Rodney McGruder was at an FIU open basketball scrimmage Saturday morning supporting former Kansas State grad assistant Erik Pastrana when he looked down at his cell phone and saw his agent was calling.
“You know it’s news,” McGruder said with a smile Sunday morning recounting the moment he learned he was making his first NBA roster. “It’s nerve-wracking a little bit. I was just hoping for the best when that call comes – and it was. It came with some great news.”
McGruder, 25, earned the Heat’s final roster on Saturday, edging out 13-year veteran Beno Udrih and former D-League backcourt mate Briante Weber after a strong preseason.
Saturday’s news ended a long three-year journey for the 6-5, 200-pound shooting guard that included a season in the Hungarian A League and then two more in the NBA’s Development League with the Maine Red Claws and Sioux Falls Skyforce, whom he helped guide to the D-League championship last season.
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Twice before he was cut by NBA teams in training camp (in 2013 by the Oklahoma City Thunder and in 2014 by the Boston Celtics). McGruder spent training camp with the Heat last year and accepted his demotion to the D-League. All the while, he did it with a great attitude.
“You love his perseverance, his fortitude, the grit,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “These things you can't teach, you have to go through life experiences to develop it. The way he came through is almost text book in how you would want to develop a player -- go overseas, learn how to handle more responsibilities and then start the process of training camp and summer league. Then, play a season and a half with our D-League team under our staff and really develop there and then finish off with another summer league, a full summer of development, a training camp, all the way to the 11th hour.
“And he just pushed through and persevered and worked on just getting better as a basketball player. You really root for guys like that. By the end of it, he really felt like a veteran Miami Heat player through all those experiences. But a lot of guys don’t have the type of makeup to be able to go through all those experiences without getting discouraged.”
Still, as much as McGruder (7.4 points, 41.6 FG percentage, 34.6 3PT FG percentage) outperformed Udrih and Weber this preseason, Spoelstra acknowledged the Heat might have gone in a different direction with its final roster spot had Tyler Johnson and Dion Waiters not shown they could capably handle running the Heat’s offense as backup point guards.
“If we didn’t have that, then maybe our roster would look a little bit different,” Spoeltra said. “Right now the game is being played different. We play differently. We have a lot of guys that can initiate offense off the dribble. It might not be a classic point guard, but they’re gotten enough reps where they feel comfortable doing that. That’s not only Tyler, that’s Dion, that’s Justise [Winslow], [Josh Richardson] when he comes back into the fold. We have a lot of guys that can do that.”
One thing clearly evident is that McGruder – whom Spoelstra said is Winslow-like in that he can make the little plays that help you win – has the respect of his teammates. Goran Dragic last week called McGruder a “very likeable guy,” adding he’s fearless and has the confidence to play in the league.
McGruder said the difference for him in making an NBA roster this team around was having that confidence.
“I’m happy for him,” team captain Udonis Haslem said. “He worked for it. He earned it. Nobody gave him anything from Day 1. He saw a crack in the door and he kind of kicked the door down. It took everything that he’s got. It just reminded me of my situation when I came in, how everything kind of played out for me and how I had to come in and take it.”
McGruder’s emergence is just the latest example of how the Heat, maybe more than any other team in the league, has found a way to mine talent while not having much in the way in draft picks. McGruder, Haslem, Willie Reed and Tyler Johnson were each undrafted players. Dragic, Richardson, center Hassan Whiteside and Josh McRoberts are the four former second round picks on the roster.
“I think Sioux Falls just does a great job of making sure [we’re ready],” said Johnson, who last week said he thought McGruder had a legitimate shot to make the team. “They have the best facility in all of the D-League. They take care of their players. Then, the Heat do such a good job of making sure the culture down there is the same as it is down here. So when guys get called up or get an opportunity to play up here they already know what's going on.”
With Richardson (MCL) and McRoberts (foot) still sidelined by injuries and not participated in contact drills in practices, chances are McGruder will be active on most nights for the Heat early in the season. And with veteran guard Wayne Ellington (bruised quad) unsure if he will play in the season opener, there’s a chance McGruder could be in the rotation Wednesday night in Orlando.
For now, McGruder said he’s not going to put any extra pressure on himself. He’s said he has to stay focused and in the moment.
“Added pressure can hinder you in a way,” he said. “I’m just going to stay the course, work hard, control what I can control -- that’s my energy and effort.”