- Israel Gutierrez is an NBA writer for ESPN.com.
JUST ACROSS THE street from FTX Arena, on a billboard space that was regularly occupied by Dwyane Wade during his legendary Miami Heat tenure, Tyler Herro is all angles, pictured in a Hudson Jeans advertisement dribbling a basketball, wearing a short-sleeved black T-shirt, ripped black jeans and black boots.
Inside the arena on this Monday in March, Herro starts his night against the Sacramento Kings by modeling that springy jump shot, floating slightly to his right and nailing a 3-pointer from the “Ray Allen corner.”
By the finish of this Heat win, which ends a tumultuous four-game losing streak that featured a sideline shouting match between Jimmy Butler, Udonis Haslem and Erik Spoelstra, Herro had dropped in a few more 3s on his way to 20 points, six assists and five boards.
Now in his third year, with a breakthrough regular season behind him and probable Sixth Man of the Year award ahead, Herro is playing in these playoffs against the Atlanta Hawks as possibly the most important player on the No. 1 team in a loaded Eastern Conference. As the most natural scorer on a deep Heat team, the 22-year-old reserve is most suited to unlocking a Miami offense that has been the source of consternation late in the season, and late in games all season.
On a team with Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo, it’s Herro who provides the most effortless offense — a three-level threat no one else on the roster can match.
“We trust in him a lot,” Butler said. “Obviously he has the ball a lot of the time, and obviously when someone does have the ball that much, you trust in them to take the right shots, which he does, and get everybody involved, which he does.
“But he’s grown since he came into the league. He’s going to continue to do that. And we need him to be that going forward in the playoffs and as we make this run.”
BUTLER SERVES AS a great starting point when telling Herro’s story, because it was Butler’s constant promotion of Herro as a confident, NBA-ready hooper his rookie season that first placed Herro on the national radar.
Herro backed up some of Butler’s claims during a pandemic-interrupted debut season, most notably with a 37-point performance against the Boston Celtics in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and snarl-worthy moments in the Heat’s six-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
What followed after the basketball-only comfort of the Walt Disney World bubble was supposed to be a fairy-tale epilogue. Instead, the quick turnaround and shortened 2020-21 season provided greater challenges for Herro.
It started with what was a brief six-week “offseason” for a player expected to take a significant leap. There was a different feel to an exhausted team coming off a sixth Finals appearance in franchise history, and hungry for more.
“I was 20, and I was in the locker room, I’m thinking we’re running it back trying to get back to the Finals,” Herro says. “The locker room just wasn’t the same.”
Entering the season, Herro had earned a spot in the starting lineup, but 15 games in, he was benched in favor of Goran Dragic. Still, Spoelstra piled on the responsibilities even after Herro returned from his bench role, expecting the guard to develop his game and maintain starter-level production all in a reduced role.
“I thought, early on … where I played him as our backup point guard, was really important for him,” Spoelstra says. “He struggled with it. It was a lot more responsibilities and he couldn’t just play to his instincts.
“I told him, as he was struggling through it, this is a really important process for you, just to learn all the spots on the floor, the responsibilities of initiating offense, of getting the ball where it needs to go, and then determining when you can be assertive.”
Whatever goodwill Herro had built from his electrifying performance in the bubble had evaporated. Those who believed Herro’s time in Orlando, Florida, was the beginning of a blossoming franchise player were forced to question how far a Herro-led team could go. A 7-14 start, most notably without Butler, and a benching were all the evidence his detractors needed.
“We got off to a slow start,” says Duncan Robinson, Herro’s teammate. “I remember turnovers being a big thing. It wasn’t his fault, necessarily, but we just needed to stabilize as a team.”
“I remember games where he was playing 16, 20 minutes, in that range,” Robinson says. “How are you gonna score 20 in that type of stress? In that sense, to be honest with you, I felt like it was a little unfair, the situation he was put in.”
Indeed, Herro had a handful of games in the second half of last season with minutes in the teens and scoring totals in single figures. In his first two playoff games in Milwaukee — just 10 miles from where he’d grown up in Greenfield, Wisconsin — Herro played 19 and 18 minutes, respectively, and totaled 14 points on 3-of-15 shooting. His hometown Bucks went on to sweep Miami.
Throughout the season — thanks in large part to the shortened offseason that barely allowed anyone to fully recover — Herro suffered a shoulder injury, neck spasms, a right hip injury and right foot soreness that not only cost him 17 games, but drained him of the one characteristic Butler had raved about since Day 1.
“What I thrive on is my confidence,” Herro says. “I didn’t feel like myself. Mentally, I wasn’t in the right place to play at my best ability every day. My work ethic and getting in the gym nights before games and morning before games, things I do as part of my routine, I couldn’t really do because of COVID.
“Throughout the year I was worried about whether I was getting traded or not. It was just all mental.”
CHRIS HERRO IS the type of dad who will call his son “bro” and it feels completely normal. The type of dad young enough to casually use a phrase like “off the chain,” but just old enough to not recognize it’s outdated.
He’s a former basketball player himself, who still studies the game like he was playing. He has a deep connection to his oldest son. And he’d never experienced Tyler quite like he was in 2020-21, when rumors swirled of a potential trade that would’ve sent Herro to the Houston Rockets as part of a package for James Harden.
“That’s where he started losing some of his confidence and wondering, ‘What am I doing wrong?'” Chris says. “He wasn’t at the arena as much. I think he felt some people went bad on him, so he kind of stayed away.”
When trade rumors would come up, he’d often discuss it with Robinson, who was often included in those reported talks.
“We definitely bonded a little bit,” Robinson says.
It wasn’t just the added basketball responsibilities, and the subsequent failures, that fueled the guesswork as to why Herro was struggling in his second season.
Herro has more than two million followers on Instagram and they provided enough hateful ammunition in the comments of his posts to send anyone into a funk.
“There were so much rumors floating around my name,” Herro says. “The lifestyle stuff, the girls, and saying I’m getting caught up in that, which was never true.”
One afternoon in February 2021, Herro was in his bedroom following a practice, scrolling through social media, his mind flooding with increasing demands.
Find consistency. Find your teammates. Find balance.
Prove you’re not a bubble fraud.
Do it as a starter. Do it off the bench. Do it in the middle of a pandemic after a six-week offseason.
Then, without warning, entered a demand greater than any he’d yet to consider.
The news arrived in a small case, carried by Herro’s girlfriend, Katya Elise Henry, herself an Instagram celebrity.
“I was just literally laying in bed, just sitting on my phone,” Herro says. “She gave me this thing. I opened it, and it had the [pregnancy] test in there. I was like, ‘Oh my god.’
“I think [the team] flew out the next day, and then we played someone else on a back-to-back. I was just like, ‘What the hell is going on?'”
They were having a baby girl.
He and Henry proudly announced the impending arrival via Instagram a few months later, but at the time, pride wasn’t the overwhelming emotion.
“I had to tell my parents,” Herro says. “That was the hardest thing.”
Initially, Chris couldn’t speak when Tyler gave him the news, so he put Herro’s mother, Jen, on the phone. A father of three boys, and fully invested in the career of his eldest, Chris’ initial response was that of concern. It had already been the most trying year in his son’s life.
“At the time he’s 21, it’s like, ‘What are you doing?” Chris says. “You’re not ready for a baby. You should be worrying about your career.’
“But then you take a step back and you have to be there for him. And then you learn from those decisions.”
Facing the on-court struggles, the all-around temptations, the trade rumors and a fan base seemingly more interested in his trade value than his actual value, Herro responded the only way he knew how.
“Once the season ended, I wanted to get into such a good mental place that I didn’t care if I got traded,” Herro says.
First, that meant a lunch with Spoelstra after the season ended. Sitting with Herro in Miami’s Intercontinental Hotel, it didn’t take Spoelstra much time to recognize, “OK, we’re totally on the same page of what we need to work on.”
Spoelstra reminded Herro he’d have an actual offseason this time, not some exhausted sprint. More importantly, the coach impressed on him that his struggles were not unique — even for the great ones.
“I just wanted him to understand that, the year before, [was] super unusual for a young rookie to basically have a full year where everything was going like this [up], drama-free where it’s just like a honeymoon,” Spoelstra says. “It was more from the standpoint of, ‘Look, this is what a normal path is for young guys, these struggles. Playing really well, not playing well, then getting hurt. Embrace it. This is the league. This is what it’s like to be a young guy.’
“Last year was the aberration, not this year.”
WITH FEWER THAN 10 games remaining in his second season, Herro’s struggles continued, this time with a part of his game that had always come the most naturally: his heralded jumper. So he called on noted basketball trainer Drew Hanlen, who works with NBA All-Stars such as Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal and Zach LaVine.
Hanlen put together a video edit of Herro’s jump shot along with some critical notes, including that his stance was occasionally too narrow and that he was often shooting the ball on the way down.
“The thing that stood out to me was his ability to knock down shots,” Hanlen says. “But also, I had heard from everybody that he was just a relentless worker. So I knew that if he already had a great shot, and he was a great worker, if we started getting him working on the right things, I knew the sky was the limit for him.”
Herro finished the season shooting 54.7% from the field over his last eight regular-season games, so he hired Hanlen to train with him all summer.
And so began the summer-long schedule. From June through September, Herro flew back and forth from Los Angeles to Miami to work with Hanlen. On Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, basketball workouts in the morning were followed by weightlifting in the afternoon with a program sent to him from the Heat, then shooting drills at night. On Wednesdays, he’d get the evenings off; Saturdays would be basketball only.
“He loved the depth that we were going into,” Hanlen says. “I told him right away, ‘I know some of this stuff feels so new to you, but I’ve [trained] enough All-Stars to know you’re going to be among those guys very, very soon.'”
Herro asked Hanlen for permission to arrive at the gym early and watch Beal’s workout, knowing the Washington Wizards guard had transformed himself from a player averaging 15.3 points as a 21-year-old to nearly leading the league in scoring at 31.3 per game last season at age 27.
“He just heard Brad’s feet, the way they squeaked a different way,” Hanlen says. “He saw the deceleration and change of direction and how crisp everything was. He saw the separation when he did step-backs, side steps.
“He’d watch Brad’s workout, get his workout in, then he’d normally stay for Jayson’s workout as well. Just a gym rat that wanted to soak up as much as he could.”
Three months later, his world changed again. His daughter, Zya, was born, giving him a sense of responsibility he’d never experienced before. And he was still a member of the Heat, not a certainty when the offseason began.
And all that work began to show.
In five preseason games, Herro averaged 22.4 points on 51% shooting. Through the first two months of the season, he was still scoring 21.8 points at a 45.4% clip.
Herro was getting to his spots with more efficiency, rising up for that jumper with even more explosion, finding better routes to the rim for slick finishes and finding more open teammates on different spots of the floor.
It was the improvement Spoelstra and the Heat were looking for. One that rewarded the Heat’s faith in Herro and, for the moment, quieted those trade rumors.
“He wants to be a real, impact, go-to player in this league,” Spoelstra says. “He’s really taken his incremental steps at the right pace, and it has allowed him to really develop his IQ and really manipulate defenses. This year, you’re seeing everything great players deserve.”
ABOUT THE ONLY part of his 2021-2022 season Herro would’ve changed is the start — or, more accurately, the lack of starts.
Herro sees himself as a star. And rarely do stars come off the bench as late as their third season in the league.
“I mean, I really didn’t have a choice, honestly,” Herro says. “The Heat had already, I’m pretty sure, made up their minds that I was gonna come off the bench, whether I liked it or not.
“So, I kind of got over it pretty quickly and just accepted that role.”
The role did come with national recognition. It wasn’t long before Herro was the front-runner for the Sixth Man of the Year trophy — a tasty carrot to push him along, even if it’s not a trophy he ever envisioned himself winning.
Though he started just 10 of the 46 games he appeared in before the All-Star break, there was chatter around the league that Herro could make the All-Star team as a reserve selected by the coaches or as an injury replacement.
And although Herro didn’t make the team, the way his father explains it, Herro needed that week off more than he needed his first All-Star appearance.
“There were a couple games this year where he had some stinkers,” Chris says. “I was like, ‘Hey, it’s OK, bro, move on to the next one. Learn from it, get on film and then have fun.”
After the All-Star break, Herro amassed the best stretch of his career, a final 20-game span in which he scored 22.4 points and shot 50% from the field and 46% from 3-point range while leading the Heat to a 15-5 record.
Which brings everything back to the question with Herro. It’s a question his father hears all the time.
“It’s, ‘Can he be that dude?'” Chris says. “What are you talking about? He’s been doing it all year. If Tyler Herro doesn’t exist on the Miami Heat, the Miami Heat are a .500 club. Let’s be real, dude.
“I’m not being arrogant because he’s my son. I’m just being real.”
The question won’t truly be answered until these playoffs end for Miami. They might not even be fully settled by then if Herro doesn’t get enough opportunities to prove himself.
He has already played in the Finals, started a digital love story with Henry that began with a simple “wyd” tweet, had a song titled after him, been on stage at a music festival with rapper Jack Harlow performing said song and been featured in enough fashion shoots that he now looms over Biscayne Boulevard on a billboard that would suggest he’ll be a fixture in Miami for a while.
“The way he’s playing basketball right now and everything that’s happening for him on and off the court, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Sometimes there’s beauty in simplicity.”
“For me, growing up, this is all I ever wanted: being on a championship-level team, getting 20, 21 a game,” Herro says. “It’s kind of like perfect timing. I’m coming into my own, and this is what the team needs.”
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