Tyrese Haliburton on the Changing of the Guard in the NBA: 'I Just Lost to LeBron'

We caught up with All-Star guard Tyrese Haliburton to discuss being starstruck when meeting Booker T, his rise to stardom, the youth movement in the NBA, and wanting to play for Team USA this summer.

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When it comes to the NBA’s youth movement, Tyrese Haliburton is one of the players at the forefront of it. 

The last two years for Haliburton have laid the foundation for his superstar turn, making his first All-Star Game appearance a season ago, playing for Team USA this past summer, and leading the Pacers to the inaugural In-Season Tournament Championship Game last month. Currently averaging 24.2 points per game and 12.7 assists per game, he is not only one of the best young players in the league, but definitively one of the best players on the planet.

And with that comes a target on his back every night he steps on the court, but it’s something that he embraces.

“'I'm the No. 1 focus individually, I'm kind of the straw that stirs the drink if that makes sense,” Haliburton says. “So that's cool that I have that target on my back.”

Haliburton sat down with Complex to discuss being featured on the NBA’s new series Pass The Rock, the In-Season Tournament, growing up a huge wrestling fan, potentially playing for a loaded Team USA squad in the 2024 Olympics, and much more.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

So you're a part of this new series Past The Rock. It features you and a handful of other top young players in the league. Can you explain what this series is about?
Yeah, just a behind the scenes look into our lives following us around. Whether it's us going home or what we like to do at home. For me, it will be me and my dog, walking my dog, and playing the game at the crib. But yeah, it's a bunch of young up-and-coming guys in the NBA and I think it's kind of giving us that platform to be seen as more than just basketball players. It's coming out January 9. It starts with Jaren and then my episode is coming out right around All-Star.

Paolo Banchero, Jalen Brunson, Anthony Edwards, Tyrese Haliburton, Chet Holmgren, Jaren Jackson Jr., Tyrese Maxey and Victor Wembanyama headline season two of the NBA Entertainment original “Pass the Rock” on the NBA App.

MORE: https://t.co/IM6X5Hg1MC pic.twitter.com/9ASWFeIRMs

— NBA Communications (@NBAPR) January 8, 2024
Twitter: @NBAPR

So how does it feel to be one of the players selected to do this because clearly the NBA is trying to push not just this younger stars but help people get more of an understanding of who you guys are off the court.
Yeah, it's cool. There are other guys in this who are not only just friends of mine but other great up-and-coming players. So to be mentioned in the same breath as them is always cool because they're all great guys. It means the world. I think the NBA understands and sees what's in front of them, sees great players coming up in the league. So I think that that's pretty cool to be recognized as that for sure.

It feels like right now in the NBA there's kind of a changing of the guard happening in real time. Do you get the same sense or do you try not to really think about it?
Well, I think you see it. Up-and-coming guys are starting to establish themselves and starting to do what they do. I mean, for me, it's hard to say changing the guard cause I just lost to LeBron [James] in the In-Season Tournament and he's been doing this since I was like three years old. So it's hard for me to say that necessarily. But yeah, I think you definitely see guys starting to establish themselves and you're starting to see the future of the game. You know, I think that Bron is still doing what he's doing at a high level. KD, guys like Steph are still doing what they're doing at a very, very high level. But yeah it's starting to transition and you see that and you know, it seems like Bron is never going to stop playing, KD, Steph. 

Those guys don't seem like they're slowing down, but eventually it's going to transition to the young and up-and-coming guys. So that's kind of cool to see cause those guys are part of the NBA that I grew up watching and now it's going to transition to what the kids today are watching and that's really cool to be a part of it. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing on a nightly basis and being consistent. I understand that the biggest part of having success in the league is just being consistent. So, a lot of us guys here are doing a lot of great things, but there'll be separators as time goes on and we'll see who's able to separate themselves for sure.

You just spoke about the In-Season Tournament. It does feel like that was a coming out party of sorts for not just yourself, but for the Pacers team. Can you speak to what that experience was like leading into Vegas?
Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It's the first time I played real competitive basketball since the NCAA Tournament in college. So it was a lot of fun to be a part of that. I haven't really played on (national) TV a ton before, so that was some national exposure for myself and us as a group and I thought we handled it the right way. I thought we approached the games the right way, and took care of business. That championship game got ugly for us. We just didn't come out and play the way we wanted to. We fouled a lot and that kinda negated what we do in transition because both teams were at the free throw line the whole game. That favored what the Lakers like to do more and play slower. 

But I thought that we handled it the right way and like you said, it's a little bit of a coming out party. But at the same time, people just don't watch us, you know what I mean? We're not on national TV. The casual fan sees what's in front of them. And so for us being put in front of them, I think, your eyes don't lie to you. And so they're seeing what we do and, as time goes on, we want to keep playing, we want to get another taste of real playoff basketball. So I want to keep having success and get to the real dance.

You made your first All-Star team last year and are on track to make another this season. You played for team USA this past summer, your profile is rising. Do you feel that when you walk into arenas? Now you have a target on your back because you are one of the stars of the NBA. You're not just a young player trying to find himself.
I think that's the dope part about the NBA, seeing more yellow zeros in the crowd on the road, like that's fire to me. We're in Chicago and that's the most yellow zero jerseys I've ever seen in an away crowd. So to see that I think is always cool. There were Pacers fans in Houston, I don't even know those existed, you know what I mean? So that's the cool part about being a young and up and coming team and starting to establish yourself is that people are looking at you and becoming fans right before your very own eyes and wanting to show love and see you do well. And that's really cool to me cause it's not just local anymore. People are starting to see it and be fans everywhere and that's really cool to have fans. 

But yeah, when you go on the road, it's no surprise at this point that I've moved up to the top of scouting reports on games. I'm the No. 1 focus individually, I'm kind of the straw that stirs the drink if that makes sense. So that's cool that I have that target on my back and my team understands that as well. They understand that not just me individually but us as a team, teams are seeing us have success and they want that. Teams wanted to win the In-Season Tournament too. Teams want to be competing in the championship and all that stuff. So, yeah, that target is definitely on all of our backs at this point and you saw that after the tournament, we went through a little bit of a skid because teams are bringing their A-games and we're lagging whether it was fatigue or just not prepared or whatever. So we're just trying to get back to playing the right way for sure.

We've heard LeBron speak to the struggles the Lakers have had after the In-Season Tournament. You just spoke to the struggles as well. Was there a little bit of a wrench thrown in the typical flow of NBA season? Did it really affect you guys negatively to say?
I think so a little bit. Usually in the NBA, the longer trip take is for 12 days. Usually if it's a 12-day trip for us, we're going to the west coast and we're going to go play Sacramento, Phoenix, both Los Angeles teams, Portland, right? You're on the west coast the whole time. So you're getting used to the time zones and a lot of stuff. For us, we played a home game against the Celtics and flew the next day to Vegas. We were there for three or four days in that time zone. I was waking up at like seven in the morning every day. Then you're playing at a high-level, competitive basketball with all these eyes, all these fans in the arena, sellouts, all this stuff and then fly to Detroit for the Pistons. You know what I mean? It's different. I'm not using that as an excuse by any means. We're NBA players, you have to adjust, but there was definitely some rest needed for us as a group.

I think the Lakers and the Pacers would probably both agree with each other in the sense of moving forward with the tournament. Obviously it's the first year, so it's a little bit of an adjustment. But I would love to see if whoever makes it to the championship game gets a couple of days until they get back to their regular schedule. I'm not the scheduling guy. I don't know how to plan all that, but I think that it's a little needed just because of the fatigue that comes with playing it in such highly-competitive games.

With your stardom picking up on the court, you’ve been gaining more attention off of it as well. You recently went viral for bumping into Booker T before a home game. Were you a huge wrestling fan growing up? And if so like was Booker T one of those guys you looked at a lot or you just recognized him at the game and had to speak?
I was a giant wrestling fan growing up. I'm still a giant wrestling fan. I'm trying to plan most of my summer already and a lot of it is damn, I gotta get to a WWE event because I love that stuff. It's so much fun for me to be there. But yeah, I definitely was a big fan of Booker T because as a black kid there weren't a ton of black wrestlers, you know what I mean? Like Shelton Benjamin, Booker T, Bobby Lashley, Mark Henry. And after that it's kind of like there wasn't a ton and I think that representation matters. And it's a lot different now. I think as a black kid, you see there's a lot more black wrestlers and I think that a lot of those black wrestlers were who black kids looked up to. So representation definitely matters. 

Tyrese Haliburton couldn’t believe it when he met Booker T and Queen Sharmell at the Pacers game last night 🔥

(via: @Pacers) pic.twitter.com/jQY5PW1sZL

— Complex Sports (@ComplexSports) December 27, 2023
Twitter: @ComplexSports

So I was definitely a big fan of Booker T, so to see him at the game was dope to say what up and they got it all on video. It was really authentic and real to who I am. And I wanted to get a picture at the game. He had to sneak out and get out of there, but it definitely was really cool.

Do you think currently you have established yourself as the best point guard in NBA or do you still think you have to do a little bit more to get into that tier of player like a Stephen Curry maybe or Damian Lillard, for example, guys who have been doing it for a long time?
I think for me individually, I approach every night like I'm the best player on the floor. I don't care who's on the floor with me. That's how I have to, for me to have that competitive edge. I feel like anytime I put my shoes on, I’m the best player on the floor, that's just how I look at it. I guess in terms of who's the best, who's better, who's not. I think that's not up for me to decide, that's for fans to debate, that's for when I was in high school to debate. I don't really get into all the, you know, who's better, who's not. But I just have a lot of confidence in myself and my teammates and we just go out there every night to win games 100 percent.

The Olympics are this summer and we've seen guys like LeBron, Steph, KD, Joel Embiid all agreeing to play. It's looking like the United States is forming the Avengers of basketball pretty much. You played for team USA this past summer, what would it mean for you to be on the team with this type of star power?
Yeah, it would mean the world, and especially because I'm coming off of just playing with USA and not even meddling. I want to win gold just like everybody else. And so to have a chance to be able to go back and do it again and kind of get it back. That that would mean the world to me and to be around other greats, the guys that you've mentioned are guys that I've grown up watching that I'm able to have relationships with now, and like you said, it's, it's a bunch of dudes with this superstardom.

Well, if I'm a part of that team, that probably says something about me as well, you know what I mean? So it'd be really cool to be a part of that and compete for a gold medal. I feel like I've always said that I want be a part of the young crop of the NBA that’s taking over. I want to be part of the young crop of team USA as well. Consistently playing and winning gold medals. I want to win gold medals like KD. If he wins this one, what is that four for him? Yeah, so that'd be cool to do something like that. And I know the Olympics after this are in Los Angeles in the United States. So I want to be a part of it as much as I can, to have the opportunity to do that would mean the world to me.

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