Barry Jackson

As win streak grows, Heat remains model for player development

pportal@miamiherald.com

Erik Spoelstra likes to say, “We’re not for everybody.”

But once again this season, the Heat has demonstrated who they are for: Players who want to refine their bodies, polish their skill sets and fully commit to the arduous work needed to achieve it.

One of the hallmarks of this franchise in the 21-plus years of Pat Riley’s stewardship – and continuing in Erik Spoelstra’s nine years as coach - has been internal development, players who became appreciably better than when they arrived, a lengthy list that includes Udonis Haslem, Ike Austin, Voshon Lenard, Hassan Whiteside and many others.

That list now can include at least four newcomers on this year’s team: James Johnson, Willie Reed, Dion Waiters and Rodney McGruder, plus veteran Heat players Whiteside and Tyler Johnson, among others.

“It's not a coincidence,” McGruder said this week of players raising their games after signing here. “That's what this organization is about - getting better. And we have a collective group of guys who really want to get better. Spo was just taking about how this organization is made up of real gym rats, guys who like to be in the gym and get better.”

As the Heat tries to stretch this improbable winning streak to 10 against visiting Philadelphia on Saturday, there’s one common theme in many of these players: A commitment to reshape their bodies.

“What they did transforming James Johnson… was amazing,” Reed said. “The way James is playing, it makes the other guys want to give everything to have the same success.”

Johnson said it’s no coincidence that he’s enjoying his best NBA season after shedding 31 pounds, to 245, from the end of last season with Toronto, and slashing his body fat from 14 to 7.5.

Guard Wayne Ellington, who has enjoyed some good moments during this winning streak, dropped from 12 percent body fat when he arrived in July to 6.5 now.

“I've never been overweight or out of shape but to be in top shape, and feel my body is in top condition, it makes a world of difference,” Ellington said. “I see a change not only in my body and my game but also my mindset.”

Reed has dropped his body fat from 10 last season with the Nets to 7 now.

“Eating healthy has helped my game evolve,” he said. “Here, they like to be the best conditioned, toughest, most physical team. And they expect that from all their players.”

And Waiters, enjoying the most prolific stretch of his NBA career, said he has never felt better. He’s at 220 now after playing above 230 at times last season. His body fat has dropped from 9 to 6.7.

“These guys make you stay on top of your weight and make sure you’re not lagging,” he said. “I feel great. I’m energized. That helps.”

Waiters said there’s no punishment for failing to meet a targeted in-season weight but the process is self-motivating.

“Getting on the scale every week, it’s great. It keeps guys saying things like, ‘I can’t eat this.’ It challenges you.”

But there’s far more to the Heat Way that merely conditioning.

There’s also a willingness to allow players to expand their games; Johnson, for example, said Toronto did not want him getting the team into offense as a ball-handler, but the Heat has allowed that.

Skill development also is a vital component of the Heat Way.

Waiters is shooting 49.7 percent during this winning streak – well above his 41.1 career mark - and credits a subtle change made by the coaching staff, which noticed he was fading on his jumper.

“So I stopped fading,” he said. “Now when I shoot it, I try to stick the landings. Go straight up and down.”

He said assistants Rob Fodor and Octavio De La Grana also have been instrumental in helping improve his finishing skills at the basket, a severe shortcoming earlier in the season.

“I would get by my guy but I would take off too far,” he said. “That would give the defender a chance to load up and block it. Now when I get in the lane, I am taking an extra dribble so he doesn’t know when the shot is coming. Or I take an extra dribble and I’m able to get my shoulder in his chest. I watch Goran [Dragic] do it all the time.”

With Reed, assistant Juwan Howard has been helpful in his offensive growth, including the development of a jumper to complement a short hook.

“Juwan is one of the best big men to play this game; anything he says you take to heart and do exactly how he says it,” Reed said. “The way he says it is usually the way it works out in the game. That's what I say to him when I come back to the bench.”

What’s also important, players say, is that assistant coaches are available at any hour to come to the arena and work with them. Players say some assistants will meet them at 10 p.m. or even later.

“Getting reps, but getting reps at game speed is important,” Reed said. “That's what the coaching staff does a great job of, make sure you get all your reps at game speed. It's not just the coaching staff. It's the work you put in on your own when nobody else is watching.”

McGruder said when he joined the Heat’s D-League team in South Dakota last season, Heat assistant Dan Craig – who was beginning his first and only season as Sioux Falls’ coach - “reached out to me and said, ‘I want to help you become an NBA player.’ And that's exactly what he did. He helped me tremendously as a young man and as a basketball player.”

Craig, who has been with the Heat since 2003 and moved into the chair vacated when David Fizdale got the head job in Memphis this past offseason, is well-regarded around the league; he set a D-League record by going 40-10 and winning a title in his one season. With that achievement, coupled with Fizdale’s success and this staff’s ability to develop players, Craig figures to be on the radar of NBA teams looking for head coaches.

Waiters said it also helps that the Heat provides individualized video for players after every game, dissecting areas to improve.

“I watched lot of film in OKC, but definitely here it’s more because as soon as you walk in, it’s already on your locker,” he said. “Everybody gets an I-pad. You see the mistakes you made.

“To be honest, I couldn’t ask for a better place. Every day is a learning day or me. No matter how well I played, we go back and find little things I could have done better. Each day is something different that I benefit from. These guys do a tremendous job of pointing out the little things for me to look at and focus on to get better.”

For players looking to jump-start their careers, Ellington frames it this way: “Some guys just want to come and play basketball. Some guys don't understand all the extra things it takes to be a champion. And I think that's what [Spoelstra] means when he says it's not for everybody.

“Because everybody out there doesn't have that dedication and determination to put that work in off the court so it can translate on the court. There are higher standards here. They demand more out of players. Where I'm at in my career, that's exactly what I want. That's exactly what I needed from myself. Be the player I felt I’m capable of being.”

The upshot for Heat players, Spoelstra said, is “in some instances, to become a player they didn’t even imagine they could possibly become. It really is a collaboration. You need the right kind of player to commit to this kind of work. Our staff and players are committed to getting in the gym and be pushed and realize new levels.”

NOTABLE

• Spoelstra said the Heat hasn’t decided whether to keep forward Okaro White beyond the expiration of his second 10-day contract on Sunday. The Heat has considered trading or releasing Derrick Williams to make room for White. But there’s no assurance that will happen. Williams and White said they haven’t been informed of the team’s plans.

• Point guard Briante Weber, who had been playing for the Heat’s D-League team in South Dakota, opted to accept a 10-day contract from the Warriors instead of one from the Heat, according to a source.

• Atlanta Hawks forward Taurean Prince was fined $25,000 for forcefully pulling down Whiteside during play and Heat forward James Johnson was fined $25,000 for escalating the situation in retaliation by throwing a forearm into the chest of Prince.

Before knowing the size of the fine, Whiteside said Friday that he would pay Johnson's fine. Johnson was ejected.

“I’ll still pay it; he’s my guy,” Whiteside said. “I’m going to break my piggy bank or something.”

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