When coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier this offseason that the Heat wants to quicken the tempo, that was viewed as good news for small forward James Ennis, because few players on the roster are better suited to playing fast.
But then the Heat added Justise Winslow in the draft. And then Miami signed swingman Gerald Green, a player with similar athleticism but a far better three-point shooter and a more polished offensive player.
And then Ennis began what he called a “terrible” run in summer league, one that ended Friday with some dismal numbers: 29.7 percent shooting (19 for 64) in seven games, 2 for 23 on three-pointers, 7.3 points per game and more than twice as many turnovers (23) as assists (11).
He made no tangible improvement in two offseason points of emphasis: shooting and ball-handling.
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And now Ennis’ roster spot could be at risk. With an Aug.1 deadline looming, at which point a large chunk of his $845,059 salary would become guaranteed, Ennis hopes two disappointing weeks in Orlando and Las Vegas don’t offset the promise he showed last season.
“It definitely bothers me,” Ennis said. “This is the worst summer league I’ve played. I played better my first year coming from college and from overseas. I know I’ve gotten better, but I’m not proving it. That’s what gets me upset. It seems like I haven’t gotten better.
“I have no answers right now. I don’t have a clue [why this is happening]. I’m probably overthinking things. I’m probably not playing with a clear mind. My mind is cluttered, so it’s taking away [things] I’m good at.”
Knee tendinitis has bothered him this summer, but he’s not using that as an excuse.
“He’s got to find his health,” said Dan Craig, who coached the Heat’s summer-league team.
“He hasn’t felt great the past few months. Tendinitis can be really crippling when you’re an athletic player. Even when you’re shooting, it can affect everything. Right now, he’s got to be focused on getting healthy. When he gets back, he’ll be working on a little bit of everything.”
Ennis, who was hoping to improve his three-point accuracy after shooting 32.6 percent last season, has watched tape of himself at his best, hoping that would help. But he could never snap out of his summer-league funk.
He said Heat coaches implored him to “do what I do best — energy, run the floor, play with a clear mind. If I can’t play with a clear mind, nothing is going to be positive for me.”
Here’s what can’t be questioned about Ennis, beyond the athleticism: He’s “a great runner,” as Spoelstra said, usually plays with great energy, can be disruptive defensively at times (17 blocks and 25 steals last season), shoots free throws well (79 for 94, 84 percent last season), goes through bursts where he rebounds highly efficiently, fills the lane on fast breaks (20 dunks last season) and has good chemistry with point guard Goran Dragic.
The Heat outscored opponents by 28 points in 191 minutes when Ennis and Dragic were on the floor together last season. That plus/minus ranked 10th-best on the Heat among two-man lineups. (Luol Deng and Chris Andersen were first at plus 70).
That dynamic with Dragic could boost Ennis’ case to remain on the team.
“He plays at a fast pace like me,” Ennis said. “He runs. I run. Once he came to the team, that’s why I think I got more transition points. I can run on the side of him. That’s a good plus.”
Because Spoelstra wants to play faster at times, he is expected to experiment with several small lineups during stretches. The 6-7 Ennis said he could play guard or either forward position in those lineups.
He said he played power forward at least twice last season and is prepared to again.
But all that depends on whether Ennis is even on the team. His chances could hinge partly on whether Miami can dump a veteran or two in trades.
The Heat has 17 players, plus unsigned second-round pick Josh Richardson, and is trying to trade Mario Chalmers.
Asked whether the roster situation is weighing on him, Ennis said: “Everything enters my mind.”