Mar 16, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Tyrese Haliburton (22) reacts after a play against the Kansas Jayhawks during the second half of the final of the Big 12 conference tournament at Sprint Center. Mandatory Credit: Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports
Roughly 975 days ago, I sat down at the iHeart Media studios in downtown Des Moines to interview a high school senior for a podcast.
This high school senior had just led his team to the state championship the weekend prior. He had already signed his letter of intent to play basketball at Iowa State as part of one of the program’s most highly-touted classes ever.
Sure, he was far from the headliner of the Cyclones’ 2018 recruiting class, but it became blatantly clear during that 20-plus minute interview there was something different about this kid.
High school kids are rarely good interviews. It is even rarer to find a high school kid good enough during an interview to make it into a quality podcast.
Tyrese Haliburton was no typical high schooler, though. And in the 970ish days that followed that interview, we came to find out he is not your typical basketball player or person either.
On Wednesday, Haliburton’s journey from a three-star recruit considered the No. 172 player in the country to NBA Lottery pick will be complete. The name of that kid from Oshkosh is expected to be called within the first 10 picks of the 2020 NBA Draft, which will be televised on ESPN starting at 6:30 p.m.
Few people could have predicted Haliburton would be in this spot after only two (memorable) seasons in Ames. The passing ability is what jumped out immediately from his high school highlight tape, but he was skinny, his jump shot mechanics were weird and his adjustment to the physicality of the college game were question marks.
It is hard to get too solid of an evaluation from the YMCA Capital City League, but Haliburton’s performance during his MVP summer of 2018 answered plenty of those questions.
Yes, the jump shot looked a little weird, but it went in a lot more often than it didn’t. Sure, he was awfully skinny, but the length and athleticism he brought to the floor were much more noticeable.
Most of all, it was obvious how much the kid loved the game. That summer was when we were introduced to the smile most Cyclone fans will always remember.
The kid was just having fun playing the game he loves — and, man, it was really fun to watch him play it.
Even after the summer, there remained questions as to how Haliburton would fit into what looked to be a loaded Iowa State backcourt with returning stars Lindell Wigginton and Nick Weiler-Babb, plus transfer addition Marial Shayok and Haliburton’s highly-touted classmate Talen Horton-Tucker.
He came off the bench in the season-opening win over Alabama State, scoring 12 points, going 2-of-3 from 3-point range and adding four assists, four steals and three rebounds.
It was the only time Haliburton came off the bench at Iowa State in his 57 appearances wearing Cardinal and Gold.
It was announced shortly after the win that Wigginton had broken his foot and would be out for several weeks. Haliburton slid into the starting lineup for the Cyclones’ next game against a Missouri team that had waxed them in the previous season’s opening game.
Iowa State rolled to a 76-59 win in front of a capacity crowd at Hilton Coliseum. Haliburton played all 40 minutes, scoring eight points, snagging four steals, dishing four assists, corralling three rebounds and blocking two shots.
It was that night we all started to wonder, “What do we have in the kid from Oshkosh?”
“His energy is infectious,” I wrote in my postgame column. “There is something different about this Iowa State team from the one we saw last season, and, at this point, it is hard to point to anything besides what he brings to the table. They play with so much energy, effort and heart, especially when Haliburton is on the court. How could Prohm take him out on Friday?”
It became increasingly hard for Prohm to take Haliburton out of games, so he rarely did. He finished his freshman year second on the team in minutes and played more time per game than any first-year player in the Big 12.
He became just the fourth freshman college basketball player since 1992-93 to record 125 assists, 50 steals and 30 blocks. One other college player had 50 steals and 30 blocks that season.
His name was Zion Williamson.
Of Haliburton’s 125 assists, 17 of them came during a win over Southern, setting a new single-game program record. It was his 10th collegiate game.
It was at this time we started to hear Haliburton’s name being thrown around by NBA Draft prognosticators. We went into the season thinking Wigginton or Horton-Tucker would be the ones in the NBA’s spotlight, and they were to an extent, along with Shayok, but the rumblings were there.
Haliburton was the best prospect of them all.
That Iowa State team never would have won the Big 12 Tournament championship in Kansas City without Haliburton. He averaged 9.3 points in the three games while going 11-of-15 from the field and 6-of-9 from 3-point range.
Years later when I think of Tyrese Haliburton’s time at Iowa State, there are two plays that will forever stick in my mind. The first one came during the team’s semifinal win over Kansas State, a knockdown, drag-out heavyweight fight.
Haliburton caught an outlet pass before going to the rack strong and finishing a right-handed dunk over the top of two Kansas State defenders.
It happened right in front of Chris Williams and me as we sat on press row at the Sprint Center. After all the great things we’d seen from Haliburton during his freshman season, this was something we had not seen previously.
He took it hard to the rim without regard for anybody else around him. It was a moment where you can assume he quit thinking about everything around him, focused on getting the ball to the rim and more or less blacked out, letting instinct take over.
It was the moment for me when all the things the draft experts had been saying really clicked.
This kid is something special.
Haliburton was the one tasked with slapping Iowa State’s sticker on the “Ticket Punched” sign after the win over Kansas in the tournament finals. Unfortunately, the season ended sooner than most of us would have hoped and in a resounding thud.
Horton-Tucker left after one season. Wigginton and Cameron Lard left after two. Shayok and Weiler-Babb were gone to graduation.
But, at least we still had Haliburton.
The gears really started to turn on his NBA future after his breakout performance during the FIBA U19 World Cup, where he led the USA to a gold medal, was named to the tournament’s All-Star Five and averaged a tournament-high 6.9 assists.
On a stage he shared with some of the NBA’s biggest future stars, it was Haliburton’s star that shined the brightest.
He returned from the tournament as a nearly-sure-fire projected lottery pick. The experience had opened more eyes to Haliburton’s talents and gained him some new fans in the process.
“I loved him,” Bruce Weber, who coached that U19 USA team, told me at Big 12 Media Day in Kansas City last October. “The thing that surprised me was his athleticism. He did some things that I never thought he could do. Obviously, we knew he could shoot. He is a great young man. He was a great leader.”
Haliburton’s leadership ability was put to the test during his sophomore season. The talent around him was heavily depleted after the 2018-19 season and it became clear pretty early on that the season would largely be a struggle.
We still got to watch Tyrese Haliburton, though.
He had some marquee performances during the biggest wins in a season where victories were sometimes few and far between. He posted three double-doubles. He scored 17 points and played all 40 minutes in the home win over Seton Hall. Playing all 40 minutes was a common theme — he did it nine times and even played 45 minutes in an overtime loss to TCU.
He didn’t play all 40 minutes in the game that includes the second play that will always stick with me when reflecting on Haliburton’s time at Iowa State. He played only 33 minutes, scoring 15 points and dishing eight assists, in a win over Oklahoma.
The moment came right before the halftime buzzer when he drilled a shot from near half-court then sprinted into the Cyclones’ locker room.
It was a perfect example of Haliburton having fun playing the game he loves.
Everything came crashing down, literally, when he fractured his wrist during a fall against Kansas State. In all, Haliburton played 22 games during his sophomore season.
The fact that he still earned second-team All-Big 12 honors in a shortened year is an indication of just how freaking good he was during those 22 games.
Now, it is time for us to pass Haliburton off to a new fanbase and a new community. Undoubtedly, he will make an impact there on and off the floor the exact same way he did in Ames.
It is funny, Brent Blum likes to joke about the 17 NBA fans in Iowa, but it has been crazy to see how many more people in the state have started show interest in the league over the last few years. The biggest reason for that is Cyclones will always support their own.
Georges Niang, Monte Morris, Matt Thomas, Naz Mitrou-Long Deonte Burton, Abdel Nader, Talen Horton-Tucker, Marial Shayok. None of them are from here, but each of them is one of us in their own unique way.
It will be exciting to add Tyrese Haliburton into that group.
Admittedly, I’m an emotional person. I hate seeing people cry because it makes me cry. Reporters aren’t supposed to get attached to the people they cover, but I’m not ashamed to admit I might shed a tear when Haliburton’s name is called Wednesday night.
Not because I’m sad to see him leave the Cyclones, but because I’ll be proud of that skinny three-star recruit from Oshkosh, Wis. that gave me 20 minutes on the phone for a podcast nearly 975 days ago.
It’s like some people say, “Don’t be sad it’s over, smile because it happened.”
I think we all know which one of those options Tyrese Haliburton will be choosing.