CHICAGO -- When most players are sleeping, Heat guard Norris Cole is hoisting up hundreds of shots.
Late at night, almost every night — after a game, after practice, doesn’t matter — Cole and his personal shooting coach, Sedric Toney, are in the gym. Toney has been with Cole since before he was drafted, and the rules of the game are simple. Make 10 shots from one place on the court and then move on to the next spot.
The work goes on for hours.
For example, Cole doesn’t just practice shots from the corner before moving to the wing. No, that’s child’s play. He also steps two paces toward the baseline and sinks 10 three-pointers from an angle almost behind the basket. He then moves four paces up the court and repeats the process from another awkward angle.
How does a late first-round draft pick from Cleveland State, in his second season in the league, break into the rotation of the deepest and most talented team in the NBA and command starter’s minutes in a playoff game? There’s no luck involved. This isn’t a right-place/right-time kind of story. The answer is simple: hard work.
“From the very beginning, I told him, ‘You can be in the NBA or you could be one of the best in the NBA,’ ” said Toney, a former NBA guard from Cole’s hometown of Dayton, Ohio. “You’ve got to do extra. You can’t continue to do what it took to get you to the NBA. You’ve got to do what it takes to keep you in the NBA.”
Toney, who has helped several young NBA players improve their skills, including Paul George of the Indiana Pacers, has worked with Cole for the past two years. Currently living in Miami and working the late shift with Cole, Toney represents only one aspect of Cole’s dedication, nurturing and sudden rise. Heat assistant coach Dan Craig, who has helped Cole find the proper balance in his shot and also taught Cole how to properly utilize game film, also has been invaluable in the young guard’s development.
And then there’s Cole himself, because a coach can only do so much.
“I think with experience comes comfort,” Cole said. “When you see situations more than one time, as a point guard, you have to be able to adjust. So I’m seeing situations that I remember seeing last year, that I remember seeing from earlier in the season, and I’m adjusting my game to it and keeping it within the team concept.”
And, oh yeah, Cole watches game film like a 13-year-old plays video games — all the time.
Hours before he scored 18 points for the second consecutive game in Friday’s victory against the Chicago Bulls, Cole was seated in the visiting locker room at United Center, facing the wall, headphones on, head down and eyes staring into an iPad. Locker rooms are open to the media for 45 minutes before games, but there might as well have been a “do not disturb” sign taped to the back of Cole’s chair.
Cole’s headphones, Beats by Dr. Dre given to him as gift from LeBron James, removed him from the noise of the crowded and cramped room. On the iPad, Cole studied a digital compilation of game tape highlighting the tendencies of his primary defensive assignment, Bulls guard Nate Robinson. For nearly an hour before the Heat’s 104-94 victory, Cole never lifted his head.
Cole’s pregame film study is part of his regular routine. He has been doing it before every game the entire season.
“Right now, I’m feeling pretty comfortable out there on the court,” Cole said. “That comes from the film session with the coaches. That comes from the habits being built up throughout this season, and we still have a long way to go, but I’m pleased with my progress so far.”
The Heat leads the Bulls 2-1 in its best-of-7 series with Game 4 on Monday at United Center. In the series’ first three games, Cole has scored 43 total points and missed only four shots. He is 16 of 20 from the field and 8of 8 from three-point range. But shooting isn’t why he’s on the court. The Heat has plenty of shooters. Cole is logging more minutes than starter Mario Chalmers over the past two games for one reason: defense.
Robinson scored 27 points in Game 1, or one fewer point than he scored in Games 2 and 3 combined. The defensive efforts of Cole and Chalmers, who also has played well in the series, have helped the Heat regain home-court advantage by limiting Robinson’s looks and forcing him to take poor shots.
After going 8 of 16 from the field in Game 1, Robinson was 8 of 23 in Games 2 and 3 and 3 of 12 from three-point range.
Cole has the natural quickness and speed needed to stay in front of Robinson in one-on-one situations, but teammates James and Dwyane Wade point to Cole’s technique and meticulous approach to film study as the primary reasons for his knack to anticipate an opponent’s next move. Remember that game-winning block Cole delivered against Kyrie Irving in the last week of the regular season? That doesn’t happen by accident, Wade said.
“His chest is always in front of the defender,” Wade said. “Watch his chest.”
And, of course, Cole’s environment has had a profound impact on his development as a professional. Cole and other rookies in his class did not receive any favors with the NBA owners’ 2011 lockout, but ever since then, Cole has been surrounded by future Hall of Famers.
“There’s not a lot of players who are as serious as him,” Toney said. “He’s a model citizen. He’s like a sponge. He’s locked in and serious all the time. He’s totally committed, and like I told him the night he got drafted, ‘The only guy who should be just as happy as you right now is the guy that got drafted No. 1.’
“He’s a lucky dude to be playing with those guys. It kind of reminds me of a Rajon Rondo situation. Rondo walked into three Hall of Famers.”