to change the shot at this point. It works’,” Murray told Empire Sports Media.
In Murray’s book, Haliburton is “easily a top-5 point guard.”
“I like him in the back of the top-10, certainly a lottery guy,” Murray added.
Haliburton’s shot at NBA stardom won’t necessarily hinge on his shot. To him, it’s only aesthetics that doesn’t need a quick fix. What he’s been working on is how to be more effective shooting off the bounce.
Haliburton has gotten better and more comfortable shooting off the dribble in Las Vegas as noted by ESPN’s Mike Schmitz
Haliburton already has the offensive gifts and uncanny vision to run a team or even slide to become a combo guard. But Prohm believes that if Haliburton can unlock his potential on the defensive end, then the sky’s the limit.
“One thing that he needs to get better at, he knows this, and teams I’m sure know this is just guarding one on one. He’s gonna have to continue to grow and get better at that but I think he’ll do that with his length and size, his ability to be coached, and as he matures,” Prohm said.
He may not be as fanciful as Ball, or as strong as Hayes, but Haliburton impacts winning in the most efficient way whether at the point or as a two-guard.
“I’m a basketball player. Whatever you need from me I’ll do. If you want me to play the PG, I’ll do that. I think I facilitate better than anybody in this draft. I think I can run a team right away, but if you want me to play the two and knock down shots and defend, I think can do that as well. So whatever’s really asked of me, I’ll do,” Haliburton said.
Haliburton has all the makings of not just a great point guard, but also as a great ambassador of the league. Prohm sounded like a broken record with all the right buzz words but Haliburton has shown he can walk the talk.
“He’s got great temperament, maturity, and humility to fit in any role. He understands what’s needed from him. He’s gonna buy-in and do what’s best for that team,” Prohm said.
“He’s never too high and never too low and he understands the work ethic that it takes to be successful.”
Haliburton, in some ways, is being viewed by skeptics just like how he believes people view Magic Johnson and his underrated impact on winning.
Some people also really don’t understand how much of a winner Haliburton is.