The first matchup between Tyrese Haliburton and LaMelo Ball fizzled in late February when the Kings’ star young rookie missed a handful of games with sore calf muscle.
The build up to the second and final meeting between the two Rookie of the Year candidates wasn’t as big, but it too fell flat.
After missing time leading up to the All-Star break, Haliburton is back on the court for the Kings, but he doesn’t look like himself. Always his own worst critic, the 21-year-old voiced his frustrations following the Kings’ 122-116 loss to Ball and the Hornets on Monday.
“I’ve been awful,” Haliburton said. “I’m just trying to figure it out right now, get my rhythm back. I was playing really well before I got hurt. I’ve just got to get it back, but I’m playing really bad right now. I’ve just got to be better.”
In the three games since returning from injury, Haliburton has been on a minutes restriction, playing 18, 24 and 28 minutes. During the stretch, he’s just off and the numbers support that.
After averaging 13.2 points and 5.4 assists while shooting 49.4 percent from the field and 43.3 percent from 3-point range, Haliburton’s numbers are way down.
It’s an incredibly small sample size, but in his three games back, the Haliburton is averaging 5.6 points and three assists and he’s shooting just 30.4 percent from the field and 27.2 percent from long range.
More than the stats, Haliburton just seems out of sorts as he tries to shake off the rust after a 15-day layoff. While his teammates need him back at full strength, they too have gone through the rigors of a rookie season and know some of what he is going through.
“For one, he’s definitely been a lot better than I was my rookie year,” De’Aaron Fox said. “I told him to continue to be aggressive, man, its basketball. You go through stretches where shots aren’t falling or things aren’t going your way.”
Fox said that Haliburton has passed up some good looks and made a few mistakes and that he’s talking to him on the court to encourage him to be aggressive.
“I told him I’m going to slap him in the back of the head in the game if he passes up another layup, especially when there is not a shotblocker there,” Fox said.
Haliburton wears his emotions on his sleeve. During the Kings’ nine-game losing streak earlier in the year, he could hardly hide his frustrations. But he’s now hitting a bit of a rookie wall. He’ll need the support of his teammates through the struggles and they are lining up to give him encouraging words.
“I just tell him to keep his head up, it’s a long season, we’re going to need him,” Richaun Holmes said. “There are going to be games where you may not play as well as you think, but that’s why you keep working every day.”
With everything considered, Haliburton is playing much better than anyone could have expected overall. After being selected with the No. 12 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, he’s taken home the Western Conference Rookie of the Month award in each of the first two months of the season.
Haliburton is still in the running for Rookie of the Year, although Ball is distancing himself from the field.
With Marvin Bagley’s injury on Monday, there is a possibility that Haliburton takes on a larger role with the team over the last 33 games of the season. While coach Luke Walton wouldn’t commit to a new starting lineup, the team has found success with Haliburton playing alongside Fox, Holmes, Buddy Hield and Harrison Barnes.
Haliburton will continue with a minutes restriction over the next game or two, but he’s already cleared to play 28 minute and might be available to crest the 30 mark moving forward.
This feels like a momentary blip for the former Iowa State star. He has been very good early in his career which is probably why the last three games stand out. Hopefully he can get back on track and produce like he was just a few weeks back. The Kings certainly need it.