After Superb Rookie Season, Tyrese Haliburton Says Casuals Are Sleeping on Kings

Sean Highkin@highkinFeatured ColumnistOctober 16, 2021

Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton (0) goes to the basket with center Richaun Holmes, left, during the first half of a preseason NBA basketball game against the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — After an outstanding rookie season in which he finished third in Rookie of the Year voting, Sacramento Kings guard Tyrese Haliburton has a message for fans and observers who haven't given the Kings much thought in a chaotic offseason—discount them at your peril. They're closer than you think.

"The casual fan is more focused on the top two or three teams in each conference," Haliburton told Bleacher Report at shootaround on Monday before the Kings' preseason game against the Portland Trail Blazers. "There was a lot of shake-up towards the end of the year. We lost that game to San Antonio at home that would have really put us in good position to make the play-in game. [Before that game] I got hurt, H.B. [Harrison Barnes] got hurt, [De'Aaron] Fox got COVID. And the year before that, they were in a good spot and then the season got shut down, and then you get to the bubble and things go haywire from there."

Haliburton, the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 draft out of Iowa State, was impressive from day one despite a short training camp and no summer league. He scored 12 points in 30 minutes in his NBA debut in a surprising win over the Denver Nuggets and quickly established himself as a reliable scorer off the bench backing up—and even playing with—Fox.

"We were in training camp for what felt like a day, and then the next thing we knew, we were in a preseason game," Haliburton said. "Right from the jump in Denver, I had a good debut and then just kept stacking good games. The more that happened, the more I was getting trust from our staff and from my teammates."

It didn't take long for Haliburton to become one of the team's leaders, even as a rookie. And as the Kings look to—finally—end a 15-year playoff drought, he's become so integral to their long-term plan that they have made him untouchable in potential trade talks for disgruntled Philadelphia 76ers star Ben Simmons, as B/R's Jake Fischer reported this week. 

The Kings see him as a versatile guard with room to get better who has already shown he can command the respect of much older and more experienced teammates.

"As a point guard, a lot of times you're the voice of the team," Haliburton said. "Coming in as a 20-year-old, it's hard to try to tell grown men what to do. It's uncomfortable. But as time went on and guys have known who I am and what I'm about and I have better relationships with guys, it became a lot easier to use my voice. There's obviously other things on-court-wise as far as knowing the game. The NBA is such a copycat league. Everyone runs the same sets; they just call it something different. Being able to see that stuff before it happens. Film study, all that stuff."

Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

Going into his second season, Haliburton says he expects to start alongside Fox in the backcourt rather than back him up. That means sharing leadership responsibilities with a guy who's already a borderline All-Star with a max extension about to kick in. Thus far, they haven't found it difficult to manage.

"It's just being authentic in what we say, being authentic in what we feel," Haliburton said. "We're very like-minded when it comes to wanting to win, wanting to do the right things. We're very similar in that respect. He just talks a lot less than I do, so a lot of times my voice is heard a little bit more because he's a quiet guy. 

"He leads more by example than with his voice. But he's gotten a lot better at that. I've seen a lot of growth from him even in the last year, in terms of using his voice. We're all just saying how we feel. It's never anybody stepping on anybody's toes. For the most part, we agree about everything that's going on on the court. We've become really close, so leading and communicating is second nature for us."

The Kings have a guard-heavy roster, which will mean plenty of juggling for head coach Luke Walton. Rookie Davion Mitchell has already impressed in training camp with his defensive tenacity, and there's been talk of various three-guard lineups spending significant time on the floor this season.

"No question," Haliburton said. "I think we're going to do a lot of three-guard lineup stuff. On top of me, Fox and Davion, we've still got Buddy [Hield] and T.D. [Terence Davis]. There's a lot of different variations we can run. So you'll see a lot of that. I think offensively, it will help us space the floor and be able to have a lot of different primary ball-handlers. But defensively as a guard ‘room,' we've come together and said, ‘If we want to play this many of us together at a time, we've got to be great defensively.' We've got to get extra possessions with rebounds, because we're going to be smaller a lot of times."

Randall Benton/Associated Press

The Kings have the league's longest playoff drought, having not made the postseason since 2006, but in recent years they've come close. Two years ago, they were one of the six non-playoff teams close enough to contention to be invited to the bubble near Orlando. Last year, they finished just two games shy of a berth in the play-in tournament and might have gotten there if not for a few injuries at the end of the season.

They're one of the teams the implementation of the play-in will help, and there's enough talent on the roster that they can't be counted out from challenging.

"We just want to win," Haliburton said. "We've got a lot of guys that are of similar mindsets. A lot of guys have different stories and things like that, but we just want to win. The West has been like this forever. There's the teams in your head, however many there are, that are clear-cut playoff teams, and then anybody else can make it after that. Every game matters in the NBA, but especially in the Western Conference. I think we understand that, and the sense of urgency from the top down is there. Guys get the big picture."


Sean Highkin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. He is a graduate of the University of Oregon and lives in Portland. His work has been honored by the Pro Basketball Writers' Association. Follow him on Twitter, Instagram and in the B/R App.