When coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier this week the competition to earn the Heat’s final roster spot wasn’t only a battle between Beno Udrih and Briante Weber, he apparently meant it.
Rodney McGruder, 25, the starting shooting guard on the Heat’s D-League championship team last season, is very much in the mix, Spoelstra said Wednesday. A couple of Heat teammates even said they wouldn’t be surprised if the 6-5 guard makes the team.
Although Weber, 23, leads the league in steals (17) this preseason, and Udrih, 34, provides a steady, veteran backup true point guard presence, McGruder’s value comes not only as a scorer and playmaker, Spoelstra said, but as player who makes plays that aren’t necessary seen in the boxscore.
“Rodney reminds me — not necessarily the way he plays, but his impact doing the little things to help you win — to Justise [Winslow],” Spoelstra said. “He does a lot of things. Those little things add up and they become winning plays.”
McGruder, whom the Heat signed to a partially guaranteed, three-year deal in July, got a good look from Spoelstra in Tuesday’s blowout win over the Magic.
He replaced Dion Waiters late in the first quarter and played 23 minutes, finishing with eight points and two assists and no turnovers. He also finished plus-29 for the game. Weber entered late in the third quarter, and Udrih didn’t play at all.
Because he played for Sioux Falls last year, and the Skyforce uses the same system as the Heat does, Spoelstra said McGruder isn’t your typical new face on the team. He’s more of a veteran and often times he’s been one to help Miami’s newcomers when they’ve had questions.
“He feels very comfortable in our system,” Spoelstra said.
Although McGruder hasn’t shot the ball well this preseason — he’s shooting 39.5 percent from the field and 31.3 percent from three-point range, well below the 51.3 percent and 38.4 percent from three-point range he shot in Sioux Falls last season — he still has impressed his teammates with his work ethic.
“What I like about him is he comes off [the bench] and he’s aggressive,” Tyler Johson said. “He’s not just in the game and hoping not to make a mistake. He’s in there and making a difference. Defensively, he’s always locked in. You can tell that he really wants that spot. I remember being in a similar position as him two years ago. I think he has a really good chance. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was on the team.”
Goran Dragic said McGruder “is a likeable guy” because he’s humble.
“You can see he is going to do everything it takes to make the team,” Dragic said. “If he’s not going to be here for sure he’s going to make some other team.”
With two preseason games left, McGruder said he’s well aware “its decision week” for Spoelstra and the Heat. But he’s trying not to think about it. After playing overseas in Hungary and then the last two years in the D-League, he wants to play with a clear mind in Charlotte on Thursday and at home Friday when the Heat host the 76ers.
“Whatever is going to happen is going to happen regardless,” said McGruder, who is averaging 6.2 points in 17 minutes this preseason. “I’m just trying to be the best me I can be this week.”
▪ Forward James Johnson, who tweaked his left foot in Tuesday’s game, won’t play Thursday in Charlotte. Spoelstra said he wants to rest Johnson, who missed one game last year with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, and make sure he’s ready for the start of the regular season. Johnson said he’s been “dealing with it” for a while and just aggravated the injury Tuesday.
▪ Dragic said he received phone calls and text messages from friends back home in Slovenia after his name surfaced in trade rumors Tuesday with the Sacramento Kings.
“They said ‘Is that true? Is that true?’ ” Dragic said. “I said ‘I don’t know. Come on leave me alone.’ But I understand its part of the business. Some [rumors] are not true. Some are true. But I don’t have control of that. The only thing I have control is to be focused in practices and games and do my job.”
Dragic, who is still due $51 million and is signed through 2019-20, said he very much wants to remain with the Heat.
“It’s a good group of young talent,” Dragic said. “Guys are unbelievable, working hard. I like the coaching staff. I feel like at home now. I know how I need to play and the style is perfect for me. My goal is to be here for many, many years.”