Miami Heat

Miami Heat rookie Rodney McGruder turns into Heat’s top defender

Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) takes the ball down court against Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Tues., Jan. 17, 2017, in Miami.
Houston Rockets guard James Harden (13) takes the ball down court against Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) during the first half of an NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat, Tues., Jan. 17, 2017, in Miami. AP

Rodney McGruder didn’t expect to start this many games in his rookie season with the Heat.

And he definitely didn’t expect to be Miami’s go-to defender against the NBA’s top scorers.

But 42 games into the season, those expectations have changed. McGruder ranks sixth among rookies in starts with 25 and he’s already been asked to defend future Hall of Famers like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.

“At this point, I think this is the world that Rodney knows,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s either going against MVPs, former MVPs, future MVPs, definite All-Stars every single night. Whoever that big-ticket player is, Rodney you got him. Make him work. He’s absolutely stepped up to that challenge.

“Does that mean he’s winning battles? No. But he makes you earn everything and fight for every inch that you get.”

McGruder will take that approach into Thursday night’s home game against the Mavericks. And Tuesday’s win over the Rockets was a perfect example of that approach Spoelstra admires.

At this point, I think this is the world that Rodney knows. He’s either going against MVPs, former MVPs, future MVPs, definite All-Stars every single night. Whoever that big-ticket player is, Rodney you got him. Make him work. He’s absolutely stepped up to that challenge.

Erik Spoelstra, Miami Heat coach

As the Heat’s primary defender against Houston guard James Harden, the four-time All-Star recorded his 13th triple-double of the season with 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. But McGruder didn’t make it easy on him, as Harden made just 12 of his 30 shots.

“He has incredible perseverance, grit,” Spoelstra said of McGruder. “He will not stop coming at you. It doesn’t matter if he gets scored on. He’s going to continue to make you feel his presence, and that annoys guys. Great Hall of Fame players, they can score on him. But it’s not going to be off of mistakes and it won’t be easy.”

That quality won McGruder the Heat’s 15th and final roster spot in the preseason over Beno Udrih and Briante Weber. That quality has also earned McGruder the third-most starts on the team behind just Hassan Whiteside (38) and Goran Dragic (34).

“I didn’t think this would be my role or I would be starting,” said McGruder, who went undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013 and played a full season for the Heat’s D-League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce) last year. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just tried to stay ready and be prepared for any situation.”

A long list of injuries has forced McGruder to play in many different situations based on necessity. Fourteen Heat players (including Chris Bosh) have combined to miss 173 games because of injuries this season.

The 6-4, 205-pound McGruder has spent 11 percent of his minutes at point guard, 49 percent of his minutes at shooting guard, 39 percent of his minutes at small forward and the remaining 1 percent at power forward, according to Basketball Reference.

“I think this is it right now,” Spoelstra said when asked what the next step is in McGruder’s development. “He needs game minutes, playing against the very best, serving a role. He’s already gotten a lot better offensively. There’s nothing more we could do to fast-track his growth.

“Again, ideally, a perfect world for this team would be he comes in as a bench player with tremendous energy and toughness. I think that’s ultimately the role for him. Until that time, these minutes are valuable for his career.”

Minutes that not a lot of Heat rookies have gotten in the past.

In Heat history, 14 players have averaged 25 or more minutes of playing time in their rookie seasons and McGruder is on pace to join that list with 25.8 minutes per game. Some of the other names include Caron Butler, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Glen Rice.

And with McGruder on pace to start 48 games this season, he would join a short list of Heat rookies to start more than 45 games in their first NBA season. The 25-year-old would become the 10th Heat rookie to accomplish that feat.

“I just love the way he competes every game,” said Udonis Haslem, who was undrafted out of Florida. “He’s going up most of the time against a guy who’s going to get all the respect and he’s going to get none. Guys he’s guarding are going to get all the calls and he’s going to get none.

“It reminds me of the situation I was in my rookie year. I think about coming in as a young power forward. One night it’s Tim Duncan, one night it’s Kevin Garnett, the next night it’s a young Elton Brand. I was just a no-name, undrafted guy. Every night I was on edge and I just wanted to compete and I didn’t want to let my team down. I understand the situation that he’s in.”

McGruder’s offensive game is still a work in progress, as he’s averaging 5.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting. But he feels like he’s finding his niche in the NBA.

Opponents are noticing him, too. After a loss to the Knicks on Dec. 6, Anthony complimented McGruder’s effort and told him “keep playing hard.”

Making McGruder’s development even more important, the Heat’s investment in him could end up being a long-term one. Miami has him on a non-guaranteed contract at the minimum for the next two seasons.

“I just love the way he competes,” Spoelstra said. “I love the way he does it without any excuses. ”

HEAT GRANTED PLAYER EXCEPTION

The Heat have earned some added financial flexibility. The NBA granted Miami a $1.3 million disabled player exception for Justise Winslow’s season-ending injury, according to a source. The Heat applied for the exception after Winslow suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder that required surgery earlier this month.

The disabled player exception is granted if an NBA-designated physician determines the injured player is “substantially more likely than not” to be unable to play through June 15. The exception is worth 50 percent of the disabled player’s salary, which in this case is $1.3 million of Winslow’s $2.6 million salary this season.

Thursday: Mavericks at Heat

When/where: 7:30 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.

TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).

Series: Dallas leads 30-29.

Scouting report: A matchup of the NBA's two lowest-scoring teams. The Heat averages 98.5 points per game, Dallas 95.7. … Besides forward Chris Bosh, Miami also is without forward Justise Winslow, guard Josh Richardson and forward Josh McRoberts, and the Mavericks have been without center Andrew Bogut, who has been sidelined by a hamstring injury.

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