In vibes as well as function, Tyrese Haliburton orchestrates offense with an undeniable air of effervescence, skimming the court with a smile painted on his soul as though he is prancing across hidden springboards of which only he is aware. Living in the moment, he can at times be seen twirling like he has been spun out of a rug in celebration of his own playmaking artistry, zhooshing some of his flashiest passes with subtle notes of both audacity and pure, unadulterated joy.
And yet, the way in which he creates for others while leaping here, there, and everywhere is about far more than just showmanship or aesthetic appeal, as there is also a highly effective method in what can all too often be perceived as danger in his gazelle-like bounciness.
Just look at these numbers. According to the NBA’s tracking data, Haliburton dished 1,843 passes in 26 games with the Pacers this past season. Of those passes, which were searched for and catalogued by hand, making note of every time he left his feet, 248 were delivered from the air, producing both a higher assist-to-pass percentage and rate of direct potential scoring opportunities than those lofted from the ground, albeit on smaller sample size and (likely) with greater frequency of passes originating in the half-court.
Furthermore, he recorded roughly five assists for every turnover, giving the ball away only 15 times, amounting to less than 20 percent of his total turnovers (84) with a turnover-to-pass percentage of less than 10 percent, as a result of a bad pass delivered while airborne.
Consequently, after reviewing all of his aerial exploits, here’s what can be surmised from how he manages to optimize possessions for his teammates and can still further optimize himself, categorized through a variety of lenses, including pass-type, approach, coverage, court location, and more.
In some respects, watching Tyrese Haliburton can feel like a choice between reason and emotion. Logically, your head says that maintaining access to more passing angles, with the benefit of both a regular pass or a bounce pass, requires maintaining your feet. After all, throwing a bounce pass from the air, where the passer has less control and defenders have more opportunity to read passing lanes, makes no sense. Who would do that, right?
Or, at least, so thinks your pesky brain.
Your heart, meanwhile, in clamoring for the presence of style points, instantly swells with glee as he swiftly proves your brain wrong and (seemingly) throws caution to the wind, somehow performing delicate surgery around the rim, despite vaulting his body across the lane in a way that almost has to be seen to be believed.
But, here’s the thing: Nothing about that is rash or cool merely for the sake of being cool; it’s calculated and arguably best contextualized not by divorcing reason from emotion but rather when marrying the two together, attempting to process everything he has to process on the way up to earn (yes, earn) those potential assists at the rim.
Make no mistake, he's THINKING about these things!
In many cases, he’s leaving his feet specifically with the intention of drawing defenders toward him, preying on their natural inclination to close to him once he’s in the air. Haliburton, though, has already diagnosed what he wants to do, and as he springs himself forward, he also purposefully eyes what appears to be the most open and feasible pass, repositioning the help so as to create an even better shot under the basket. For example, that’s why, with Deni Avdija stepping up to contest, Raul Neto lunges out toward Lance Stephenson, as a career 31-percent shooter from deep, rather than staying attached to Terry Taylor, who basically never missed from two last season.
In that way, Haliburton punishes opponents who don’t expect the unexpected, both in where he passes the ball as well as with what types of passes he bends to his will.
As was previously laid out when the Pacers pursued Deandre Ayton, the way in which Haliburton looks to pass with that outside-in progression permeates throughout the entirety of his playmaking and runs counter-intuitive to what most defenses are ingrained to take away. Typically, when an offensive player drives, the opposing big will leave his man to stop the ball, causing a chain reaction wherein the nearest perimeter defender then sinks ball-side to help the helper. This is what it looks like, albeit following a switch.
In essence, despite the size advantage, the defense is working to create the illusion that Taylor is being guarded, banking on the fact that most guards will first look to what’s in front of them before eyeing the weak-side for potential kick-out threes, where — in theory — the defense will have time to recover after encouraging the longest possible pass. Similar to how he conjures bounce passes, however, what Haliburton does is different (steam from nose emoji!!!), as he will routinely stare down the perimeter, all with the intention of throwing a no-look pass to the big either standing nearest or rolling toward the basket.
Beyond reprising that portion of the article from why Ayton would’ve been a fit for the Pacers, though, consider the broader potential efficacy of playing that game of cat-and-mouse against a team like the Raptors, who surrendered the highest corner three-point frequency in the NBA last season while instead orienting their defense around fortifying the paint with length and sliding in-and-out from the perimeter to prioritize plugging gaps against stars, even at the risk of potentially funneling shots to role players. In that regard, if there was anything worth taking note of from Indiana’s 40-point loss to Toronto at the end of last season (aside from the fact that a speaker caught on fire — perhaps in self-immolation?), it was this nugget.
After shifting Pascal Siakam with a pass-fake at the first level, notice how Haliburton sends OG Anunoby flying out to Oshae Brissett in the corner, effectively inducing an overreaction to a so-so shooter that runs counter to what they usually prioritize, while proceeding to pass Jalen Smith open directly under the rim.
Granted, not every team has the collection of wingspans necessary to replicate that type of scheme dogmatically (RIP, Indiana Raptors), but if playing higher in the gaps and protecting the rim with rim deterrence becomes more en vogue, then Haliburton’s unique manner in which he reverse engineers tight spaces, particularly given some of his current limitations in winning hip and shoulder wars against length, could expose a potential loophole.
Speaking of which, look at this screenshot and try to predict (independent of what this section is titled) where he’s about to deliver the ball.
Judging by the reactions of those around Haliburton, it seems as though Mo Bamba is preparing to commit to the floater. At the same time, Cole Anthony appears to be releasing from his tag in reaction to Haliburton’s eyes. In turn, Hield is pointing toward Brissett, likely so the ball can eventually find its way to him in the corner once Anthony takes first pass. All the while, four Magic players are standing in the lane at the point in which Haliburton is planting his foot to launch. Now, watch how he unpacks the paint, resulting in the lob.
As is punctuated by his own teammate expecting a different potential pass recipient, when paired with vertical spacing and rim pressure, Haliburton’s leaping ability and the unpredictability borne of whether he plans on finding nylon with his floater or toggling between early and late lobs or skip passes, becomes all the more deceptive.
Two on the ball
Of course, Haliburton doesn’t just jump for the purpose of gaining advantage; he also does so to gain height, particularly against increased defensive attention. More often than not, when playing against teams that defend at or above the level of the screen, he will rise up and immediately fire, trusting his teammates to play out of the odd-man advantage while also revealing the potential of Goga Bitadze as a short-roll playmaker.
To be fair, Bitadze still has a tendency to bring the ball below his waist as a scorer and his long-term future with the team remains unclear on a roster loaded with bigs that may want to move increasingly toward switching, but the fact that he was able to demonstrate some degree of process and manipulation from the middle of the floor still provides meaning in that it represents a departure from earlier in the season, when the ball just couldn’t seem to get there — even when there was the hands of a two-time All-Star.
Simple as it may seem, in the places where Brogdon (and occasionally Hield) couldn’t turn and find the angle around the coverage, Haliburton gets off the ball quickly (another departure from earlier in the season!), going over the coverage to force the defense to react in rotation to a wider net of possibilities.
That said, while there is certainly an element of inclusiveness to the way in which Haliburton approaches the game, he can also be too deferential, as he only led the team in field goal attempts three times after being traded to Indiana. On the one hand, when he runs out of real estate under the basket, he crawls through the air in such a way that his hang-time affords him the leeway to continue scanning the floor while still suspended.
Just look at this elevation; it’s almost like he’s clearing an imaginary hurdle.
With those hops, he can trust his processing ability to make the next read, even if his first read is taken away and he has to do so on the way down. In most cases, though, his eyes manage to tell enough lies that he can pre-meditatively move the backside defender in the opposite direction of his intended target. Again, with an outside-in progression.
Where he runs into trouble, however, is when he doesn’t actually run into trouble. Here, for example, even with Brissett cutting to the basket from the wing, there’s no 2-on-1 advantage for Haliburton to manipulate because Matisse Thybulle retreats from helping on the drive, instead, relying on Joel Embiid to close space at the rim. It’s in these spots, where rather than forcing a pass, Haliburton needs to be more assertive in looking for his own offense, sacrificing some of his pristine efficiency for potential trips to the line.
Put simply: The problem with the pass isn’t that he jumped; it’s that he passed.
That same dichotomy also shows up on possessions where he fires the ball to the opposite corner after dribbling off a screen. In fact, among the 15 total turnovers he committed on jump-passes (that's not a very big number!), roughly half were the result of skip passes and/or attacking baseline. In his defense, though, sometimes the wheels in his head turn faster than the surrounding parts on the floor.
Here, for example, he's passing Chris Duarte open to the spot on the floor where he should be moving (i.e. fading behind the flare screen to the corner), rather than to the spot on the floor where Chris Duarte is actually standing. The turnover goes to Haliburton, but that's on Duarte.
Likewise, by general rule of thumb, corner shooters should shake up from the corner when their defender goes in, so as to lengthen the rotation on the tag. Here, though, T.J. McConnell (who, to be fair, isn't often deployed as a "shooter," let alone as a "movement shooter") stays down, forcing Haliburton to readjust at the last second.
Aside from those minor chemistry issues, the other notable trend is how often he gathers to skip, oftentimes from outside the elbow, when the big is still in retreat.
Admittedly, not all of those have to be shots, but he at least needs to get deeper dribbling off the screen so the defense doesn't have as much time to recover, particularly on hang-time passes when air gets under the ball. To provide a distinction, it is one thing to throw this dart from outside the 3-point line, when the Pacers have strategically positioned Embiid's check away from the action so as to force the big man to cover more ground.
It is quite another to do so from, here, against a still-backpedaling Kristaps Porzingis.
As demonstrated by those two possessions, context matters. But, it would still be interesting to know the average ending distance of his drives, because when he penetrates below the free throw line the results look a lot more favorable, even when he's jumping.
As such, this also isn't really a jump-pass issue. Rather, when spraying inside-out to the perimeter, where longer passes are required, the issue more so relates to being overly pass-first in spots and actually getting inside with regards to the location of his launch point.
To a lesser extent, Haliburton's need for depth can also apply to the pick-and-pop, particularly against teams that attempt to keep the ball on one side of the floor, forcing it toward the baseline. Once again, jumping provides utility for Haliburton in that he can make the pass in one fluid motion as opposed to aborting his dribble and then having to pivot around, as was the case for old friend Darren Collison against that type of coverage.
Oh hey, remember the days of yore when these two would combine to run empty side pick-and-pop for long twos? Ahh, memories.
Circling back to Haliburton, though, while his actual execution of the pass is quicker, there's a fairly strong case to be made that this version of DeMarcus Cousins probably shouldn't, nor wouldn't, be able to close with this degree of nimbleness to Jalen Smith (related: please shoot, Jalen) if he was dragged out by even just a few more dribbles.
Creating Offensive Space
To that point, as the season went on, it's notable that the Pacers searched for schematic ways to assist Haliburton in getting deeper paint touches. Here, for example, notice how Smith is rolling and sealing off his own man in an attempt to carve an open path to the basket while at the same time Brissett is occupying the help with a flare screen to prevent the ball from being pestered, as Haliburton downshifts to get his defender on his back.
In addition to being an excellent illustration of why "spacing" doesn't just exist on the perimeter, guess by what mode is necessary for Haliburton to find the angle on the pass to the corner?
Why, yes, it's a jump-pass.
All of which is to say that, from the practicality he gains with height and angles to the way in which his leaping serves as a device to force defenders to commit to him rather than committing himself to a pass, Tyrese Haliburton's penchant for leaving his feet isn't an excessive quirk; it's a competitive advantage. In discovering the degree to which he can soar in a leading role, his wings shouldn't be clipped from dissecting defenses in the air; if anything, he should be pushed to fly even further and, preferably, deeper.