The Heat received positive news when it returned from the All-Star break.
Point guard Goran Dragic and athletic forward Derrick Jones Jr. are both on the verge of returning from injury. After practicing Wednesday, Dragic and Jones traveled with the team to Philadelphia and are expected to be available for Thursday’s game against the 76ers.
Dragic has missed the past 30 games because of a right knee injury that required surgery on Dec. 19, while Jones has been out since suffering two right knee bone bruises during the Heat’s win over the Knicks on Jan. 27.
“They will both be available,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Wednesday after Miami’s first practice following the week-long break, with the Heat currently in ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a 26-30 record. “However, I still think they need a little more work, and we’ll be at home after that and think we’ll be able to continue to progress with the work they’ve had. But at least they’ve made this big step. They’ve taken this step forward, and they’ll be with us.”
Dragic is right on schedule, as his recovery timeline put him out until the All-Star break.
Jones is ahead of schedule, with the original diagnosis putting him out for at least six weeks after the injury. But it’s been just three weeks and a few days since the 22-year-old Jones hurt his knee.
“Oh, to be young, and it could have been a lot worse,” Spoelstra said of Jones’ faster-than-expected recovery. “One, the youth played a factor. Two, the work that he’d been putting in behind the scenes, developing his body, strengthening his legs for the first time in his life.
“It was very fortunate. Obviously, it could have been a whole lot worse, but he’s been working for a while on the court. And everybody’s body heals differently, and bone bruises are a bit different. None of them heal the same.”
After participating in Wednesday’s practice, Jones said: “Honestly, I think the injury was a little bit more scary because I’ve never had knee problems and just the pain that I felt at the time, it was just unbearable. But it happens in this game. I’ve been here rehabbing every day and getting physical therapy and getting my legs right. I feel a lot better.”
As for Dragic, Spoelstra made it clear the Heat will slowly work him back. The 32-year-old Dragic has missed 42 games this season due to injury (41 because of his right knee issue and one because of a right foot injury).
Dragic, who was not available to speak to reporters following Wednesday’s practice, has averaged 15.3 points on 41.2 percent shooting and 4.9 assists in 14 games this season.
“He’s missed a lot of time, and we want to make sure he’s making steps forward and not having any setbacks,” Spoelstra said.
“We’ll take this process patiently. This is not going to be something where I’m phasing him in and, ‘You’re playing 32 minutes a game.’ Not at all. Not with 26 games to go, and Goran realizes that too — that he still has quite a bit of work to do — but he can be available and he can still play, if not [Thursday], soon.”
Dragic has been the Heat’s starting point guard since he was traded to Miami in the middle of the 2014-15 season.
But Justise Winslow, 22, has played the best basketball of his NBA career while filling in for Dragic as the Heat’s starting point guard. During this 30-game span Dragic has been out, Winslow averaged 13.2 points on 43.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.8 percent shooting from three-point range, 5.6 rebounds, 4.6 assists and one steals.
That’s where this question comes into play: Should the Heat keep Winslow, the emerging talent, as its starting point guard over Dragic, the proven veteran? Initially, as Dragic works the rust off and gets back into game shape, the expectation is Winslow will remain in the starting lineup.
“The whole me-Goran point guard thing, I’m not too worried about it,” Winslow said Wednesday. “Goran, he’s established himself in this league in that role. You know, obviously, there have been times in his career where he’s been off the ball, as well, still being in the point guard role, but off the ball. So I’m not too worried about it.
Winslow added that he got “a lot of first-group reps” in Wednesday’s practice even with Dragic participating in contact and 5-on-5 work.
“Coach is going to do what’s best for the team, but I feel going forward, just period, I’m a starter in this league,” Winslow said. “Not even sure what position, but I’ve been playing great at the point guard position. I just feel I’m a starter in this league and just keep getting better every day, but I don’t know how this is going to shape out.”
With 26 games remaining on the Heat’s regular-season schedule, Spoelstra is again faced with challenging rotation decisions. Even after trading guards Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson, the return of Dragic and Jones gives Miami 11 available rotation-level players.
Spoelstra has used a rotation of nine to 10 players for most of the season.
“Look, we’re really excited to be getting Goran back in the mix,” Spoelstra said. “You just have proven capable reliable guys that have done it many years. We’ll be able to figure out the rotation. But that’s encouraging for all of us.”