The Heat have mastered the art of winning with undrafted talent

IT WAS ONE night in early April, and the Miami Heat had just taken an 18-point lead with 1:36 left against the Chicago Bulls. It was time to call him. Then, when coach Erik Spoelstra looked over to his bench, he called out a familiar name.

Udonis Haslemnow 41 and with scattered gray hair to show for it, got up, walked over to the scorer’s table and signed in.

Haslem, now in his 19th season, went undrafted in 2002 and played in France for a year before breaking into the league with his hometown team.

When Haslem entered the game against the Bulls that night, he stepped onto the court with four other undrafted players: Duncan Robinson, Haywood Highsmith, Omer Yurtseven Y Gabe Vincent.

All teams use undrafted players, a reality in a league with 510 roster spots (including two-way contracts) and only 60 draft picks per season. However, Miami became the fourth team in NBA history this season to use at least five 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, Miami’s team president since 1995, has gone out of his way to pursue big names through trades and free agency during his tenure. The strategy has worked: the 2006, 2012 and 2013 championships support it.

When he first arrived in Miami, he traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Then came 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 those kinds of names often come with big salaries. It also often means that the selections move. Since he took over, Riley has made only 14 first-round picks in 26 drafts, with three of those being traded in draft-night deals.

To do that, and be successful, Miami has to capitalize on its undrafted signings.

“It’s a philosophy of our organization,” Spoelstra told ESPN. “We’ve been doing it for several years. We know what we’re looking for. We’re not for everyone, but we love being dream makers.”

IT WAS THE SPRING OF 2018, and Chet Kammerer, a veteran member of the Heat’s player personnel department, was working with players for the upcoming NBA draft, one in which the Heat didn’t actually have any of their picks.

In a private workout in Los Angeles, he saw a player who wasn’t on many draft boards but felt he embodied what his team had so often encountered: an unannounced prospect, with a defined role, who could be a mainstay. for years to come.

That player was Duncan Robinson, the former Division III transfer turned All-Star at Michigan.

Kammerer addressed one of the then 24-year-old’s representatives. “So what’s the boy’s plan?” Kammerer asked.

“Uh, this is our first training,” the rep replied. “We don’t have a plan.”

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

“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 the sixth man from Michigan?” Spoelstra asked in disbelief.

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

After going undrafted, Robinson signed up to be a part of Miami’s summer league team. During seven games in the Sacramento and Las Vegas leagues, Robinson averaged 12.4 points, shooting an impressive 21-of-38 from the arc.

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

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

Robinson’s story is a familiar one within the Miami franchise. Step 1: He finds a prospect. Step 2: Give it a try. Step 3: Watch him succeed.

“We’re going to give you the same opportunity that we’re going to give the No. 1 pick in the draft,” Haslem says. “You have to work hard. But we give everyone that trust. We believe in leadership at all levels.”

The Heat’s recipe for success is that simple. While not every player the Heat discovers becomes a success story, the organization is consistent in its search criteria.

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



The one from the Heat chases the one from the Bulls until he manages to block him from behind.

Max Strusfor his part, says it all comes down to the team caring about the individual players.

“They want to work with you and make you look great,” says Strus. “When you give yourself completely to the culture and to the job, you get rewarded for all the efforts 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 seek to develop guys.”

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

“That’s really the most important thing. You can do all the work, but if your veterans aren’t really promoting and facilitating that, it’s really tough for the young guys in this league,” Spoelstra says. “Our veterans have been exceptional.”

And the greatest veteran of them all leads that charge.

“The reason we can make these guys work hard is that even before we talk to them about basketball, we let them know that they’re part of the family and that we want what’s best for them,” says Haslem.

“I understand that your career might not be here for as long as you want, but while you’re here, I’m going to invest in you so you can get the most out of your career no matter where you go.”

And they listen.

“As an undrafted guy, you walk into this organization and you wear this jersey, you don’t need to look past (Haslem),” says Robinson. “He loves the underdog. He loves guys with chips on their shoulders. That fits perfectly.”



The Heat with great effectiveness in the three-point shot of all their players against the Hawks.

ROBINSON WAS Started in all but 16 games in the past three regular seasons for the Heat.

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

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

Robinson didn’t miss a beat.

He scored 27 points in Miami’s 115-91 Game 1 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday, matching his best total during a regular-season game, and set a Heat playoff record with eight 3-pointers.

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

On December 17, 2021, against the Orlando Magic, Miami’s undrafted players had 83 points, the second most of any team this season. In fact, there were 14 instances of undrafted players scoring 70 points or more in a regular-season game in 2021-22, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Heat had eight of them.

And they needed everyone, well Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, Bam Adebayo Y Tyler Herro they lost a combined 86 games.

Four of the top five in games played this season for the Heat were undrafted players: Robinson (79), Vincent (68), Strus (68) and Dewayne Demon (67). PJ Tuckerselected in the second round of the 2006 draft, was second on that list with 71.

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

“We don’t have the freedom that the recruits had,” says Haslem. “We don’t have the luxury of making the mistakes that the recruits did. We don’t have the luxury of being lazy like recruits. We don’t have the luxury of not knowing the plays the recruits didn’t know. We can’t afford not to play hardball like the recruits. We don’t have those luxuries when you don’t get drafted.”

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The Heat have mastered the art of winning with undrafted talent