Pressure on a basketball court can take many forms. There’s the kind of pressure the Heat felt during the NBA Finals, and then there’s the kind of pressure that James Ennis is experiencing during the NBA’s summer league.
As the only draft pick of the two-time defending NBA champions, Ennis has been a focal point of the Heat’s first summer league stop at Orlando’s practice gym at Amway Center. While summer league in Orlando is to the NBA Finals what a garden lizard is to a dinosaur, don’t tell that to Ennis, who is in the early stages of trying to make the Heat’s final roster for next season.
And if being the only draft pick of the defending champs isn’t enough, Ennis also has the Heat’s coach and the team’s assistant general manager and its director of scouting watching courtside during games and critiquing his every mistake.
“It’s a lot of pressure,” Ennis said, who played collegiately at Long Beach State.
It showed Thursday during the Heat’s fourth game of the five-day league. A few plays into the game, he was called for a five-second violation when he failed to inbound the ball in time. Ennis settled down and played a solid — but far from extraordinary — game in the Heat’s 78-77 loss to the summer league Pistons. He finished with 10 points and three rebounds.
Center Andre Drummond led Detroit with 23 points and 18 rebounds, and Tony Mitchell, the 2012-13 D-League Rookie of the Year, won the game with an accidental alley-oop dunk off an air ball with 1.7 seconds to play.
For all the summer’s gaffes and mistakes, there are also glimmers of ability that shine through from time to time, and Ennis has offered enough of those to please his coaches. His catch-and-shoot three-pointer with 2 minutes 18 seconds left in the second quarter was an example of why the Heat traded a future second-round pick with the Hawks on draft night to bring Ennis into the fold.
“I think he fits a lot of what we’re looking for in terms of having young players that fit around a Dwyane [Wade] and LeBron [James] and Chris [Bosh],” said Heat assistant Dan Craig, who is coaching the Heat’s summer league squad.
Of course, nothing is guaranteed for Ennis, which is why these few weeks of offseason basketball are so nerve-wracking for the rookie-to-be. He might not even make the team. The Heat currently has one roster spot up for grabs if Jarvis Varnado returns. Varnado had seven points and five rebounds against Detroit and was badly outplayed by Drummond.
It’s a long way off, but if Ennis makes the Heat’s opening night roster, he would then be viewed as long-term project. In other words, don’t expect to see him play any minutes, never mind meaningful ones, next season. Frequent trips to the Heat’s D-League affiliate in Sioux Falls, S.D., wouldn’t be out of the question.
“No. 1, he’s a super good kid,” Craig said. “He wants to work. He wants to learn, and I think from a player’s standpoint he’s getting great experience in what we do defensively and offensively. … I just keep telling him to clear his mind and be who he is. He’s going to figure out schemes, but if he’s clear in the mind then hopefully he can slow himself down.”
Said Ennis: “I’ve just got to stay focused.”
• The Heat is scheduled to fly to Las Vegas at 7 p.m. Friday for its second summer league stop. The summer league in Nevada runs from July 12-22.
• Craig, who started in the video room for the Heat before working his way to assistant coach, has gained some valuable experience on the bench as the team’s summer league head coach.
“It has been great, and I told Erik [Spoelstra] in a couple of text messages that you gain a lot of perspective and appreciation just from an organizational standpoint managing the game,” Craig said. “It definitely makes you a better assistant having an opportunity to do this in the summer.”
• Heat summer league forward Eric Griffin, an Orlando native, delivered the play of the game when he skied over Drummond’s back for a putback dunk over the Pistons center.