Barry Jackson

With Riley waiting for stars to emerge, here’s the bottom line on the Heat’s young players

Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson (0) drives to the basket past Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee (24) in a game on March 19. Richardson has taken a big jump in his third season.
Miami Heat guard Josh Richardson (0) drives to the basket past Denver Nuggets center Mason Plumlee (24) in a game on March 19. Richardson has taken a big jump in his third season. ctrainor@miamiherald.com

The offseason approach, once Gordon Hayward chose Boston last July, could easily be rationalized – sign a bunch of pretty good players with the hope they would be better than the sum of its parts.

But Heat president Pat Riley gambled on something else, too.

“I can assure you,” Riley told Sirius XM Radio last fall, “that players will rise up and become noted as stars or All-Stars or superstars.”

The Heat has somewhat more clarity on that now, and this much is clear: For now, the Heat has only one borderline All-Star, Goran Dragic, who made it as the league’s third injury replacement.

Josh Richardson has displayed enough to suggest there might be All-Star potential there.

Hassan Whiteside? If anything, he’s seemingly moving further away from All-Star status, with Joel Embiid and Andre Drummond surpassing him in the East, Dwight Howard outplaying him for much of the season and his overall blocks, minutes and rebounds down.

Bam Adebayo – if there’s enormous growth from year one to year two and then again to year three – might have the talent to be an All-Star someday, but he’s nowhere close now.

Dion Waiters? It’s difficult to imagine an All-Star Dion unless he somehow plays all the time like he did in that superb 25-game stretch from Jan. 15 through late March of 2017.

Tyler Johnson and Justise Winslow? Hard to envision that at this point, despite Winslow proving he’s a reliable rotation piece.

Kelly Olynyk? He has had a nice year, but the improvement would need to be substantial for All-Star consideration.

So among the Heat’s seven most prominent under-30 pieces, Riley’s hope that an All-Star would blossom seems limited largely to Richardson breaking through in a conference loaded with top wing players or Whiteside becoming an every-night force or Adebayo taking a monumental leap.

Miami Heat's Bam Adebayo talks about playing alongside Hassan Whiteside on Feb. 6, 2018.

How each of those pieces stacks up heading into postseason, with statistics heading into this weekend:

• Richardson. He has a made a compelling case to be named to one of the all-defensive teams. Not only are he and LeBron James the only NBA players with at least 112 steals and 68 blocks, but Richardson is holding the player he’s guarding to 41 percent shooting, third among all small forwards behind Jaylen Brown and Andre Iguodola.

His offense is solid – he’s 20th among 59 small forwards in scoring (13.1), 15th in three-point percentage (38.2) and 16th in field goal percentage (45.4) - but he must take another big step on that side of the floor to warrant All-star consideration.

What these playoffs mean: Richardson can use this platform to become recognized universally as one of the game’s great young wing defenders and indirectly enhance his stock even further if the Heat tries to put together a trade package for Kawhi Leonard.

• Whiteside. The sheer numbers - the ones the Heat sometimes downplays but Whiteside asks writers to tweet - show he’s sixth among centers in rebounding (11.6), eighth in blocks (1.75) and 14th in scoring (14.0). He’s behind only Drummond and DeAndre Jordan in rebounds per 48 minutes.

But his plus/minus is second-worst on the team (Miami has been outscored by 56 when he’s on the court) and for a player who led the NBA in blocks two years ago and rebounds last year, there isn’t the every-night impact that was expected.

Miami Heat's Kelly Olynyk ended a six-game absence due to a left shoulder strain on Tuesday in Miami’s 102-101 win over Philadelphia.

No NBA player earning as much plays as little per game (25.5 minutes). Whiteside can blame his coach if he wishes, but if he played with the same force and tenacity every night, he would leave Erik Spoelstra little choice but to play him more.

What these playoffs mean: We expect the Heat to consider moving Whiteside this summer, and he can take a step toward salvaging his trade value with a dominant postseason.

• Adebayo. The hope that he could become an All-Star someday is built largely on the athleticism and anticipation of continued improvement.

Wade has said he can be “real, real, real special.”

He’s 34th among all NBA players in rebounds per 48 minutes at 13.4, tied with Oklahoma’s Steven Adams and ahead of triple-double machine Russell Westbrook.

What’s more, he’s holding players he’s guarding to 42.3 percent shooting, fifth-best among all centers – behind only Anthony Davis, Embiid, Al Horford and Davis Bertans.

But the offensive game needs considerable growth. According to basketballreference.com, he’s 88 for 96 on dunks (91.7 percent) but 2 for 16 on hook shots (12.5 percent) and 24 for 86 on jumpers (27.9). He’s 11 for 41 on shots of 10 feet or more.

What these playoffs mean: The opponent could dictate in part whether Adebayo even cracks the rotation after being a healthy scratch twice in the past week.

• Winslow. Two years ago, Doug Collins said Draymond Green would be the ideal player for Winslow to model himself after. Expecting Winslow to become as dynamic as Green is probably unrealistic at this point, but the growth has been encouraging, with Winslow improving his touch at the rim and from long range; his 39.3 percent three-point shooting since the All-Star break is 18th among small forwards and eighth among power forwards.

Defensively, he’s holding the player he’s guarding to 43.3 percent, clearly above-average among NBA forwards.

What these playoffs mean: Winslow already has done enough for the Heat likely to guarantee his $4.7 million option for 2019-2020 by the October deadline. A strong postseason could make him an attractive piece in a multiplayer trade offer for an All-Star.

• Johnson. All-Star was never a realistic target, but the frustration here – with his salary about to spike – is this: He has gone from a player who was one of only 13 to receive votes for Sixth Man of the Year last season to one who wouldn’t be in that discussion even if Waiters’ injury hadn’t forced him into a starting job.

Remember, Johnson’s numbers last year weren’t appreciably lower than sixth man winner Eric Gordon and Lou Williams. This season, they’re nowhere close.

Despite a strong second half, he’s down in points (13.7 to 11.8) and three-point percentage (37.2 to 36.6) with a worse assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3 to 1.1, from 3.2 to 1.2). Players he defends are shooting 46.9 percent, compared with 45 overall.

What these playoffs mean: Johnson must not only maintain his solid post-All-Star break play but must improve upon it for Miami to have any chance of dumping the final two years and $38.5 million of his contract – a likely offseason priority.

• Waiters. Because of the ankle surgery that puts his availability for the start of next season in question, the Heat isn’t quite sure what it has.

Consider this: If his numbers during his exceptional 25 games over Miami’s 30-11 finish were his season averages this season, he would rank 10th among all NBA shooting guards in scoring (18.4 per game), first in field goal percentage (49.3), first in three-point percentage (44.8) and sixth in assists (4.8). That gets you in the All-Star discussion.

But his numbers for 30 games this season, among all shooting guards, rank 10th in assists (3.8), 15th in scoring (14.3), 29th in shooting percentage (39.8) and most disconcerting, 53rd of 55 players in three-point shooting (30.6 percent).

Waiters was a well-above-average starting shooting guard to begin the 2017 calendar, a below-average one to close 2017.

The onus remains on Waiters to prove the magical winter/spring run of 2017 wasn’t an anomaly.

• Olynyk. Becoming an all-star was never the expectation here. The Heat would be content with a versatile, reliable rotation piece, and Olynyk has delivered, increasing last year’s Boston averages in points (9.0 to 11.6), rebounds (4.8 to 5.7) and minutes (20.5 to 23.6) and ranking 10th among all power forwards in field goal percentage (50.2) and three-point percentage (38.1).

No Heat rotation player has permitted a higher shooting percentage to the player he’s guarding (48.6), but his team defense has been fine, and he’s 14th in the NBA with a Heat-leading 14 charges drawn. (Richardson is next with eight.)

What these playoffs mean: Olynyk will assuredly be back in year two of a four-year deal; he leads the Heat by far in plus/minus (Miami outscores teams by 250 with Olynyk in the game), which is 45th best in the league. If that continues and Whiteside has an underwhelming postseason, that will give Heat officials plenty to think about this summer.

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