We’re about two weeks away from the 2020 NBA Draft, which means we’re deep into smoke and mirror season. Rumors are abound about what each team will do, which prospects they like, and the trades they could consider to get their player on Draft Night.
For the Boston Celtics, no rumor seems to be gaining steam more than the potential to consolidate their three first-round picks and move up into the top ten. Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported the C’s interest in shipping picks 14, 26 and 30 to move up, a way of both maximizing the talent they’d bring in and solving the roster crunch created by holding three first-round selections.
There’s no one name that stands out as the obvious target for Danny Ainge. Instead, many prospects fit the bill as strong fits next to the core of Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart. Boston’s draft capital and trade assets likely don’t warrant a move-up into the top echelon of this class, where true alpha-type scorers with high ceilings exist. Instead, Ainge would look to reel in the complimentary piece that can be a long-term fit with the core and play off the strengths of Tatum and company on both ends.
CelticsBlog’s Adam Taylor already wrote two glowing reports about such candidates in Onyeka Okongwu from USC and Kira Lewis Jr. of Alabama. Okongwu, a rim protecting big with great mobility, would tighten up the defensive end and perhaps be the missing link at center. Lewis, a speedy point guard who can impact the game with the ball in his hands, could project as the heir apparent to Kemba Walker.
One name who continues to be the analytics darling of this crop is Tyrese Haliburton from Iowa State. O’Connor has Haliburton tenth on his big board, while ESPN and Mike Schmitz put him at number eight. In two years in Ames, he drilled 42.6 percent of his 3-point attempts and was among the country’s leaders in catch & shoot efficiency this year. He averaged 6.5 assists per game on an offensively deprived Cyclones team, and had solid assist-to-turnover rates.
The question with Haliburton is who, or what, he really is. He could be a 6’5” point guard, with the ball skills, elite IQ and creation to facilitate for others. But he needs to improve as a scorer to have the ball in his hands. He could be a toolsy wing, with a great deal of skill but is best served utilizing his spot-up jumper. But he needs to fill out and perhaps speed up the release on his jumper. He’s a thin, lanky body with average athleticism and there are questions about which position he’s best-served guarding.
As we try to figure out what role Haliburton really fills at his best, it’s easy to overlook the obvious: he’s just a good basketball player. When assembling a championship-caliber team, those guys can’t go undervalued.
As a 20-year-old, Haliburton is one of the most cerebral and high-IQ players on lottery boards. He plays the game with such command and feel that his imprint is felt on nearly every possession. At Iowa State, that mostly manifested itself through pick-and-roll creation as the main source of their offense. Some scouts believe that’s his best NBA role and he has the chops to be an elite secondary creator next to a true lead guard.
What makes Haliburton special as a creator is how he uses his eyes. He routinely looks off help defenders, all with the plan of how to get the ball to his desired teammate. He zips the ball across the court and reads corner defenders, the linchpins of NBA help defensive schemes. He rarely over-dribbles and is consistent and finding his teammates as they get open and not a second later. He’s great in transition and, in the half-court, takes great care of the ball.
The key to being used with the ball in his hands will come down to how well he scores it. He’s got the length and a quick enough first step to get to the rim when he sees a lane. And yes, you better believe I’ve had fantasies of him partnering with savvy screener Daniel Theis.
Haliburton translates the same IQ and competitiveness to the defensive end. He racks up a ton of steals due to his length and the anticipatory instincts in passing lanes. He makes game-winning plays on defense by sniffing out opposing team’s plays, a trait that really cannot be taught. I’ve seen very few players who deflect as many post entry passes, a sign of both how quick his hands are and how much he cares about dominating the minutia of the game.
Whenever there’s a chance for Haliburton to take back the advantage from his opponent, he’ll do it, and in the most clever way possible. He wins every cat-and-mouse game he’s a part of, a whiz kid who checks the boxes of analytical darlings.
For someone who projects as a winner with his numbers, Haliburton didn’t do a whole lot of winning at Iowa State. They were 10-12 with him as the focal point this year, which could be an indictment on his upside as an NBA creator. While he’s a terrific passer, none of those flashy reads and jaw-dropping passes will present themselves if opposing teams don’t feel threatened by him as a scorer.
When evaluating lead guards and PNR ball handlers, one skill always stands out as being vital to how they’ll thrive in the NBA: the ability to hit 3-pointers off the bounce. Poor shooters typically are combatted by going under ball screens, with defenders meeting them on the other side if they drive it to avoid giving ground and daring them to shoot. This season, Haliburton was a very subpar 28.1 percent (16-57) on dribble jumpers, and 27 percent (9-33) off the pick-and-roll.
Moreover, Haliburton doesn’t really have any one-on-one creation. His first step is long but not overly quick. He’s a little stiff athletically and doesn’t have the shake to get by guys. He always gravitates to his right, very rarely passing or finishing with his left. Those are a lot of handicaps to overcome. If ball screens won’t create a ton of runway for him to unlock his passing or put defenders on his back, there’s some worry about what functionally he’ll provide on offense.
Defensively, Haliburton struggled at Iowa State in guarding smaller guys on the pick-and-roll. There are schemes and ways to mask that, but I don’t have Haliburton as an above-average on-ball defender by any means. Most of that is his upright stance and the Bambi-like long legs that prevent him from getting low and moving laterally. I’m not sure how correctable that is.
It may sound strange, but I don’t consider shooting a strength of Haliburton’s as far as draft profiles go. That’s strange because, among the 980 Division I players with at least 70 catch-and-shoot attempts, he was 4th in efficiency.
I’m not one to criticize shooting form if the shot goes in, but Haliburton’s stroke is different. He brings his knees together and is very slow, hitchy and bow-legged in his load-up. What that does, functionally, is slow down his release, meaning he’ll need more time and space to get those shots off. It also limits how quickly he can square off movement.
The biggest issue with limiting his catch-and-shoot effectiveness is in projecting him as a secondary creator who makes high-impact reads when attacking closeouts. A slow release means Haliburton would get chased off the line, either by design or by accident. But the bow-legged knees prevent him from quickly punishing those closeouts and keeping an advantage when going towards the rim. That’s why at Iowa State, Haliburton only took two shots at the rim from a spot-up, as opposed to 60 jump shots.
If he’s not getting to the rim, no help defenders are rotating to take the rim away. If that’s not happening, his great passing ability won’t come to fruition. In a hyper-athletic NBA with size, length and speed to cover ground more quickly, Haliburton may have fewer areas to flash his greatness.
Fit in Boston
The Celtics have built a unique identity with Tatum and Brown that dictates much of how they play. On defense, they’ll be switch-heavy, looking for high-IQ help defenders who know how to read plays and possess the length to guard many types of guys. On offense, they like guys who can make shots, manufacture easy ones when one of Tatum or Brown rest and understand how to be impactful in an off-ball role.
With such a high basketball IQ, Haliburton checks all those boxes. At 6’5” with a 6’9” wingspan, it’s hard to argue with the physical fit on defense, provided his body does fill out a bit. The switching scheme is perfect for Haliburton, as it masks his biggest defensive flaw in guarding the point of attack. He can use his instinctual rotations to be a positive contributor early and dependable in postseason minutes.
For Haliburton, Boston’s offense presents a dream scenario. There’s little scoring load required of him but a need for shot-makers and ball-movers. He can be the secondary playmaker long-term, while filling a bench role early and playing off any lineup Brad Stevens throws out there. There’s no pressure for him to get to the rim and be a great scorer, giving him time to explore improvements in those areas.
Still, I have my reservations. Trading up and consolidating assets for one guy means you better be pretty damn certain about him. I’m not quite there with Haliburton, despite the obvious fit in Boston if he becomes who many expect him to be. The reservations of how his offense is handicapped make him more of a second-unit, pass-first playmaker, and you don’t sell the farm for those guys.