25-under-25: Tyrese Haliburton is a rock solid foundation

25-under-25, Indiana Pacers

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Tyrese Haliburton gives the Indiana Pacers something solid they can build, a foundation that could last for years to come.

I’ve been watching the Indiana Pacers long enough to see a savior or two. I remember the excitement about Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender as potential bridges to the post-Reggie Miller era, only for Jermaine O’Neal’s post-up craft and then Danny Granger’s two-way excellence to take up the mantle. Just as injuries began to take their toll, Paul George emerged, and with him Roy Hibbert, George Hill, Lance Stephenson and an unexpectedly brilliant defense. As that group faded out, Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis showed up and Myles Turner took a leap.

None of these Indiana iterations were outright failures. Since Harrington was drafted in 1998, only seven teams have won more games than the Pacers. They’ve made the playoffs in 18 of the last 26 seasons with six trips to the Eastern Conference Finals and one NBA Finals appearance. Injuries have reared their ugly head but never at a frequency or severity that feels unusually cruel.

The Pacers have had multiple successful eras over the past two-plus decades, it just feels like each has come and gone in the blink of an eye.

All that is to say, I’m trying hard not to get too excited about Tyrese Haliburton.

Tyrese Haliburton gives the Indiana Pacers something new to build on

Caitlin Cooper of IndyCornrows has about as succinct a description of the Tyrese Haliburton experience as I’ve seen: “In some respects, watching Tyrese Haliburton can feel like a choice between reason and emotion.”

Haliburton absolutely pops in the box score — 17.5 points, 9.6 assists, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 steals per game after the trade to Indiana. 50.2/41.6/84.9 shooting splits. With those kinds of numbers as a baseline, it’s not hard to imagine competing for the assist crown next season while chasing a 50/40/90 season.

But watching him play, he doesn’t pop in quite the same way. I mean that descriptively, not critically. He doesn’t win with explosive athleticism or physicality. He’s crafty but his craft alone won’t take your breath away, like Kyrie Irving breaking down a defender or Nikola Jokic moving the defense with his eyes and slinging an impossible no-look pass. The form on his jumper is a bit wonky.

A Tyrese Haliburton highlight reel is just the steady accumulation of good plays — finding open shooters in the corner, hitting cutters with the pocket pass, knocking down open jumpers, exploiting subtle advantages, finishing layups a half-step ahead of the defense.

I mean, the Caitlin Cooper line above comes from a lengthy feature on how effective he is at making jump passes, a fundamental no-no but certainly not the most dramatic or exciting violation of basketball’s written and unwritten rules.

I’m choosing my words carefully because I don’t want to call Tyrese Haliburton boring. He makes things happen, positive plays, at both ends of the floor, over and over again. He scores, he dishes, he pushes the ball in transition and cuts through the defense. He makes things happen.

But he does it in a way that feels solid, timeless, reliable.

Al Harrington and Jonathan Bender were flawed from the beginning, it was just disguised by blind optimism. Jermaine O’Neal’s contenders were tempered by anger and chaos. Danny Granger had to rely on Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy. The Hibbert-George defense was powerful but just as inexplicable. Fantasy was always the architecture of the Sabonis-Turner twin towers. The Pacers have had success but it’s always been obscenely fragile, as evidenced by the myriad ways they have repeatedly come up short, and then apart at the seams.

But Haliburton feels different. His talent and potential feel more complete, more established. He is young, but polished. His two-way talent, his optimism about the future of the Pacers and his enthusiasm for being a key part of it. It all feels Midwestern, brick-and-mortar.

Something that can finally last.

Like I said, I’m trying not to get too excited. But I just can’t help myself.

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