BOZEMAN, Mont. — Deep in the basketball backwoods, on the campus of a 125-year-old land-grant university offering picturesque views of snow-capped Rocky Mountain peaks and an optimal location for powder-hungry skiers, a real-deal NBA prospect has found his lane, and now he’s trying to burst through it. Tyler Hall has a feathery jump shot, gleaming statistical track record and, most important to a reporter who ventured out to Montana State University a week before Christmas, a legitimate chance to stick in the best professional league on the planet. There’s just one problem at this juncture of his junior season: Hall isn’t playing all that well.
He’d been battling a balky right ankle since mid-November, but on this chilly Monday night at Brick Breeden Fieldhouse—a cozy, white-domed venue on the south side of campus that doubles as a concert hall and a staging ground for rodeo competitions—it was the referees, and not any injury, that kept Hall from showing why he could soon ditch Big Sky Country for an NBA zip code. His Bobcats had stumbled to a 6-5 record and were trying to snap a two-game losing streak against Denver, a fellow low-major with its own tenuous connection to the pro game: Second-year head coach Rodney Billups is Mr. Big Shot’s younger brother.
Hall buries an early spot-up three from one wing and does it again a little more than a minute later from the other one to put Montana State up six, but he’s subbed out about six minutes in after being whistled for two fouls. The third and fourth come within seven minutes after halftime (Hall also picks up a tech), and he fouls out on the doorstep of clutch time having logged only 16 minutes. Even when Hall was on the floor, it would have been difficult for the uninitiated onlookers in the holiday break-thinned crowd (2,200 was the official tally) to think he was anything other than an average small-school off-guard with a boyish face, unkempt jawline, thick chin beard and a mop of frizzy black hair.
Denver defenders tracked Hall closely in the half court and made him work for the clean looks he manufactures on the regular as he misfired repeatedly. Hall finished with zero rebounds, one empty trip to the free throw line and just eight points on 3-of-10 shooting and was thoroughly outplayed by Denver’s Jake Pemberton, a 6’4’’ senior guard with a tattoo sleeve on his left arm, a striking resemblance to Casino Royale villain Le Chiffre and anonymity to just about everyone who doesn’t keep close tabs on the Summit League. But this game wasn’t representative of the player Hall is right now or the one he could become.
Montana State lured Hall out of Rock Island, Ill., part of the Quad Cities region hugging the Mississippi River. Hall of Fame coach Don Nelson and iconic gunner Ricky Davis both hail from the QC, but it won’t be confused for a basketball talent hub. Coaches homing in on the Midwest would be far better off spending extra time mining the sprawling, lakeside metropolis about 175 miles to the east (Chicago). Hall grew up playing point guard, just like his father, Henry, who, along with Hall’s mother, Laura, suited up for Augustana College, a Division III liberal arts school in Rock Island with fewer than 3,000 students.
Point guard was a good fit for Hall when he was a sub-6-foot high school underclassman. A growth spurt laid the groundwork for a position switch and tilted his career trajectory upward. By his junior year, Hall had sprouted into a 6’3’’ bucket-getter with a floor general’s creative instincts. Hall had the sweet shooting stroke and the playmaking chops to break prep defenses, but he didn’t pop enough to attract any scholarship offers from high-major schools, not even nearby Big Ten member Iowa. That didn’t mean that no high-major coaches knew about Hall, though. One of them that did wanted him, only at a less prestigious program.
Before being hired as Montana State’s head coach in the spring of 2014, Brian Fish served as an assistant under Dana Altman at Oregon. Fish had gotten to know Hall’s coach on Hall’s Quad City Elite grass roots team, Darren Bizarri, during a previous stint at Creighton, and began recruiting Hall while a member of Altman’s staff with the Ducks. Fish made him a priority upon taking over in Bozeman, Mont. The pitch was enticing to Hall, even as it came from a first-time HC overseeing a middling program residing in the Division I hinterland: I want to build this program around you, Fish told him. Hall was in. “He had a lot of confidence in me,” Hall says.
If Bizarri supplied the connective tissue for Hall’s college recruitment, he also kindled the flame that changed his game for the better. Hall was a passive player who once requested he be taken out of an AAU game because he didn’t think he was playing well, so Bizarri lit into him. “I really pushed his buttons,” Bizarri says. Rather than wilting in the face of scathing criticism, Hall met the challenge head on. He adjusted his approach to the game, though the brand-name schools in the area either didn’t notice or didn’t think it mattered enough to court him with more purpose. “I just realized,” Hall says, “I could do a little more than I thought I could.”
Fish may have known he’d scored a major recruiting victory in keeping Hall away from programs much higher up the NCAA food chain, but he wasn’t just getting an overlooked talent with the potential to develop into a pro sometime down the road. Unlike most first-year college players for whom the one-and-done track is nothing more than a pipe dream, there were instant returns with Hall. As a freshman, he led Montana State in scoring at 18.6 points per game, ranked second on the team with 5.3 rebounds per game and sank 43% of his 223 three-point attempts to earn second-team all-conference honors.
Hall’s college debut blew away every reasonable expectation, but even allowing for the possibility of a standard sophomore leap, it didn’t presage him blossoming into one of the most efficient high-usage scorers in the nation a year later. Among the 16 players who attempted at least 275 treys in 2016-17, Hall ranked second with a 42.9% make rate, and he’s one of only eight players since 2009-10 who’s posted an Offensive Rating of at least 125 on 28% usage or higher over 500 or more minutes in a single season, according to sports-reference.com. One of the others is a Western Conference superstar who plied his trade in the same conference as Hall, the Big Sky: Weber State product Damian Lillard (2011-12).
Including Lillard, there have been seven Big Sky players drafted since the league adopted a two-round format in 1989. (Former Detroit Pistons and Indiana Pacers guard Rodney Stuckey, who played two seasons at Eastern Washington, is the only other first-rounder.)
Hall’s chances of becoming the eighth member of that list hinge on his jumper. Hall is a dead-eye shooter who’s honed a repeatable stroke. He gets good elevation before releasing the ball with a clean, compact motion. Send Hall flying around a screen and watch him rain fire off the catch, even with a defender in his grill, but teams won’t be able to risk going under picks on him because he’s plenty comfortable launching off the bounce. According to data compiled by Synergy Sports Technology, Hall topped all Division I players who took at least 100 jump shots off the dribble last season with an average of 1.14 points on those attempts. Says Thom Sigel, Hall’s head coach at Rock Island, “He just has such confidence in his game.”
Hall’s dimensions (Montana State lists him at 6’5,’’ 210 pounds) won’t put him at a major disadvantage against most NBA shooting guards, and his sturdy lower body will help him hold up physically against bigger wings. A full transition to point guard might be off the table, but Hall’s experience playing that position should allow him to serve as a secondary ball handler. As Hall’s dad, Henry, noted, “He’s a point guard in his head.” Hall’s ability to facilitate on the move and quickly access his jumper could make him a dangerous pick-and-roll operator, even if, at least early on, teams wouldn’t ask Hall to stray too far from his bread and butter. “He makes shots,” Fish says. “And he makes a lot of shots.”
Doing that enough to persuade a general manager that Hall’s worth burning a pick on, while constantly facing defenses loading up to shut him down, won’t be simple, but the chance that he develops into a long-range flamethrower who demands extra attention all over the floor could be too tantalizing to pass up. Though no team may pull the trigger on draft night, Hall’s perimeter marksmanship should give him a chance to catch on in a league dotted with Moreyball-infused offenses. Watch Hall use a screen to set his feet for a deep rainbow during a game against Pac-12 opponent Washington State last November.
The biggest question about Hall’s NBA prospects is one that also applied to Lillard, in addition to pretty much every other mid or low-major player: Okay, but, like, can he really do this stuff against much tougher competition? Hall will have a far harder time creating space against long, rangy defenders deployed in schemes designed to take away what he does best than he does against Big Sky outfits. And if he can’t knock down his jump shot at a favorable clip against stingier coverage, Hall doesn’t have much else in his skill set to fall back on. That may be the most precarious aspect of his projectability at the next level.
Hall almost certainly wouldn’t hear his name called if the draft were held today. Rather than building on a promising two-season body of work and furthering his case among skeptical NBA talent evaluators, Hall seems to be trending in the wrong direction. He’s not shooting as well or getting to the free-throw line as often as he did as a sophomore, and following a ghastly 2-for-19 effort at Omaha last Thursday, he’s scored only 14 total points in his last two games, about nine fewer than his single-game average in 2016-17. Hall could use the ankle injury to explain away the statistical dip earlier in the season, but he’s feeling alright now. “Not really even bothering me anymore,” Hall said last Monday.
There’s time yet for Hall to halt this worrying slide and convince scouts he’s worth another look. It doesn’t feel like complacency is setting in, like he’s ready to sit back and appreciate what he’s already accomplished. Hall is a roundball junkie who minds the details; his dad described him as an “overzealous” observer of players. The problem for Hall, with Montana State set to begin conference play on Thursday, is that he probably won’t face an esteemed NBA prospect the rest of this season. But front office types don’t need to see a particular one-on-one matchup involving Hall to recognize that he can help their teams by drilling shots from beyond the arc.
Fish likens Hall to CJ McCollum, Lillard’s small school-bred backcourt partner in Portland, but a more realistic projection may be someone approximating an underrated, floor-spacing role guy like Miami’s Wayne Ellington. Any team that decides to take a flier on Hall presumably will hope he avoids the fate of the most recent guard drafted out of the Big Sky, Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey, who’s now logging minutes in France. None of those comparisons will fit unless Hall resumes doing what put him on the draft radar in the first place. To give scouts a reason to trek out to a school far off the NBA map, Hall needs to shoot better.