Ethan J. Skolnick

It’s no accident Miami Heat youngsters are coming of age

After Monday’s 124-119 win against the Nuggets, Erik Spoelstra provided a rare peek into the process that helped Josh Richardson help the Heat so much now. He recalled an off day in December, when Spoelstra learned that Richardson was looking to leave the practice court after making fewer than 100 three-point attempts. So the coach stepped in, shagging balls, and, when Richardson failed to reach the goal, he ordered sprints between rounds, with Richardson so exasperated with himself that he ripped off his shirt.

Upon finally sinking a 70th shot on a 100th attempt, Richardson held his follow-through in relief until the ball hit the floor.

“Just setting a standard’s been big, man,” Richardson said. “Because I never leave the gym until I make 70. And I never really shoot under 70 now.”

Standards. That’s what a quality sports organization establishes, not just for players, but for itself. One critical standard: the expectation of improving those in its employ.

So, sure, it is remarkable that Richardson’s accuracy has carried over to games, leading all NBA players in three-point shooting (62.9 percent) since the All-Star break, after spending some of the season shuttling back and forth to Sioux Falls. Yet it would be inaccurate to accept that single snapshot as some sort of isolated lightning strike, whether for Richardson or for the franchise as a whole. It would be giving short shrift to the painstaking work that has gone on for years, and is ongoing, toward perfecting the art of developing prospects.

You see, the good that’s happening for rookies Richardson and Justise Winslow, as well as emerging center Hassan Whiteside — and what was happening with combo guard Tyler Johnson prior to shoulder surgery — hasn’t been mere happy happenstance.

Spoelstra, who took a development route to his current position while working daily on shooting with a rookie named Dwyane Wade, has been central to the current vision. Still, he doesn’t — and we shouldn’t — ignore those he has entrusted to execute it, day after day, drill after drill, to make the work feel essential and even, at times, enjoyable, so players keep coming back for more. Those who have established the guidelines but also the trust, so players don’t counter the constant calls for more work, whether in Miami or some strange gym on the road, and even after the best performances, with eyerolls and headphones.

Simply, the Heat has never had a staff more aligned in this effort. Nor is the unification and communication evident only at the NBA level, where former Heat players Juwan Howard and Chris Quinn, in particular, have embraced their roles as personalized assistants. It also trickles down to the D-League, where Dan Craig, after stints of Heat’s summer-league coach and Spoelstra’s summer-league successor, made sure that Richardson gets 25 pick-and-rolls whenever the Heat entrusted him with the rookie’s services.

The Heat has deeply valued internal development since Pat Riley brought his brand of Vulture Capital in 1995. The Heat president is better known for swooping in for starfish at the surface of the sea, such as Alonzo Mourning, Tim Hardaway, LeBron James or Goran Dragic. But he has also scavenged the bottom, diving deeper for discards John Starks and Anthony Mason in New York and Isaac Austin, Bruce Bowen, Anthony Carter, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony here. That steady stream of unexpected contributors sputtered in recent years, as Riley preferred proven complements to James. While many veterans, including James, made significant incremental improvements, most of the major projects (Greg Oden, Eddy Curry, Terrel Harris) bore little fruit.

What’s different this season? Well, ability matters. Winslow was the No. 10 overall pick; Richardson went No. 40 but the Heat pegged him higher; Whiteside always had the talent but not the tutelage; and Johnson had NBA tools but a poor Portsmouth pre-draft camp that allowed Miami to snag him.

Maturity matters, specifically the part of the two rookies, one (Winslow) who hardly acts his age (19) and another (Richardson) coming off four years in college. Motivation matters, and all four have that, whether naturally or financially, with Whiteside pursuing a new contract. Opportunity matters, with Miami needing to replenish its roster after James’ departure, even before a spate of injuries and ailments.

It’s mostly, though, about emphasis. Spoelstra’s chosen staff is chock full of gym rats — Quinn made the NBA that way and Howard maintained that mentality even after making millions. Both bring credibility from their playing days, plus knowledge of precisely what Spoelstra wants after playing for him.

“Our program’s not for everybody,” Spoelstra said. “It’s just not. You have to be the right individual and embrace the work and embrace the sweat and embrace the single-day grind. And some people get chewed up by it. They absolutely thrive in that environment, which is unique for young players.”

That environment is unique too, even if the Heat now deems it standard.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

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