Rookie Rodney McGruder is only three games into his NBA career, yet he already represents a turning point for the Miami Heat.
In 21 seasons that Pat Riley has been at the team’s helm, he has had either Dwyane Wade or Alonzo Mourning on the roster, representing an ingrained stability for the franchise that came to an abrupt end this summer. Given the presence of these two all-time greats, Riley’s main approach to building a contender was to surround these superstars with players ranging from the incredible (LeBron James, Tim Hardaway, etc.) to the complementary (Shane Battier).
The Heat find themselves in the midst of an unexpected rebuilding season, however. Offseason plans that included, perhaps ludicrously, Kevin Durant and Chris Bosh have been torn down. The team’s hopes now lie in the hands of Hassan Whiteside, Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow.
And so, with lowered expectations, an opportunity arose for McGruder not just to make the team’s final roster but to actually make an impact.
This isn’t a knock on McGruder by any means. He was bound to make somebody’s roster this season after helping the Sioux Falls Skyforce to an NBA D-Leauge title.
But the Heat have traditionally avoided signing unproven players like McGruder, favoring comfortable, low-risk veterans that help fill a certain need. That was the approach Riley held when he was coaching, and it extended for years with Erik Spoelstra at the reins.
Those days, for better or worse, appear to be over.
McGruder was locked in a battle for the team’s final roster spot (but only technically, as one still belongs to Bosh, who won’t be playing for the team ever again) with guards Beno Udrih and Briante Weber. Udrih had been the favorite to remain with the team although it was largely expected that Weber, who had signed a multi-year deal with the Heat, would be his strongest competition. Instead, both players were waived in favor of McGruder.
There are valid reasons for keeping McGruder over the other two players. Udrih has been a solid, steady player for years and showed much of the same last year in Miami. He even helped the team by accepting a buyout on his deal after incurring a season-ending injury so the Heat could get under the salary cap and sign Joe Johnson for their playoff run. Still, he didn’t fit Miami’s adjusted plan for the season as well as McGruder.
Weber, for his part, does work well with Miami’s evolving approach despite his defensive prowess and athleticism, yet, he is still raw. Instead, McGruder came out of the preseason looking like a much more polished two-way player.
Listed at 6-4 and a chiseled 205 lbs., McGruder has the length and strength to defend larger wing players and the speed to contend with quicker guards. In the three games he’s appeared in this season, he’s rotated onto a wide range of opponents and acquitted himself quite nicely. There’s no video evidence given his limited playing time but this shot from a preseason game against the Hornets shows his ability to guard Nicolas Batum:
And then point guard Ramon Sessions:
Both steals led to offense, either on a 3-pointer assisted by McGruder or on a breakaway dunk.
Despite the flashes he’s shown defensively, McGruder has struggled on offense, where he’s shooting just 28.6 percent on 4-of-14 shooting. Strangely enough, his woes are mostly at close range, where he’s gone just 1-of-6 on shots near the rim. From the perimeter, McGruder has hit 3-of-7 attempts, a respectable rate and an area of need for the Heat.
Still, if McGruder represents a much bigger organizational shift in perspective, he also fits a more narrow view as a member of head coach Erik Spoelstra’s rotation. He’s had McGruder come off the bench before such well-known veterans as James Johnson, Derrick Williams and Udonis Haslem, the latter two who have yet to step on the floor. Spoelstra spoke of McGruder’s determination when he first made the team, saying, “You love his perseverance his fortitude, the grit, these things you can’t teach, you have to go through life experiences to develop it.”
McGruder confirmed that his difficult journey – which included stints with four different teams, a year in Hungary as well as the D-League – was what he needed to make his NBA dream a reality.
“Those times helped build my character. I learned so much from those different teams that I’ve been on. Everything helped build up to the person and player I am now.”
McGruder will likely go through growing pains as he continues his adjustment to the league. But the organization seems committed to his development, perhaps out of necessity more than anything else. With a lack of draft choices in upcoming years and without the lure of a superstar to attract free agents, it’s difficult to envision if Miami can build a contender through the same process they have in years past.
Instead, they’ll have to rely on grooming their own prospects–as they have with Tyler Johnson and Whiteside–while hoping that Winslow and last year’s second-round pick, Josh Richardson, keep growing as well. McGruder has already proven to have the grit to be a part of the team’s future makeover, and the patience to keep fighting until success is guaranteed.