LAS VEGAS — Remember when it seemed as if everybody wanted off the Indiana Pacers? Big man Myles Turner was yearning for greener pastures so badly in December 2021 that he spoke publicly about his desire for “more opportunity” — a rarity in today’s NBA — and shared his view that he was being used as a “glorified role player.” Veteran guard Buddy Hield failed to come to an agreement on an extension with the Pacers this summer, then found himself in the headlines when our Shams Charania reported that both sides were attempting to find a trade. The only time we talked about the Pacers on the national stage, it seemed, was when it involved possible roster changes or when a certain Memphis Grizzlies star and his associates had a problematic postgame situation with Pacers players that was the center of a league investigation.
To make your way around their locker room these days is to truly understand the Tyrese Haliburton effect. It’s like being at a house party that none of the Pacers want to end, with the 23-year-old point guard working the turntables so masterfully that everyone wants to get up off the couch and jam.
That was the case yet again Thursday at T-Mobile Arena, where their 128-119 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the In-Season Tournament (IST) semifinals only intensified the spotlight that has grown so much brighter in recent weeks. Haliburton, who has played his way into the early MVP conversation, turned in a 27-point, 15-assist, zero-turnover outing that Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo described as “amazing” and came with telling historical consequence. While 11 players have had games of at least 27 points, 15 assists and no turnovers, Haliburton is the only one to have done it twice (his first was less than two months ago). And lest anyone forgets, he was three days removed from a 26-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound, zero-turnover showing in an IST quarterfinal win over the Boston Celtics.
What he’s doing is simply absurd at this point, with team officials and media members alike struggling to agree on a player comp that properly projects his ceiling. Stephen Curry has been mentioned internally as a leading candidate — premature though that might be. Longtime NBA writer and coach David Thorpe made an interesting argument that he’s James Harden 2.0. Haliburton’s latest masterpiece inspired an endorsement from Pacers great Reggie Miller that may carry more weight than all the rest. “We are witnessing a superstar in the making,” Miller said of Haliburton, who is averaging 26.9 points and a league-leading 12.9 assists per game.
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But beyond the basketball discussion, it’s the way Haliburton’s teammates celebrate his success that might be the best indicator of what lies ahead. The Pacers smiles that were nowhere to be seen not too long ago are everywhere now. The wisecracks, also absent during that time when rumors of a rebuild fueled uncertainty and some discontent, are a constant.
“Rejuvenating,” as Turner put it.
The 27-year-old knows of what he speaks.
Midway through his seventh season in Indiana, Turner was so disenfranchised with his place in the Pacers world that he was ready for something new. But just one month after he aired those frustrations for all the basketball world to hear, the deal with Sacramento that brought Haliburton (and Hield) their way changed it all. The departure of center Domantas Sabonis to Sacramento put Turner back in his preferred position, all while giving him a point guard who had a rare ability to elevate the offensive talents of everyone around him.
“I think we won the trade personally, but I’m biased of course,” Turner told The Athletic. “I think it was mutually beneficial. (Kings guard De’Aaron) Fox got something that he needed, and I got the point guard that I needed.” Tyrese Haliburton drives to the lane against Bucks center Brook Lopez. (Kyle Terada / USA Today) And over time, as he recalled, it all clicked.
“Those days when I was playing the four (alongside Sabonis before Haliburton’s arrival), those were dark days for me because I wasn’t happy,” Turner said. “I didn’t really enjoy my role. I didn’t really enjoy a lot of the scrutiny that came with playing out of position. … It wasn’t all bad, but it definitely wasn’t good.”
Hield was in that sort of place not too long ago, as well. The uncertainty about his contract led to natural questions about how the Pacers saw him, and so it was that he considered the possible next steps that might come. Less than three months later, his hoops worldview — much like Turner’s — has changed for the better.
“It’s so crazy,” said Hield, who is averaging 13.3 points and shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range on 7.4 attempts per game. “Like, in an NBA season, we’re all human. You always have second thoughts in the back of your head. When it’s bad, you have second thoughts. But when it’s good, you don’t have second thoughts, you know? And it’s a long season, so you’ve just gotta enjoy it, let God control what he controls. Let him handle (the future), and all you’ve gotta do is control what you control on the basketball court.”
The mood change, of course, has everything to do with Haliburton. From “no-star” recruit to Iowa State standout, 12th pick in the 2020 draft and rising NBA star, he’s doing the kinds of things even his teammates admit they didn’t expect.
“He gets mad at me all the time when I always tell him, ‘Yo, I didn’t ever see this (coming),’ Hield said. “But once you can shoot the 3-ball so well, it opens up so much for you offensively. And when you have vision and deception, anticipation or whatever you want to call it, it’s (impactful).
“He thinks two plays ahead of the defender, and that’s elite. He just brings it out. He’s special.”
Just how special? Time will tell.
“When you talk about controlling the game, being super smart out there, IQ, he has it all,” said Pacers guard Bruce Brown, who won a title with the Denver Nuggets last season alongside two-time MVP Nikola Jokić before signing with Indiana in the summer. “I mean, what, he had 15 assists tonight with no turnovers? That doesn’t happen. I’ve only seen that with Nikola. In a few more years …”
The focus for now, though, will be on these next few days. An In-Season Tournament title game against the Los Angeles Lakers on Saturday, and another chance for these Pacers (12-8) to shine in front of the masses, is up next.
“I think we’re shocking the world right now,” Haliburton said. “Nobody expected us to be here except for the guys in the locker room. That means a lot to us, so it feels good.”