There have been times this season when Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has opted to keep Willie Reed on the bench, preferring to go with James Johnson as his center alongside a small, athletic lineup to try to change the pace of games.
With Hassan Whiteside in Miami dealing with a bruised retina in his right eye and the roster down to eight healthy bodies with Johnson also out with food poisoning, Spoelstra had no choice but to play Reed big minutes Tuesday night in Phoenix.
Reed didn’t disappoint, posting a career-high 22 points and 18 rebounds — including eight on the offensive glass — in a 99-90 loss to the Suns. In a season quickly slipping away from the Heat (10-26), one could chalk up Reed’s night as a meaningless, stat-filling performance.
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Or, it could be a sign the 26-year-old undrafted free agent who spent three years toiling in the D-League is beginning to grow under the tutelage of assistant Juwan Howard, who spends countless hours working with Reed on everything from his free-throw shooting to his paint defense.
Spoelstra sees the latter.
“I love seeing a guy like Willie have that type of effort against … [a] former All-Star center [in Tyson Chandler],” Spoelstra said. “He’s someone who has done it over the course of their career with effort, tenacity and diligence, and Willie is very diligent. Every single day all he does is work with Juwan to try to get better, work at his craft, to earn his minutes, to earn his opportunities. And what he’s always had is the effort and the motor.
“But him working at other things now makes him more skilled on both ends of the court. So, when he puts in that much time you’re very happy for him when he’s able to produce like that.”
Before his career night in Phoenix, Reed’s career bests were 14 points (for the Nets last season against Minnesota) and 11 rebounds (in a 30-point loss at Cleveland earlier this season).
“I just wanted to go out there and play as hard as I could and try to give my team the best chance to win,” Reed said after Tuesday’s game. “I don’t think it was anything really different. I thought I played just as hard as I played last game or any other game this year. The numbers just happened to come.”
For the season, Reed is averaging 4.5 points, 4.5 rebounds (1.9 offensive rebounds) and 12.7 minutes per game. If he was averaging 36 minutes per game, he would be on pace to average 12.9 points, 12.7 rebounds (5.5 offensive) and 1.8 blocks. There’s only one other full-time center in the league averaging those kind of numbers: Whiteside.
Reed, whom captain Udonis Haslem has often compared to himself because of their similar work ethics, has never tried to be Whiteside. He feels their games are a little different, even if both found their way to the NBA through the D-League.
But it’s fair to wonder what Reed might do if given more playing time. Going into late Wednesday night’s game in Sacramento, Reed was the only player on the roster still in the positive in plus-minus (plus-12).
But for all his hustle, on defense, Reed has been a bit of a liability. Opponents are shooting 54.7 percent when he defends their shot — 5.7 percent higher than average.
He is a very good screen setter. He ranks third on the team in screen assists (44) but has played nearly 800 fewer minutes than Whiteside (98 screen assists) and 402 minutes less than Johnson (53 screen assists). His screen setting was the first thing point guard Goran Dragic praised him for after the game.
“I’m proud of him,” Dragic said. “He needs to keep it up.”