There were times over the past three years when Norris Cole felt like his rookie season would never end.
Perpetually the youngest player on a veteran team built to win championships, Cole’s experience in the NBA since being drafted in 2011 was unique. Not only did he win back-to-back championships in his first two seasons, he is now beginning his fourth year in the league and still doesn’t know anything else other than advancing all the way to the NBA Finals.
On Wednesday, when the Heat begins the 2014-15 season with a home game against the Washington Wizards, things will change for Cole in more ways than one.
Most noticeably, Cole will be a starting point guard in the NBA for the first time in his career. Secondly, the former four-year player out of Cleveland State is no longer on a team that’s expected to return the NBA Finals. The pressure is off the Heat to begin the season, and that’s something Cole has never known.
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Finally, and this one speaks to the profound changes at 601 Biscayne Boulevard, Cole now holds seniority over about a third of the team. Over the course of a few months this summer, Cole went from being the Heat’s forever rookie to a team veteran. The Heat’s first post-LeBron James team will feature two fresh-from-training-camp rookies — guards Shabazz Napier and Andre Dawkins — another rookie, James Ennis, who bounced around overseas last year and a center, Justin Hamilton, who is a rookie in everything but name.
With James, the Heat loaded down its roster year after year with proven veterans who could complement the perennial MVP candidate’s versatile game while also ensuring significant minutes during long playoff runs. The philosophy has changed. The team is still anchored by veterans, but there is a youth movement in the locker room as well that provides a boost of energy in the short term, and some potential value against the salary cap in the not-so-distant future.
Heat president Pat Riley, general manager Andy Elisburg and the rest of the Heat’s brain trust didn’t expect James to leave for Cleveland this summer, but that doesn’t mean the Heat’s executives were completely blindsided by the departure of the game’s best player. The detailed contingency plan and long-term preparedness displayed and executed by the Heat’s front office has been impressive, and its handiwork is just as noticeable in the bottom-third of the roster as it is with the first-team stars.
“I like the balance,” Spoelstra said. “That’s something that Pat and Andy have been talking about, and I think they’ve done a great job with the roster. There is a nice blend of seasoned experience and playoff-veteran players, players in the primes of their careers and their mid-to-late 20s and youthful promise and exuberance of guys who are just out of college.”
Napier, Dawkins, Ennis and Hamilton probably won’t be receiving heavy minutes early in the season, but the Heat’s commitment to its youth movement isn’t going away. The team has invested both time and money into developing these newcomers, and Spoelstra is already preaching patience. Still, there are already signs that the rookies can contribute immediately.
▪ Napier has shown some instincts of a point guard that did not come naturally to Cole and Mario Chalmers.
▪ Ennis is a high-flying scoring machine and probably the closest of the new quartet to breaking into the rotation.
▪ Hamilton, a 7-footer who is considered a one-year veteran but only played 72 minutes last year, is a hard-nosed rebounder with stretch-five potential. He is comfortable shooting from long range, which appeals to Spoelstra’s fondness for inverting the Heat’s offense, and creating mismatches and driving lanes.
▪ Dawkins is a deadeye shooter, and the Heat enters the season with a dearth of consistent three-point specialists.
Beyond the four youngsters who made the team for opening night, there are other developing players the team is hoping to stash with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the Heat’s D-League affiliate. Preseason training camp invitees Tyler Johnson, Shawn Jones, Larry Drew II and Khem Birch could all end up in Sioux Falls this season.
The Skyforce is growing into something of a minor-league team for the Heat. Skyforce players aren’t under contract with the Heat, but the coaching staff and team general manager are based out of Miami. Hamilton played most of last season with Skyforce and said the corporate synergy that runs between Miami and Sioux Falls prepared him for this season.
“It’s probably the most competitive I’ve seen it with the young guys coming into the season,” Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem said. “There was an inch here and an inch there that helped the coaches make the decisions. I’m excited with the ones we kept, and hopefully we’ll be able to work with the other young guys sometime later.”