Rodney McGruder is going back to where his path to a Miami Heat roster spot all got started a couple years ago.
Before leaving Thursday afternoon to kickstart the final 24 games of the regular season with a game in New Orleans on Friday night, the Heat assigned the 6-5 guard back to the G-League where he will play a pair of games with the Sioux Falls Skyforce before returning to Miami and potentially a spot in the rotation early next week.
“He’s going to travel to LA to meet Sioux Falls and he’s going to play two games with them [there] and be able to participate in two practices as well and then meet us right after those games in Miami,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday after McGruder went through his third full practice with the Heat following October surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left leg.
“We’ll see how those games go, but this is one of the points and benefits of running your own G-League team,” Spoelstra continued. “To be able to develop players at all levels, including guys coming back from injury. He’s had a tremendous three-week period where he’s really been full scale. He’s had three practices where he’s been able to participate in 5-on-5, but there’s nothing like 5-on-5 game opportunities. We think this is a perfect opportunity for him to go, four days, two practices and we’ll be able to dictate how many minutes he’ll be able to play in those games.”
McGruder, who won a G-League title with the Skyforce in 2016 before starting 65 games as a rookie for the Heat last year, is looking forward to getting on the court and playing. He was hurt in the Heat’s final preseason game back in October.
“It helps to just get the rhythm back, get that feeling of being out there and competing,” he said. “That’s a fast game. [Sioux Falls] plays a little bit faster than we play. That’s where my career started. I’m excited to just get back on the floor and compete.”
McGruder’s Heat teammates have been happy to have him back at practices. He always pushes the team to another level with his effort.
“Rodney’s a tough player, he’s scrappy and he does the little stuff,” forward Josh Richardson said. “Getting him back is definitely going to be good for us on the wing. We can throw him out there, he can guard the other team’s best player too. I’m excited for him to be able to go to Sioux Falls and get some reps, get his confidence and get back into the flow of the game. It’s hard to simulate game reps.”
▪ Kelly Olynyk, who missed the final four games before the All-Star break with a strained left shoulder, traveled with the Heat to New Orleans but will not play in the game.
“He was able to do the non-contact part of practice again,” Spoelstra said. “He’s progressing, but still not able to do contact.”
▪ In most of the Heat’s games this regular season, Spoelstra has not stretched his rotation beyond nine players very often. Once McGruder and Olynyk return, he’ll clearly have some tough decisions to make about playing time and the starting lineup.
“We’ll have to find out what fits best for this group and I’m going to remain open-minded to whatever it takes,” Spoelstra said when asked if he’ll keep the playing rotation where it’s been. “We have a 24-game sprint. It’s going to get very competitive and we just have to do whatever’s necessary. Versatility is a big strength in what we do, as long as everybody’s all in for that.”
“Nothing’s [with the starting lineup is] in stone right now with KO out.”
Wayne Ellington, who could see his minutes reduced coming off the bench, said competition for minutes is “going to be great for us.”
“I think it will elevate some of our games,” Ellington said. “When you’ve got a little pressure on you to perform I think that’s going to make our team better and it will get stronger. Obviously the more bodies we have will make us more lethal. More weapons, that’s what we need down the stretch of these last 24 games.”
Keeping the rotation at nine players, Ellington said, would obviously help players stay in a rhythm and develop a flow.
“But I think we all understand what’s asked of us in terms of being ready to contribute,” he said. “So, anytime you are out there on the floor you go hard and make winning plays that help us win. As long as you’re out there doing that you don’t come back to the bench having had empty minutes. I think individually we should all be fine as long as a win is the result at the end of the day.”
Richardson, the team’s second-leading scorer since Dec. 1 (15.8 points per game), said having more players fighting to get on the court will be tough for Spoelstra, but better for the team overall.
“He has a lot of guys that can contribute and we’re all competitors so we all want to play,” he said. “Every night somebody’s probably not going to be getting the minutes they want. But that’s the problem you want to have on your team. Instead of playing 40 minutes a game on a team that’s not doing so good.
“Practices have been very competitive the last two days even coming back from the break so I think it’s kind of the barometer of how it’s going to be the rest of the year.”