When Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called rookie Rodney McGruder “a 6-4 version” of team captain Udonis Haslem last week, the comparison naturally raised some eyebrows around the fan base, which has come to appreciate the blood and guts the 14-year veteran and three-time NBA champion has left on the floor for the franchise over the years.
One person not the least bit surprised by the comparison? South Carolina men’s basketball coach Frank Martin, who coached Haslem, 36, on three consecutive state championship teams at Miami Senior High from 1996 to 1998 (the last championship was vacated after the school was penalized by the FHSAA for recruiting violations) and then McGruder, 25, during his first three seasons at Kansas State from 2009 to 2012.
“I told the people in the NBA who called me after Rodney’s senior year the same thing I said about Udonis when he was coming out of Florida,” Martin told The Miami Herald Tuesday night by phone. “I said, ‘I understand he doesn’t look big enough and maybe he’s not fancy enough or he’s not explosive enough as an athlete, but I’m just telling you, if you put him on the court you won’t be able to take him off it and his team is going to win most of the time.’
“And no surprise, it was the Heat that gave Rodney a real opportunity just like they did with Udonis. Rodney got on the court, he earned everyone’s trust and Udonis was there to take him under his wing. So, when Spo said that last week I just kind of smiled. It’s no surprise to me those two guys have bonded.”
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McGruder, who said the comparison to Haslem was ‘the ultimate compliment,’ called his former college coach Monday to do a video chat while he and Haslem were out to dinner. Both players wanted to congratulate Martin, who on Sunday got South Carolina into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
The seventh-seeded Gamecocks (22-10) will face 10th-seeded Marquette (19-12) Friday night in Greenville, S.C. Haslem said he’s already called former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade, who went to Marquette, and placed a friendly wager on the game.
“Frank helped me tremendously just overall from becoming a boy to a man, and just being responsible and accountable at an early age,” Haslem said. “Some guys when they get to this level in the NBA they struggle with being accountable, being responsible and even competing every day. I got all that early from Frank. He didn’t let us take any shortcuts. He treated us like men. He made us step up to the plate. He made us responsible. It was all out of love. You’ve got a lot of innercity kids that can make the wrong decisions that can cost them their lives with just one mistake. He kept us on the right path and he was real hard and strict on us.”
Martin, who turns 51 in a little more than a week, said his core coaching beliefs are very similar to the Heat’s under Pat Riley and Spoelstra and believes that’s why Haslem and McGruder fit so well into their system.
“You don’t build your team from shooting and then try to invent how to defend,” Martin said. “I think you do the hard stuff first. I’ve always done it that way with players. Teach them how to guard. Teach them how to compete. Teach them how to not back down. And then grow them as a player.”
Haslem has always embodied that with the Heat. Undrafted like McGruder, he’s become the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds. McGruder has a long way to go to come close to matching Haslem’s contributions, but he’s already started 50 games this season (third-most among all rookies) mainly because of how well he defends and hustles.
The thing is, Martin said, McGruder wasn’t a very good defender when he first got him at Kansas State as a freshman. He’s built himself into one.
“He wanted to, really tried to be, but he was just a bad defender,” Martin said. “I still played him, but I couldn’t leave him out there for long periods of time. He understood it and he worked at it and continued to work at it and made himself a very good college defender by the time I left. Now, he’s become a pro and he learns. You know, some guys don’t learn. Some guys are fast and jump and run, but they’re not competitive enough or they don’t learn. They don’t learn angles or study film. Rodney does all that stuff. He just studies the game.
“I haven’t been in the locker room with him in a while, but if he’s continued to grow the way I think he has, then he studies film, knows his matchups, where you don’t want guys to catch the ball and he’s going to fight you and not back down or be afraid to guard you. It’s the same thing Udonis did.”
McGruder’s defensive metrics as an NBA rookie still aren’t overwhelmingly impressive (opponents are shooting 49.6 percent against him, 4.2 percent higher than average). But he’s also guarding the league’s best wing players out on the floor every night despite giving up size most nights. It’s the same thing Haslem did as a young player.
“I know what type of character he has,” Haslem said of McGruder, who calls Udonis his big brother. “I watch him go out every night and accept the challenge. It’s Kevin Durant one night. It’s LeBron, D-Wade the next. I remember in my younger years having to guard a young [Kevin Garnett], a young Tim Duncan, a young, healthy Chris Webber, a young, healthy Rasheed Wallace. I couldn’t afford to take nights off. So, I understand the sense of urgency, the mindset he needs to have because every night he's going out there being looked at as the underdog.”
McGruder said what ultimately motivated him to become more of a perfectionist on defense in college was the fear of Martin’s wrath – namely his signature ‘death stare.’ It’s something Haslem and McGruder talked about when Haslem first met McGruder at a summer basketball camp at Kansas State nearly a decade ago and something both still laugh about to this day.
“I feel like it’s something built inside us from [Martin],” McGruder said of the relentless, gritty nature he and Haslem play on defense. “He helped build culture in us. I feel like we already had the toughness, but I think he really helped us with the details, especially defensively. He wouldn’t let us take plays off. If you took a play off, you got that stare I’m talking about.”
Martin, a Cuban-American and FIU grad raised in Miami, says he got that stare from his grandmother whenever he or his siblings got out of line. “We knew she meant business,” Martin said. “Then, if we didn't listen the second time, we knew it was the broomstick off the side of your head.”
Martin doesn’t need to use his stare with Haslem and McGruder anymore. He said he just smiles at the TV any time he gets a chance to watch the Heat.
“I have a saying, a motto,” Martin said. “My job is not to win games. My job is to teach these kids how to become men so they can keep their job. Everybody is going to get a job. The question is are are they going be disciplined and mature enough to be able to keep their job? That’s the secret. I pushed those guys hard. I spent a lot of time with them as people. I didn’t let them take shortcuts.
“Here they are, two undrafted guys, and because of who they are as people they’ve kept their jobs. Udonis is in his 14th year now and Rodney is in his first year, but he’s earning his way through and he’s not going to change. He’s not going to give them a reason to stop trusting him. I can promise you that.”
Editorial note: The story was updated Thursday morning to note how Miami High was forced to vacate its 1998 state championship amid recruiting violations involving Haslem and others following an award-winning investigation by The Miami New Times.