Tyrese Haliburton is expected to get a warm welcome when he returns to Sacramento for the first time as a member of the Indiana Pacers to face his old team, the Kings, on Wednesday night.
Kings fans were shocked when Haliburton, seemingly a cornerstone to a franchise rebuild from the minute he was drafted 12th overall in 2020, highlighted a package of three players dealt to the Pacers in February for star big man Domantas Sabonis and two others.
Haliburton and Sabonis have played on relatively even terms since the swap. Haliburton has averaged 18.5 points and 10.3 assists in 46 games for Indiana, while Sabonis has put up 17.8 points and 11.6 rebounds in 34 games for Sacramento.
Haliburton, 22, averaged 13.6 points and 6.3 assists in 109 games for the Kings, while Sabonis, 26, logged 16.3 points and 10.5 rebounds per contest for the Pacers after he was acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder in July 2017 in a deal for Paul George.
The biggest surprise for the new-look Pacers and Kings has been in the standings.
Indiana, which had the third-fewest wins (25) in the Eastern Conference last season, currently finds itself fourth in the East with a 12-8 record. Rookie Bennedict Mathurin, veteran Myles Turner and Buddy Hield, also acquired in the Sabonis trade, have joined with Haliburton in spearheading the turnaround.
Meanwhile, led by Sabonis, De'Aaron Fox and new coach Mike Brown, the Kings find themselves in the early hunt for a playoff spot in the West with a 10-9 record. They missed the playoffs for an NBA-record 16th consecutive season a year ago at 30-52.
The Pacers have alternated wins and losses in their past five games, including a split in Los Angeles against the Clippers (114-100 defeat) and Lakers (116-115 triumph) on Sunday and Monday, respectively.
Jalen Smith, drafted two spots ahead of Haliburton in 2020, had a career-high 23 points against the Clippers, while Haliburton had a sixth consecutive double-double (24 points and 14 assists) in the victory over the Lakers.
The Tuesday game featured a stunning Indiana comeback from a 17-point, fourth-quarter deficit. Haliburton scored a game-tying layup with 39 seconds left and set up Andrew Nembhard's 3-pointer at the horn that beat the Lakers.
Having assisted the game-winning hoop after grabbing an offensive rebound, Haliburton made NBA history by becoming the first player to record 40-plus assists and zero turnovers over a three-game span since turnovers because a stat.
"I'm just playing basketball," Haliburton shrugged off afterward. "The assists, it's not possible without guys making shots. I pride myself on making the right decision. Coaches put me in great position and guys are making shots and making me look really good."
Sabonis posted double-doubles in each of the Kings' past three games, but all came in defeats. He had a season-best 10 assists to complement 17 points and nine rebounds on an 8-for-10 shooting night Monday at home against the Phoenix Suns, but Sacramento fell short, 122-117.
While the fans might be looking forward to seeing Haliburton, the Kings have a different focus Wednesday, according to guard Malik Monk: Stop the skid.
"Don't get down on yourself. Don't look down. Don't point the finger. Just come together," he said after a season-best, 30-point effort against the Suns. "I'm not going to let us separate. I take a big part in that, in not letting us separate. We'll be all right. We good."
--Field Level Media