Timberwolves

Tyrese Haliburton: The Timberwolves Moneyball Pick

Photo Credit: Reese Strickland (USA TODAY Sports)

Beane’s mantra was, “We’re not selling jeans here.” The longtime general manager of the Oakland Athletics and Moneyball protagonist is credited with pioneering an analytical management style that would give rise to the trans-sport numbers revolutional. While tradition scouts struggled to look beyond the aesthetics of young prospects, Beane was adamant that aesthetics were the siren call of scouting, one that had led many an organization (and, more importantly to Beane, those employed within them) to be dashed upon the rocks of mediocrity, riding the lottery treadmill of an eternity that does not prejudice on the basis of market size.

For those of you who read the book or watched the movie, the Oakland A’s, in fact, did not sell jeans. They won 103 games, starting a catcher with nerve damage as their first baseman, bringing in a dominant reliever whose secret weapon was the conventionality of his pitching motion, and with a run-producing offensive philosophy that revolved around not swinging during their at-bats.

Seemingly out of nowhere the player who provides the best, though strangest, fit with the Minnesota Timberwolves has been linked to them in the 11th hour.

Tyrese Haliburton is that player, all 6’5” and 175 pounds of him.

I know I just lost a lot of you by making that claim, but, it’s true, and I won’t shy away from the truth — even if it’s an unconventional one. And unconventional is the perfect framing in which to really unpack Haliburton’s game, and why it works so damn well with the Timberwolves.

And before we start, remember, we’re not selling jeans here.

Let’s start with this: Haliburton is one of the best off-the-catch shooters in the draft. Though a few players who are more associated with shooting from range ended up with a slightly higher percentage than Haliburton, like Aaron Nesmith (54%) and Tyrell Terry (50%), Haliburton’s mark of 49% on catch-and-shoot attempts would be more than enough to land him among the best shooters in the NBA, if he’s able to convert his stroke to the NBA game (which, as always, is a big “if”).

This is a risk that is taken with every player in the draft, however. It’s just part of the crapshoot of taking a college player’s small sample size and throwing it into the ringer of the NBA’s frantic pace, traveling obligations, and grueling 82-game season.

When factoring out Haliburton’s designed looks that come off on off-ball screens and just focusing on his catch-and-shoot jumpers that come out of spot-up situations, his percentages from three jumps to 54%. Considering that most of his three-point attempts should be coming out of spot-up with this current Wolves core, his numbers are arguably even better suited to the situation than a person would expect.

If you’re worried about Haliburton’s form, remember, we’re not selling jeans here. Yes, his preferred shooting motion is very ugly. Sure, Haliburton’s on-ball fluidity appears to leave his body as his base shrinks, and he ends the shooting motion that starts on his right hip with a wrist flick from just above his shoulder. But, you don’t get points for looking the part on a basketball floor, otherwise Andrew Wiggins might’ve actually been worth his $147-million contract. You get points when it goes in, and Haliburton’s threes out of catch-and-shoot went in 49% of the time on 71 attempts.

The shooting motion is deceptively quick with almost no wasted arm motion, and Haliburton is very, verty advanced in his ability to anticipate where the play is going, and which real estate on the arc is likeliest to be the most valuable as his teammate looks to kick the rock to an open shooter. Also, occasionally when in a pinch, Haliburton showed a compact, springy jumper that is a little reminiscent of a bad Ray Allen impersonation. Knowing that Haliburton isn’t grounded to his set shot is a sign that if his preferred jumper isn’t possible in the current NBA, he does have the groundwork laid for a backup plan.

But, the great thing about Haliburton is that even if that aesthetically-shakey stroke departs him, he has many other aspects of his game that can help keep him afloat in an NBA that demands either intense, elite specialization, or that a player be versatile enough to adapt to their team’s needs or defense’s weaknesses on a night-in, night-out basis. If the Wolves take a swing on Nesmith or Terry and they don’t shoot it at an above-average clip from deep, well, that’s it — that’s a pick that now should likely be viewed as a sunken cost, because those players are unlikely to contribute if they can’t shoot it from deep. If Haliburton doesn’t shoot it well off the bat, ok, that sucks, but let’s move along to his other favorable aspects.

In addition to being one of the best shooters in the draft, Haliburton is also one of the best, if not the best, perimeter defenders in the draft. He’s the rare lottery pick who handles the ball often, shoots the ball very well and has taken pride in his defense throughout the entirety of his two years at Iowa State. Haliburton is quick, with long arms, and at 6’5” is much larger than the average college point guard. His high IQ allows him to leverage his size and length to contest shots that would float uncontested over the arms of many college guards.

Don’t buy it? Let’s watch Haliburton’s isolation technique in action against some other perimeter players projected to hear their names called by Adam Silver at Wednesday’s draft:

Myles Powell, senior and third-leading scorer in Seton Hall history, has Haliburton stepping out onto him off a switch, and thinks that a hesitation move can get set and deep, but open, three-pointer off the dribble. Instead, the 6’2” Powell is completely swallowed up vertically, and Haliburton contests this 25-footer about as well as humanly possible, coming within an inch or two of gloving this shot before it gets out of Powell’s hand.

Demond Bane, senior and third-leading scorer in TCU history, thinks he has the edge on Haliburton, but things quickly spiral away from him. As Bane approaches the paint, Haliburton crowds his hip, pressuring Bane into a pickup in the middle of the paint, where Bane discovers that Haliburton has coerced him into a pick-up in a less-fortuitous position than he expected.

Bane is facing down the help-side center, and Haliburton mirrored his final step’s placement exactly, cutting off Bane’s opportunity to slither past Haliburton and then away from the center to the left side of the rim. Knowing that the three-second count has started and this is a late-clock scenario, the normally cool-headed Bane panics upon opening up out of his spin move only to see Haliburton’s hand right in his eyes, and takes an extra step, desperate to force separation, leading to a traveling violation and a turnover. Haliburton’s defensive stance and physical technique could use some improvement, but his anticipatory skills are truly special here.

Here Kira Lewis Jr., another projected lottery pick, thinks that he can succeed where Myles Powell failed, and takes a retreat hop from Haliburton as an opportunity to fire a 23-footer over a defender who would appear to be back on their heels. Instead, Haliburton has stayed perfectly on-balance when he gave up ground, and his Inspector Gadget arms shoot into Lewis’ airspace completely unexpectedly, and this Lewis shot only appears in the box score as a block for Haliburton.

Haliburton does come with known weaknesses, however, particularly on the offensive end. By the numbers, Haliburton was one of the worst pick-and-roll point guards in all of high-major college basketball last season. While Haliburton is a very good secondary creator, his primary flaw in pick-and-roll is that he’s too willing to trust his teammates, gives the ball up early when he sees an advantage, and doesn’t needlessly string out plays to hunt for assists. Think Steph Curry hitting Draymond Green on the short roll, versus Jeff Teague dribbling the air out of the basket for 11 seconds, only to flip it into the corner as the shot clock bleeds into desperation territory.

But isn’t this a fault that the Timberwolves are going to be better equipped to handle than any other team in the league? Not only do they have two max players who would love to be given the ball early out of pick-and-roll in KAT and DLo, but if Haliburton is completely unworkable in pick-and-roll, isn’t this exactly the contingency that trading for DLo was supposed to solve?

Who cares if his shot looks funny, if Haliburton is a knock-down shooter off the catch, a motivated and athletic perimeter defender, and a fantastic secondary passer who will rack up assists without having set after set catered to him, that’s a pretty good outcome for a lottery pick, no? He’s an excellent transition scorer.

All of this is why Iowa State played 5 points per 100 possessions better when Haliburton was on the floor versus off on it against non-buy-game competition. If you’re hung up on wondering if Haliburton fits in with Malik Beasley, Jarrett Culver, or Josh Okogie, now is not the time to get bogged down on sunken costs of players who have scarcely proven that they’re sure-fire NBA contributors — and Malik Beasley is about to get very, very expensive.

Drafting Haliburton could leave the Wolves in a situation where the Wolves can buy low on Haliburton, and sell high on Beasley if Haliburton makes Beasley expendable.

It’s a weird fit, but remember: We’re not selling jeans here. We’re trying to win games. A weird fit can be a snug fit, and Haliburton checks a lot of the boxes that the Wolves need filled if they’re going to make the playoffs with a KAT and DLo centric roster.

And here’s the best part: Haliburton is unlikely to go in the top three picks, so not only would the Wolves be able to trade down once, there might be a world where they trade down twice, collect additional assets twice and still get their man.

Imagine this: Charlotte gets antsy and can’t stomach the idea of missing out on their boo James Wiseman, so they trade for the first pick. The Timberwolves pick up P.J. Washington and the third pick for their troubles.

But then, as the Wolves are debating taking Haliburton at three, the phone rings again. It could be any number of teams looking to move up a few spots, just to make sure that they get their man. The New York Knicks in particular have been rumored to be trying to trade up from the 8th pick, which is right at the beginning of the range that Haliburton is consistently being mocked at. If the Knicks are panicking, there’s no reason to think that they might throw another future first-rounder at a Wolves organization that would have little use for R.J. Barrett of Mitchell Robinson.

In that scenario, the Wolves have gotten a young, dependable shooting forward (Washington), a future first rounder from one of the worst-run organizations in the NBA, and they still get their man. It’s a chance for the Wolves to plug two holes immediately, and the chance to plug a third hole in less than a year.

And we’re not selling jeans here. We’re trying to win games.

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Photo Credit: Reese Strickland (USA TODAY Sports)

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