The Miami Heat mastered the win with undrafted talent

IT WAS A early April evening, and the Miami Heat had just recovered 18 points with 1:36 to play against the Chicago Bulls. It was time to call her. So when coach Erik Spoelstra looked down at his bench, he called out a familiar name.

Udonis Haslem, now 41 and with disheveled gray hair to prove it, got up, walked to the scorer’s table and checked himself in.

Haslem, who is in his 19th season, was undrafted in 2002 and played in France for a year before joining the league with his hometown team.

When Haslem entered the game against the Bulls that night, he walked on the floor with four other undrafted players: Duncan Robinson, Haywood Highsmith, Omer Yurtseven and Gabe Vincent.

Each team uses undrafted players, a reality in a league with 510 roster spots (including two-way contracts) and just 60 rookies per season. Miami, however, became the fourth team in NBA history this season to use five or more undrafted players in at least 65 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Of the four teams, the Heat are the only one with a winning record.

The Heat have perfected the art of winning with undrafted talent — because they have to.

Pat Riley, president of the Miami team since 1995, has worked hard to get big names through trade and free agency during his tenure. The strategy worked – the championships of 2006, 2012 and 2013 confirm this.

When he arrived in Miami, he traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Then there was Eddie Jones and Brian Grant in 2000. And Lamar Odom in 2003. Odom and Grant were used in the deal to acquire Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. And then there was the decision to bring in LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010. In 2019, Riley brought in Jimmy Butler.

But these types of names often come with big paydays. It also often means that the choices are misplaced. Since taking office, Riley has made just 14 first-round picks in 26 drafts — and three of them were traded in draft deals.

To do that — and succeed — Miami needs to hit its undrafted signers.

“It’s one of our organizational philosophies,” Spoelstra told ESPN. “We’ve been doing it now for several years. We know what we’re looking for. We’re not for everyone, but we like to be dream makers.”


IT WAS THE spring of 2018, and Chet Kammerer, a longtime member of the Heat’s player personnel department, was working on players for the upcoming NBA draft — one in which the Heat actually had none of their picks.

During a private practice session in Los Angeles, he saw a player who wasn’t on many draft boards, but who he felt personified what his team had so often found: an unheralded prospect. , with a defined role, which could be a mainstay for years. to come.

That player was Duncan Robinson, the former D-III transfer stood out from Michigan.

Kammerer turned to one of the 24-year-old’s representatives. “So what’s the kid’s plan?” Kammerer asked.

“This is our first practice,” the rep replied. “We don’t have a plan.”

But Kammerer had his own idea. He turned to his phone and dialed the number.

“I just finished the best shooting practice I’ve ever seen,” he told Spoelstra.

The head coach excitedly asked who the promising young prospect was. Duncan Robinson, Kammerer told him.

“You mean Michigan’s sixth man?” Spoelstra asked incredulously.

And that’s how the Heat set their sights on the 2017-18 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year after his first pro practice.

After being drafted, Robinson signed to Miami’s summer league team. In seven games in the Sacramento and Las Vegas leagues, Robinson averaged 12.4 points, shooting 21 of 38 from range.

This performance earned him a two-way contract with the Heat. From there, Robinson spent time with Miami’s G League team Skyforce of Sioux Falls. By the time the 2019-20 season rolled around, Robinson had earned a starting spot.

Last summer, Robinson signed the biggest contract in NBA history for an undrafted player: $90 million over five years.

Robinson’s story is familiar within the Miami franchise. Step 1: Find a prospect. Step 2: Give it a chance. Step 3: Watch it succeed.

“We’re going to give you the same opportunity we’re going to give the first draft pick,” Haslem said. “You have to work hard. But we give everyone that confidence. We believe in leadership at all levels.”

The Heat’s recipe for success really is that simple. While not every player discovered by Heat will turn into a success, the organization is consistent in its search criteria.

“People committed to the work and this process,” says Spoelstra. “Our coaching staff, the majority of them are products of our player development program. They do an outstanding job.”

Max Strus, for his part, says it really comes down to the team caring about individual players.

“They want to work with you and see you being great,” Strus says. “When you fully embrace the culture and the work, they reward you for all the effort you put into it. … That’s really the biggest thing that separates the Heat from a lot of other organizations: how much they care and I want to develop guys.”

Spoelstra says player development comes down to the work put in by veterans like Haslem.

“That’s really our biggest asset. You can do all the work, but if your veterans don’t really promote and facilitate that, it’s really difficult for young people in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Our vets have been exceptional.”

And the greatest vet of all is leading that charge.

“The reason we can get these guys to work hard is before we even approach these guys about basketball, we’re letting you know you’re part of the family and we want the best for you” , Haslem said.

“I understand that your career may not be here as long as you would like, but while you are here I will invest in you so you can get the most out of your career no matter what or where you go.”

And they listen.

“As an undrafted guy you walk into this organization and wear this jersey, you don’t have to look any further than [Haslem]“, says Robinson. “He likes underdogs. He likes guys with fries on their shoulders. It’s a perfect fit.”


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Max Strus defeats the buzzer-beater against Oklahoma City Thunder

ROBINSON STARTED all but 16 games he has played in the past three regular seasons for the Heat.

His role changed at the end of the 2021-22 regular season. Spoelstra moved Robinson to the bench and moved Strus – another undrafted player – into the starting lineup. With Strus as the starter, Miami went 14-2.

“It’s a competitive environment,” says Strus. “It suits guys like us because we just try to take advantage of every opportunity because you never know when you’ll get one or if we’ll get one in the first place.”

Robinson didn’t skip a beat.

He had 27 points in Miami’s 115-91 Game 1 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday — matching his best production in a regular season game — and set a Heat playoff record with eight-point 3-point.

Miami’s undrafted players have amassed nearly 40% of its point total this season, second-best in the NBA. Robinson (10.9 ppg), Strus (10.6 PPG), Caleb Martin (9.2 PPG) and Vincent (8.7 PPG) accounted for nearly 80% of those 3,595 points.

On Dec. 17, 2021, against the Orlando Magic, Miami’s undrafted players had 83 points — the second most of any team this season. In fact, there have been 14 instances of undrafted players scoring 70 or more points in a regular season game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Heat had eight.

And they needed everyone, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro missing 86 games combined.

Four of the best five games played this season for the Heat were undrafted players: Robinson (79), Vincent (68), Strus (68) and Dewayne Dedmon (67). PJ Tucker, a second-round pick in 2006, was second on that list with 71.

That balance led the Heat to a 53-win season, the first 50-win season in South Beach since the Big Three’s final year in 2013-14 — and a No. 1 seed.

“We don’t have the leash that conscripts have,” Haslem said. “We don’t have the luxury of making the mistakes rookies have made. We don’t have the luxury of being lazy like rookies did. We don’t have the luxury of not knowing the games like rookies did. We don’t have the luxury of not playing hard like rookies did. We don’t have that luxury when you’re not drafted.

Aubrey L. Morgan