[Ed. Note: The is the second installment of KSR’s “Next Man Up” series profiling Kentucky’s 2018 signees. Last week, Drew profiled future point guard Immanuel Quickley.]
It’s no secret that Tyler Herro wanted to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game. When the roster came out last month and his name wasn’t on it, he fumed.
“I was actually really mad when that roster came out,” Herro told Kentucky Sports Radio last week. “The next day, I went to the gym at five in the morning and I pretty much go every morning now.”
Hours of shooting did little to dull Herro’s anger. According to his high school coach Travis Riesop, Whitnall’s practice that afternoon was one of their worst ever because Herro was still so mad. A phone call from future coach John Calipari affirmed his belief that he was talented enough to make the roster, as did his inclusion in the Nike Hoop Summit and the five-star ranking he received a few days later from ESPN.
“It made the McDonald’s committee look even more like — why wasn’t I in the game if I had five stars and all that,” Herro wondered. “To me, it’s all political. Who you know, who you don’t know is how you get in the game.”
The snub is just the latest fuel for Herro, who will suit up for Kentucky this fall thanks to a relentless work ethic and burning desire to prove people wrong.
A year ago, Herro’s life was going according to plan. The sharp-shooter from the suburbs of Milwaukee was committed to play for his home state Badgers, set to follow in Sam Dekker’s footsteps. Then, he hit a growth spurt. After a promising summer on the EYBL circuit, Herro was invited to the Team USA Training Camp in October where he played alongside the best of the best, including Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson. With the realization that he belonged among the nation’s elite, Herro decommitted from Wisconsin, setting off a firestorm of criticism from Badger fans that still burns to this day; however, when Kentucky came calling, it was all worth it.
“They heard I was thinking of decommitting, so they asked my AAU coach what was going on and talked to my dad a little bit,” Herro said. “After I decommitted, they took some time and came after me about a week or two later. It kind of went from there.”
Even though other programs reached out — Kansas, Oregon, Villanova, Butler — Herro waited for Kentucky.
“Ever since he opened his commitment up, he was just like, ‘Alright, when’s Kentucky going to come?'” Riesop recalled.
Calipari finally came to Whitnall on October 31, all swagger and NBA statistics in a fine wool suit. Herro took to his pitch like a fish to water.
“He just told me he doesn’t promise anything, not even to Anthony Davis, who was the best player coming out of high school. Everything is earned. That’s what I like about him.”
Riesop said that was all Herro needed to hear.
“Coach Cal came and said, ‘Kentucky is not for everybody. We do things differently and you need to work your butt off when you’re here.’ When he said that, I was like, well, Tyler is definitely a perfect fit for Kentucky.”
It doesn’t hurt that Calipari coached Devin Booker, the newly crowned NBA Three-Point Contest Champion whom Herro models his game after. The two have yet to meet in person, but Herro talks to Booker’s trainer every week and is hoping they can workout together before he comes to Kentucky this summer.
After watching Herro, it’s easy to see the similarities between his game and Booker’s. Not only are both incredible shooters — Herro averages 32.6 points and has seven 40-plus point games this season — like Booker, he’s not afraid to go at the basket, keeping defenders honest inside and out. He also has a Booker-like swagger that will make him beloved in Kentucky and hated outside of it, a chip on his shoulder sharpened from playing in front of bitter Wisconsin fans in gyms all over the state. Even though he decommitted from Wisconsin months ago, he still receives angry tweets from Badger fans blasting him for reneging on his pledge. The jeers from opposing crowds are even worse.
“It’s been weird,” Herro, a lifelong Wisconsin fan, confided. “A lot of student sections that we play against are all wearing Badger gear and calling me a snake and stuff like that. But I guess it’s cool.”
It’s really not, but Herro thrives on the hate, regularly dropping 40-plus points in hostile environments.
“I definitely think that my character has gotten better since I decommitted because I have to focus on the things that are around me and let everybody else talk and say what they believe,” he said.
“He’s just that kid,” Riesop said. “He wants to be pushed, he wants to be better and he’s got that killer mentality that, ‘I want to be the best.’ That’s what I really like about him and why it’s so fun to coach him and see how he responds when we go places on the road.”
Riesop recalls one away game in which two girls in the student section held up “Herro is overrated” signs, then afterwards, asked Herro for a selfie. When Riesop called them out for their hypocrisy, they claimed other people put them up to holding the signs. Booker had to deal with girls licking his car when he was at Kentucky; something tells me Herro will receive similar treatment.
Wisconsin fans’ attacks on Herro seem especially petty when you learn he’s still friends with Badger legend Nigel Hayes. The two met at a Nike camp in Los Angeles Herro’s freshmen year, and even though Herro parted ways with Hayes’ alma matter, they stayed in touch, to the point Hayes came to Herro’s Senior Night on Friday. After posting pictures of the two on Twitter, I was stunned by the number of angry responses from Wisconsin fans, who could clearly learn from Hayes’ example.
Herro’s decision to come to Kentucky instead of Wisconsin hasn’t just resulted in personal attacks; Riesop says it may have also put his campaign for the Wisconsin Mr. Basketball award in jeopardy.
“A lot of times, when people pick that award for our state, they say, ‘Well, we want a hometown guy who’s going to come to Wisconsin’ and now they’re like, ‘He totally did us wrong and that’s not okay.’ Strictly looking at basketball, he really is the best player.”
There are rumblings that Herro may tie for the award, which Riesop says is unfortunate.
“He may be one of the best players to ever come out of this state, so for you to just push him off to the side is really unfortunate because he’s doing things that are absolutely unbelievable.”
Senior Night at Whitnall was a grand affair, with the program saying goodbye to eleven players. Herro and the rest of the normal starting lineup sacrificed their starting spots so five other seniors could enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the final home game. Once in, Herro — wearing custom UK sneakers — didn’t shoot well, scoring only 21 points and hitting two threes, but his other talents were on full display. With his shot not falling, Herro focused on creating for others, often bringing the ball down the court and calling out plays, a role that comes naturally to him.
“He is the guy that picks everybody up and keeps everybody together,” Riesop said. “I think he really is soaking all of that in and I think that’s where he’s really matured this year and that’s why he’s doing so well.”
After Herro was whistled for a phantom double dribble, Whitnall’s gym erupted in boos and the fan beside me muttered, “Good, he plays better when he’s pissed.” On the next series, Herro zipped a beautiful no-look pass down to the lane to his teammate for an easy score and met him under the basket to celebrate. A few plays later, he sprinted down the court and dunked it with authority:
Tyler Herro can dunk, too. pic.twitter.com/EFUStufVeI
— Tyler Thompson (@MrsTylerKSR) February 17, 2018
Whintall cruised to an easy win over Shorewood, securing the Woodland East title. Last night, Herro put up 39 points to lead the sixth-ranked Falcons to the Woodland Conference Championship, beating top-ranked Pewaukee on the road. Next week, they’ll start their run in the WIAA Tournament, which Herro hopes ends with another ceremonial cutting of the nets, a tradition he strives to continue at Kentucky. He and fellow signees Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson regularly discuss their goal of winning the national championship in a group text that lights up daily.
“We just see what the guys are doing this year and how they’ve been losing and stuff and we pretty much said to each other that we’ve got to go out there and fight together and put the NBA stuff to the side and just focus on our main goal, winning the national title.”
Herro’s focused on winning a state title right now, but his excitement for next year in Lexington is obvious. Riesop said Herro wears Kentucky gear to school four days out of the week, and it would be five if not for a team rule that players must wear Whitnall gear or dress up on game days.
“He’s really excited about it. We talk about it all the time and it’s funny how he says, ‘Drake follows me now on Instagram’ and all this stuff. It’s cool. I’m happy for him because he is soaking it all in and he’s really enjoying it but at the same time, he’s very humble about it. He doesn’t flaunt it. He doesn’t brag about it.”
Herro’s visited Kentucky twice this season, once for an official visit after reopening his recruitment and again on his birthday for the Florida game. Even though Kentucky lost to the Gators that day, he couldn’t get enough of the Big Blue Nation.
“When I went to the mall, when I got there, right when I walked in the mall, there were ten people asking for a picture right away, which I thought was kind of cool,” he recalled, smiling. “It was weird knowing a lot of people already know me and I’m not even there yet. It should be fun.”
Also weird: having LaVar Ball slide in your DMs. Through Instagram, Ball extended an invitation to Herro to join his Junior Baller League in lieu of going to college, a path Herro said is not for him.
“I told my parents right away and all they said was, ‘No. Don’t respond.’ So, I didn’t respond to him, but it was kind of funny, seeing it in my direct messages. I thought it was funny. I don’t want to hate on him or LaMelo or any of his kids. I support what they’re doing but I just don’t think that’s the path I want to go down.”
Since our discussion last week, Kentucky is finally back on the winning path, but there’s no denying the Cats could use Herro’s talents right now.
“It’s exciting to know that next year, they’re going to need a shooter and that’s what they’re missing. Being able to go in there next year and hopefully make an impact right away with my shooting and scoring.”
In fact, Herro went as far to deliver this promise to Kentucky fans.
“It won’t be like this year.”
Until then, Herro will keep striving to prove his doubters wrong because it’s the only way he knows how.
“That’s the thing about Tyler,” Riesop said. “When people doubt him or people are challenging him that they’re better than him, he’s like, ‘Okay, well I’m going to work twice as hard as you and I’m going to try to do more than you to be better than you.’ He wants to work to be the best. Getting up at five in the morning, stuff like that. That’s his life. That’s what he knows. That’s ingrained in his DNA.”
The fact that Herro is coming to Kentucky is proof he’s a great player; however, one particular snub will always stand out.
“When I make it – hopefully – when they ask me why, I just want to remember the day they left me out of the McDonald’s All-American Game.”