Miami Heat rookie Tyler Herro is delivering a double gut punch to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. Not only is he tearing them up on the court, going for 37 points in Miami’s Game 4 victory after a near triple-double in Game 1, but in doing so he’s also issuing a painful reminder of what could’ve been in Boston.
By now the story is well chronicled, but in case you’re unfamiliar, it goes like this: The Hornets, Heat and Kings finished last season with identical records. Boston owned Sacramento’s pick. Before the lottery, a random-draw tiebreaker for the 12th-best odds was won by Charlotte. That left Miami and Boston to flip a coin for the 13th-best odds. The Heat won and landed the 13th draft choice ahead of Boston. They took Herro. Boston wound up with Romeo Langford one pick later.
“I know Boston was hoping [Herro] would fall to them,” a Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. “But give Miami credit. I know for a fact they had [Herro] as high as No. 7 on their board. They had him graded high and they got their guy.”
Though all four scouts who spoke with CBS Sports for this story cautioned against drawing conclusions from what we’ve seen in the bubble, good or bad, they agreed that Herro would definitely go higher than No. 13 if we could hop in a time machine and re-do the 2019 NBA Draft. A credible argument could be made he would go as high as No. 3 overall, behind only Zion Williamson and Ja Morant.
“It reminds you of Donovan Mitchell falling to No. 13 [in 2017],” a second Western Conference scout told CBS Sports. “I’m not saying Herro is as good as Mitchell, obviously that’s not true, but just in the sense that, here’s a guy who was taken at the end of the lottery, and almost immediately it was apparent that that was too low.”
The term falling is interesting when you apply it to guys like Mitchell and Herro, as it implies they started higher on evaluation boards than they wound up being drafted. But that’s not the case. While it sounds like Miami had Herro ranked firmly in the top 10, generally speaking, both Mitchell and Herro started lower on boards and came up to their actual draft position.
And that matters. It’s like the college football team that starts the season outside the top 25. No matter how well they play, they can usually only rise so high on their own merits, at which point they need a team that started out at the top to concurrently plummet. In other words, they do not control their full destiny. But these guys at the top of draft boards? They are the destined ones. They have been on every team’s radar since they got their driver’s license, some even earlier. Herro wasn’t a blue-chip recruit. He weighed 160 pounds coming out of high school. He averaged 14 points per game in his lone college season.
“I initially had Herro as a guy who could maybe sneak [into the draft] as a late second-round guy, I’ll be honest, but this was before he really popped on the scene,” the Western Conference scout said. “The first time I watched him he was awful. The second time I watched him I thought he was a legitimate prospect. He could create off the dribble. He was smooth getting to his spots. He was in constant motion offensively, he was active defensively, played 38 minutes and never got fatigued. I liked his potential to develop as a creator. By the time I submitted my report, I had him going right around No. 20 [in the draft]. He was big a riser for me.”
The third scout who spoke with CBS, whose team had no realistic shot at drafting Herro, also had him ranked in the latter part of the first round, calling him a “fearless shooter” while expressing concern about his “physical dimensions.” It was a common knock on the narrow 6-foot-2 Herro, and the polar opposite of the pre-draft skepticism surrounding the aforementioned Mitchell, who was seen as a questionable shooter but whose physicality and powerful athleticism jumped off the page.
“That’s one of the biggest things that has changed as far as scouting for today’s game,” an Eastern Conference scout said. “I’ve even had to re-teach myself that physicality, that traditional running and jumping athleticism, those things aren’t as big a factor as they used to be. With the rules the way they are, you can’t touch these guys [with the ball.] So how much does it matter if a guy is maybe a little physically immature?
“If the rules were to change tomorrow and we went back to the 1990s and the New York Knicks knocking everyone around, I would change my way of thinking back to that,” the scout continued. “But it’s a skill game now. Skill equals athleticism in today’s league. Especially if you’re a shooter. Because all the sudden, if you can shoot it, guys have to guard you close without touching you, which makes it easy for you to go by them, especially on closeouts. You don’t have to be super quick to go by a defender that’s up on you tight but can’t touch you. You just have to have the skill to put the ball on the floor. Attack the angles. And Herro was always a really skilled player.”
If people knew Herro was this skilled, that he was going to be this Euro-stepping, dead-eye shooting, pick-and-roll conductor who is not just knocking down an array of shots from all three levels, but is initiating late-game offense over the likes of Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic in the conference finals, he clearly would’ve gone higher in the draft than he did. Which raises yet another interesting point regarding how Herro might’ve slipped in the draft: The Kentucky factor.
“With Kentucky guys, there’s almost always another layer to their game that they weren’t able to showcase [in college],” the Eastern Conference scout said. “Because they get so much talent there, everyone compromises a little bit. And they play specific roles. So if you aren’t the guy with the ball in your hands in that system, you’re not going to be able to show that part of your game. I remember going to a Kentucky practice and seeing Bam Adebayo, and he’s out there catching at the elbow, going behind his back, making all these passes, but in the games he just caught lobs. So unless you were at practices, you didn’t see that he was capable of all these things he’s doing for the Heat now. Even [Karl-Anthony] Towns. He shot 3s before he went to college. But at Kentucky he pretty much just played down low.
“The same thing happened with Devin Booker, who also fell a little bit down in the draft,” the scout continued. “People thought, ‘oh, he’s just a shooter,’ but I’m telling you, if you went to a Kentucky practice, you would see he was a much more rounded scorer than he showed in games. You could see the ball skills. You want to know who Devin Booker was at Kentucky? He was Tyler Herro. They were the same guy. Kentucky always has one guy who just kind of runs off screens, doesn’t dribble much, they’re just a shooter, and that’s what Herro was. But I saw him at a Nike skills camp the summer before he went to Kentucky, and what you’re seeing from him now, that’s how he played in high school. The ball handling, the decision making, the shot creation, it was all there. Just like it was for Booker. So I just really believe if you’re going to get a true feel for a Kentucky player, you have to have some exposure to them before they get to college, or you have to go to practice. If you just watch the games, you won’t see a lot of the stuff they can do.”
OK, so Herro’s lack of physicality was, by many, weighted too heavily and the Kentucky factor perhaps camouflaged the depth of his skillset, but is there something else we’re missing? Another factor that has contributed to Herro’s misevaluation and subsequent breakout?
“Fit,” the Eastern Conference scout said, and he was adamant. “I know everyone talks about fit and culture, all these buzz words, but it really is the truth. Like, the Heat are perfect for Herro. I mean he really landed in the right spot. You ask if [Herro] would be doing this same thing if Charlotte had drafted him, I say no. At least not this early. And that’s not a knock on him or Charlotte any other team, it’s just the situation. [The Heat] run a perfect offense for him. Drive and kick. Shooters. They do a good job of covering for him defensively. But also, he doesn’t have to be a star; he can be, but he doesn’t have to be.
“It was the same for Bam [Adebayo],” the scout continued. “His first couple years, he’s a backup. He comes along slowly, but if he had a bad quarter or whatever, they would just take him out and put [Hassan] Whiteside back in. There wasn’t that pressure for him to be a focal point right away. Same thing with Herro. He doesn’t have to start or be the main guy. Once it’s clear that he’s that guy, they’ll give him the keys, just like they did with Bam, but for now he comes off the bench. If he has it going, he finishes games and they run offense through him, but if he doesn’t they can just take him out. Duncan Robinson, same thing. One game he’s hot and they’re running their whole offense for him, and the next game Herro’s in there. It’s just a really safe environment for a young guy to figure out what kind of player he is, and what more he might be able to be in the future.”
You hear the word future, and you think years down the road. And surely Herro has even brighter days ahead of him. An All-Star bid, perhaps within the next few years, doesn’t feel out of reach. But there’s also something to be said for seizing the moment, because while Herro, who is just 20 years old, is going to be around for a long time, NBA Finals appearances don’t grow on trees. And Miami is one win away. Thanks in large part to Herro, who has a lot of teams kicking themselves for missing what was hiding in plain sight.