It’s not often you see a professional athlete wearing the jersey of a teammate in public, but the Miami Heat seems to like to set new trends.
During the weekend in Las Vegas, Rodney McGruder made it a point during the Heat’s first two summer league games to wear the jerseys of teammates James Johnson and Tyler Johnson while sitting on Miami’s bench and cheering on Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr. and a bunch of undrafted rookies and free agents representing the franchise he plays for.
“I wish I had [the entire collection],” McGruder said of the 15 Heat players who will suit up for training camp in September. “We’re just wearing each other’s jerseys to show love. What made me come out here was just to support some of my teammates, give back to some of the guys who are playing summer league and give them some kind of insight. Just coming to support the organization because it’s a brotherhood — we have to have each other's back.”
The Heat’s quick exit from the playoffs and quiet summer in terms of free agency, the draft and trades have left the franchise’s fan base, used to competing for championships, a bit frustrated and unafraid to express their discontent on social media.
One fan recently asked Tyler Johnson on his Instagram account to “walk out of the $19 million we owe you.” Johnson responded with laughter: “No need to worry about me. The bread coming with or without your consent.”
Be it Johnson’s contract or Hassan Whiteside’s, the criticism the Heat and its front office has faced this offseason for standing pat thus far can’t be ignored. Yet, still, the players continue to support each other and their attendance and appearance in Las Vegas speaks to it.
‘EAST IS OPEN’
Even with LeBron James switching conferences, few are picking Miami to get past Boston or Philadelphia next season and win the East. But Heat players, who felt last season they were contenders, feel differently.
“I think it’s open,” Josh Richardson said after the Heat’s summer league team lost to Charlotte on Sunday. “The last decade basically it’s been LeBron out of the East every year. I feel like everybody feels they kind of have a clean slate to go ahead and attack this year with more of an open chance.”
Said Kelly Olynyk: “I think we’re still a playoff team in the East definitely. We have a ways to go, but if we keep building on last year and hopefully improve, [we’ll] take our shot at it.”
▪ Olynyk said he remains hopeful Miami will re-sign Wayne Ellington, who set a franchise record for three-pointers last season. “Wayne makes things real easy on me,” Olynyk said. “So, I'd love it if he came back.”
▪ Richardson and McGruder both said they were happy to see Derrick Jones Jr., who played on a two-way contract last season, earn a spot on the 15-man roster.
“He played a major role in some of our key wins last year like Toronto and Indiana,” McGruder said. “He earned it, stayed ready. His work ethic speaks for itself.”
Jones sprained his right ankle in Sunday’s loss to the Hornets. Yet, he has been very impressive throughout summer league.
“I think he’s been great,” Richardson said. “I think he’s been aggressive attacking the rim. His jump shot looks a lot better. He’s been knocking threes down like he’s been doing it. I’m proud of the work he’s put in.”
▪ With Dion Waiters returning from injury, the Heat has a surplus of guards on the roster. If Ellington and Dwyane Wade return, it will only make the fight for minutes tougher.
How does McGruder feel about that?
"I look forward to it," he said. "It's going to be competitive because all the guys we have are very competitive. We're going to get after one another. It's going to be a great camp. It's going to be a great year. That's what we're thinking about it."
▪ What free agent move surprised Richardson most this offseason?
“Probably [Paul George] staying in Oklahoma City,” he said. “I was surprised about that. I thought he was leaving.”
▪ Olynyk recently led Team Canada to wins over the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands to close out the first round of the FIBA Basketball World Cup America Qualifiers. He averaged a team-high 14 points to go along with seven rebounds and four assists per game.
The second round of the tournament is in September, and Olynyk isn’t sure if he’s going to play or not.
“It sucks you can't play in all of them, but it's just the way it goes,” he said. “You’ve got to play in the ones you can to help your team get through to the world championship level.”