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'Haliburton has been a Godsend for this franchise': How Haliburton and Hield have brought joy and wins to the Pacers
Haliburton and Hield first return to Sacramento Wednesday night with the Pacers.
Rarely does what others tell you actually live up to the billing. But that absolutely has been the case for the Pacers with Tyrese Haliburton.
Here’s what head coach Rick Carlisle said about him just a few days after the Pacers and Kings swapped six players on Feb. 8:
“I’ve gotten more unsolicited messages about this kid as an amazing person, amazing player, leader, how joyful he is,” he said. “It’s been boundless, a bit overwhelming. From afar, I’ve seen these things. The guy plays with joy, he’s a pass-first guy that’s a connector and always looking to involve his teammates. And yet he finds a way to get the ball in the basket and put up impressive stats on his own.
“He’s a special young player.”
You couldn’t tell the difference if that was said today rather than last February because it all holds true even after the honeymoon period. Haliburton has lived up to the hype — and then some.
“Haliburton has been a Godsend for this franchise,” Carlisle said recently.
There are many reasons the Pacers have been a surprise in the NBA to start, a season the front office warned local reporters to buckle their seatbelts because it could be a bumpy ride.
It still might, but the early returns have been favorable.
And Haliburton, who’s just 22, is the No. 1 reason why.
Both the Pacers (12-8) and the Kings (10-9) have taken big steps forward following the trade last February when both teams were in ninth place.
The Pacers are now one of the fastest-playing teams, one of the most effective in transition and from 3-point range. The Kings now have one of the top offenses, plus a winning record.
Haliburton was eating his breakfast last February when the call came in from his agent, Dave Spahn of CAA. Then he heard from close friend Georges Niang before the Kings GM called him.
That was the first time he heard from his team about possibly being moved.
“I had no idea that this was going to happen,” he said upon arriving in Indy, “but I’m excited because it’s closer to home for me. I’m a midwest kid through and through.”
Haliburton is from Oshkosh, Wisconsin and has family in Kokomo that brought him to Indiana at least once each summer.
But being dealt was a hard blow because he had been led to believe the opposite. That he was helping to build something in Sacramento. That he could be someone to help end the Kings’ playoff drought.
“They didn’t want me, they went a different direction and it’s part of the business,” he said.
“… I put a lot of love, a lot of trust into Sacramento and immersed myself in the community and with the people, then they got rid of me. That’s part of the business and one of my best traits is I’m somebody that just loves hard. I want to be here, I want to be a part of it.”
The night before departing for Indiana, Kings players and staff members came over to his house to talk, share stories. The next day, he boarded a charter flight with Buddy Hield and Tristan Thompson bound for Indianapolis.
Now in time, and after having a full summer to think on it, Haliburton is in a better place. Hield, who was first traded his rookie season, helped him through that process and in understanding the business of basketball. That typically takes players at least a few seasons or one tough experience.
For Hield, he was relieved. In Sacramento, he no longer felt welcomed, appreciated or used correctly. It was good riddance, a separation that was needed for both.
“It’s a new opportunity and I’ve been waiting for that,” he said then.
Wednesday will be the first time Haliburton and Hield play in Sacramento since the trade went down. They faced them in Indy last spring, but Domantas Sabonis did not play.
Playing your former team is never *just another game.* No matter how much it’s said.
It always means more, even though few players acknowledge it in interviews.
Then postgame, a teammate will inevitably say "So glad we won it for ________." You can see it in their interviews leading up to the game, cautiously saying all the right things.
That’s being a professional, moving on and not burning any bridges. But the frustration is there.
Take Hield, for instance. He tries to hide his true feelings, though sometimes they come out. Like when he explained how the Kings made him lose his joy for the game.
And that’s saying A LOT because Hield loves basketball. Ball truly is life for him. “He can play all day,” Carlisle joked. “He would play pickup ball with our interns six hours a day if he didn’t have practice and games.”
Hield, who has not reached the playoffs, was with the Kings for over five years.
“I’m happy now and I’m good in a situation where I can play free and have fun out there,” Hield said. “… I think Rick does a good job of letting me play. He’s doing a good job of finding my joy back and let me be myself. He’s putting me in good spots and letting me run the floor.”
Hield is averaging over 17 points per game, he’s shooting 37% from downtown and 89% from the free throw line. He’s a starter, making nearly four 3s per game and enjoying the game again.
“He changes the game just because of what he does and how consistently he does it,” said Carlisle. “It turns into a 4-on-4 game when he’s off the ball and moving, much like it did when Reggie Miller was here. He’s a guy that geometrically you have to guard when he’s anywhere within 30 feet (of the basket).”
And yes, he’s been in trade rumors. He's used to it at this point and those will continue. Again, i’s part of the business.
“No matter what happens, I love playing basketball,” he said earlier this season. “Once I have a job and as long as I can play in the league for a long time, I’m happy. It doesn’t matter where I am. I’m just glad to play basketball at a high level with the best players in the world.”
Before the team left for this 7-game road trip, I asked Hield about his emotions leading up the return.
“I’ve been there five and a half years. Of course, the bitter taste in my mouth with Sacramento was I didn’t get to be part of the group to help them get to the playoffs. Watching them play now, they’re off to a good start and I’m happy for them. Sacramento is where I spent most of my NBA career since I’ve been in the league so it’s been home for me for a while.”
Then he begins giving shout-outs to former teammates, coaches and executives. And adds, “We didn’t get the job done, but all respect to the fan base, I know they’re passionate. I just can’t wait to get there and be able to compete.”
Myles Turner was at the podium with him. He leaned closer to the mic and said “That was a professional answer. He’s not going to tell you how he really feels.”
Hield smiled. The entire room laughed. Then, they exited the room.
Everything changed for the Pacers when Haliburton arrived. They finally had their point guard, something they’ve lacked since perhaps Jamaal Tinsley, also an Iowa State University product.
He has the belief of the front office.
He has the trust from Carlisle.
He has the keys to the franchise.
And the franchise has supported him, made him comfortable and empowered him to lead this team. In the offseason, they hired Isaac Yacob from the Kings to be their head video coordinator, someone Haliburton is very close with. Another close friend was hired as a photographer for the team and his family is regularly sitting at four courtside seats under the basket.
The Pacers are all-in on Haliburton and they have been rewarded.
When playing for the Kings, Haliburton was not the focus. De'Aaron Fox was in the backcourt and he had signed an extension shortly into last season. So of course they were committed to him and believed Haliburton, for the right price, was expendable.
“I think defensively is my biggest area for growth,” Haliburton said earlier this season. “Taking on more challenges. I think LP (assistant coach Lloyd Pierce) and coach Carlisle and his staff did a great job when I got here of making me take challenges that in Sac, I never really had to take or it was easy to hide me. Here they’ve challenged me to take on harder players to guard and that’s been really good for me.”
Haliburton is averaging 19.9 points and 11.3 assists per game — both career highs — while shooting 48% from the field. He leads the NBA in assists and in double-doubles (14).
“Watching Tyrese from afar, it’s fun to dissect his game a bit because he sees everything on the floor,” Turner said. “But actually being out there with him, you feel it. You feel things happen before they happen.”
Haliburton is playing at an All-Star level and if it continues, he’ll be included in the MVP discussion. (It’s far too early for that.)
An attribute that makes a player truly special is if he makes his teammates better. Many around the league recognize that in him and believe several Pacers players are going to get paid simply from playing alongside Haliburton.
“What I love about us is we’ve got a lot of guys who love basketball and want to compete,” he said.
That’s what they are doing, and winning at a pace nobody could have expected.
In Monday’s win against the Lakers, it was Haliburton who set up the game-winning shot. He snatched the rebound, attracted three defenders and with just over a second left, he snapped a pass to rookie Andrew Nembhard on the left arc for the shot — and the win.
After the game, he explained his thought process in great detail. Yet another reason to buy high on his upside.
There will be all kinds of emotions felt by Haliburton, Hield and Sabonis on Wednesday night. So much has changed in less than a year. Sabonis is a dad, Haliburton is playing at an All-Star level and we’re no longer having to wear masks like we did in February, when the trade went down.
All sides appear to be better off.
The Pacers front office is pleased with how it went down. And they should be.
Because Haliburton is theirs indefinitely. And he’s making the most of it.