EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Tyrese Haliburton was open to Suns drafting him, had zero pre-draft communication

Jul 8, 2024, 4:02 PM | Updated: 11:23 pm

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles the ball while being guarded by Tyrese Haliburton #0 o...

Devin Booker #1 of the Phoenix Suns dribbles the ball while being guarded by Tyrese Haliburton #0 of the Indiana Pacers in the first quarter of the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on February 10, 2023 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — The recent history of the Phoenix Suns includes a couple of draft-day decisions that were major turning points in the current formation of the team.

One of them was passing on Iowa State point guard Tyrese Haliburton in the 2020 NBA Draft with the 10th overall pick and picking Maryland big Jalen Smith instead, a draft that saw Haliburton fall all the way to the Sacramento Kings’ No. 12 selection.

For a draft class that had a clear cut-off in talent once the top-10 ended, it was a strange move for a prospect many experts had penciled in to potentially go as high as the top-five. At the time, Haliburton’s skid seemed odd, encouraging speculation that he forced his way to Sacramento.

Haliburton went on later to shut that down, and when it comes to Phoenix specifically, he confirmed to Arizona Sports on Monday at Team USA minicamp that he was open to going nearly anywhere, including the Suns.

When Haliburton was shockingly traded to the Indiana Pacers in February 2022, then-Suns head coach Monty Williams was asked about him and revealed Phoenix was focused on drafting Haliburton at the time but “couldn’t” get him in the draft even though he was on the board for the Suns.

Haliburton denied that being the case.

“No, that’s incorrect,” Haliburton told Arizona Sports. “That’s definitely not the case. I was open to going anywhere that wasn’t those two teams. And any team that didn’t pick me, I don’t know.”

Those two teams are the Atlanta Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers.

On the Lowe Post podcast with ESPN’s Zach Lowe after the draft in November 2020, ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported Haliburton could have been selected sixth overall by the Atlanta Hawks. He added that Haliburton’s team was selective with sharing medical information, and since Haliburton was coming off a broken wrist, those were medicals that front offices were particularly interested in.

A year-and-a-half later when Haliburton was traded, he went on the record about his commitment to Sacramento and wanted to dispel those reports from draft night.

“The truth is if I told one or two teams not to draft me, it was Atlanta and it was Cleveland,” Haliburton said in February 2022, noting those were two teams at the time that already had a few young guards.

“From there, it was open season for everybody. And they didn’t pick me.”

Haliburton said to Arizona Sports he had zero communication with the Suns during the pre-draft process.

Phoenix traded for Chris Paul two days earlier, which obviously would have created a temporary logjam and kept Haliburton as a third guard for at least a short while.

Would he have been open to learning from Paul while forming a long-term backcourt with Booker?

“For sure, no question,” Haliburton said.

To be clear, this is just Haliburton’s side. The Suns are welcome to presenting their own and perhaps there were more complexities at hand. But with that said, Haliburton’s stories line up.

While the Atlanta and Cleveland situations were about a plethora of young guards, it’s not like Sacramento was in a position to give Haliburton the keys from the jump anyway. De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield were there, forcing Haliburton to come off the bench at the start of his career.

Phoenix wouldn’t have been any different and at the time was looked at as a team and organization on the rise following the bubble.

The “what if?” hierarchy of Suns history begins with “The Coin Flip” and it’s hard to top since 1) it was at the beginning of the franchise’s existence and 2) it has its own freaking name.

The Milwaukee Bucks and Suns partook in a coin flip to determine who got the No. 1 pick in the 1968 NBA Draft. The Bucks won it and the right to select UCLA center Lew Alcindor, later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who went on to set the all-time career scoring record that would stand until last year when LeBron James broke it.

There is an argument that passing on Luka Doncic in favor of Deandre Ayton six years ago should rank closely to it. There are surely a healthy chunk of people reading this that still believe Doncic and Devin Booker as a backcourt wouldn’t have worked but that case becomes harder to make given how Doncic just made the NBA Finals with Kyrie Irving, another ball-dominant scoring guard. Since Doncic’s rookie year, he has made First Team All-NBA every season.

Taking Smith instead of Haliburton is up there. Smith recently signed with the Chicago Bulls and still has potential as a stretch big but did not carve out a role in Phoenix. He was traded during the 2022 trade deadline in the Torrey Craig deal. Haliburton exploded with Indiana, leading them to the Eastern Conference Finals this past season and recently making Third Team All-NBA. His presence on Team USA for this summer’s Olympics speaks for itself.

Something to establish here about playing this game as it pertains to the draft is that it’s only fair to do if it was an opinion at the time. You cannot fault everyone who drafted a bust in the first round of the 2014 NBA Draft instead of Nikola Jokic, who went 41st. Just as one example, we here at Empire of the Suns had Haliburton ranked second on a big board curtailed to the Suns’ needs. All the intangibles he possessed were right up Phoenix’s alley, which reinforces how perplexing it is that the Suns weren’t even speaking with Haliburton before the draft.

The alternate timeline is clearer than the one now but the biggest question is if Haliburton’s plug-and-play ability would have been a difference-maker in getting the Suns a championship right away in the 2020-21 season.

Probably not? The backup point guard at the time Cam Payne was very, very good all season and had gigantic postseason moments, particularly in the Western Conference Finals. With that said, he and a handful of teammates underperformed in the NBA Finals against the Bucks. After Game 2, it was only Booker and Jae Crowder who were able to perform at a high level.

The forecast going forward, however, would have been extremely promising.

The Suns would have essentially been another version of what the Oklahoma City Thunder are now. Booker and Haliburton would have been one of the best backcourts in the league with a healthy amount of years left in their prime while the value of Mikal Bridges and Cam Johnson as high level complementary wings also in their prime is obvious.

That’s before getting to Ayton getting put in a situation that would have maximized his skill set: Immense spacing and a perfect pick-and-roll partner in Haliburton (to follow up on Paul in that role).

Phoenix likely moves on from Paul sooner rather than later and is working with ample draft capital, plus a few very tradable young players if they wanted to go for some different iteration of the Kevin Durant trade.

At the end of the day, playing this game is rather tricky. The Suns had two outstanding chances at a title. The 2021 NBA Finals were extremely tight and could have gone either way. Phoenix went on to win 64 games the next year and was the betting favorite before the upset in the second round. There is still time for this group to add a third or more.

But it is fascinating and a game fans play often. So there you have it.

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