NBA

NBA: Miami Heat's Tyler Herro enjoying true breakout season

After a difficult second season in the NBA, Herro is well on the way to securing the Sixth Man of the Year award in a Miami team who are shaping up as title contenders.

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NBA: Miami Heat's Tyler Herro enjoying true breakout season
Jim Rassol USA TODAY Sports

Erik Spoelstra’s plan is working so perfectly well that, paradoxically, he needed someone to break free of it, to shake things up. The Miami Heat play in such precise, well-drilled movements, are such an impenetrable unit, but at times they need a touch of magic, that extra little spark. Free verse, someone who thinks outside the box. And that’s where Tyler Herro comes in. Still only 21, Herro is in his third season in the NBA but already has enough material to write a book about the opening chapter of his career. That’s what it feels like, at least: a prodigy as a rookie, a sensation in the Florida bubble, an NBA finalist (the first born in the 21st century; tempus fugit). And, of course, media darling, a social-media hit.

Herro endured difficult second season after 2020 heroics

All that inside his first year in the league. In the second, question marks surrounded his performances for a mediocre Heat unable to repeat its 2020 exploits, a team that ended up being considered more a product of the bubble, with all its specific factors, than a true challenger for the championship ring. Miami’s season ended with a 4-0 whitewash by the Milwaukee Bucks, the team they had taken apart in the 2020 semi-finals at Disney World. Of Herro, who struggled to reproduce the impact he made in Orlando, it was said that fame had gone to his head, that the nightlife in Miami was taking its toll and that Heat bosses were fuming with him. That may well have all been true, but it’s also true that these young, richly-talented stars can at times find it difficult to adapt to their new role: to having more cameras on them, having more ball in hand, and being under pressure to take another step forwards in a sport where the golden rule is: if you don’t go forwards, you go backwards.

Before his third season, which appeared crucial to determining who the real Tyler Herro was, the guard did himself no favours in the eyes of the public when he put himself on the same level as other young stars: Luka Doncic, Trae Young, Ja Morant… Looking at it positively, his confidence remained intact, at least. And, it was said, his head was back where it should be. Herro, who became a father in September, was fully focused once more. The talent was always there: John Calipari, who has become a specialist in launching future stars of the NBA from Kentucky, was taken aback that his boy was picked at number 13 in the 2019 draft. It was a hugely talented group that year (Zion, Morant, Barrett, Hunter, Garland…), but his college coach was unhappy at such a low position, having already warned that many erred when they let Devin Booker come out at 13 in 2015. Herro, a high-school sensation in Wisconsin, could have done another year in college basketball and risen up the mock drafts. But it hasn’t worked like that for a while now.

And it’s true: the talent was there. Herro has been one of the best players in the initial period of the 2021/22 season. Not only among the youngsters: among everyone. The Heat are at 7-2, they have an immense defence and a collective, functional offence. The fifth-best offensive rating, the second-best defensive rating and the third-best net rating. The ingredients of a potential run to the title. Spoelstra’s Heat project has got itself back on track, with two clear leaders in Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo, a sharp shooter in Duncan Robinson and two peak-Spoelstra warriors who are past masters in improving everything around them and who have slotted into the Heat culture as well as it seemed they would: PJ Tucker and Kyle Lowry.

Herro (centre) shoots over Dallas Mavericks guard Jalen Brunson (left) during the Heat's 125-110 win at American Airlines Center earlier this month.

Herro on pace for NBA Sixth Man of the Year award

Armed with a bolstered, reinvigorated roster, the Heat have become a hellish machine that digs out its opponents’ weaknesses. And Herro is the touch of something different, the inventor among the infantry, the creator of baskets. His start to the season has been so extraordinary that, as things stand, he’s on course to win the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award by a street, and is also in the running for Most Improved Player. He is registering career-best averages in literally everything: 31.6 minutes, 21.3 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 47.4% shooting success rate, 42.6% on three-pointers (from 6.8 attempts per game), 81.8% from free throws… He has only failed to score double figures in one game, the Heat’s unusually poor loss to the Boston Celtics. He has reached 20 in six games. He has played some minutes as a starter, something he shares with memorable Sixth Man of the Year winners such as Kevin McHale, Lamar Odom, Jason Terry, JR Smith, Detlef Schrempf and Manu Ginóbili… Herro isn’t only the highest-scoring player from the bench; the gap between him and second is greater than the gap between second and tenth.

It had seemed like Herro might not prove as good a player as he had threatened to be when he excelled in his rookie-season. In that magical Game 4 in the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics in 2020, when his 37 points made the whole of America sit up and take notice. Aged 20 at the time, it was clear that he was still very young and that the hype that he created was premature, over the top. But the talent was there and, after a patchy year, he is now having a true breakout season. The Heat have in Herro a driving force, a player who is so key because he is different to everything else the team has. A player who dribbles and scores, who pops up with threes when the going gets tough, and for whom the sky is the limit. In short, he’s one of the many reasons why the Heat are so much more than an early-season flash in the pan. They’re a bone fide contender for the title.