Confidence led Heat rookie James Ennis to improve his game

James Ennis played in 62 games and increased his production over the course of the season.

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For all the twists and turns during a frustrating 2014-15 season for the Miami Heat, there’s no denying that a few bright spots emerged from a roster that by season’s end was filled with players that had something to prove.

James Ennis was one such example who showed plenty of promise to begin the season but also displayed improvement as the season progressed. Most encouragingly, he did so as a rookie trying to acclimate himself to the speed and pace of the NBA game after a successful overseas campaign last year.

"James was able to play 62 games and be in and out of the rotation a couple of times but his strongest minutes and games were in the end," said head coach Erik Spoelstra at the conclusion of the regular season. "I would like to see him show resilience during the year and improve. Player development is not just about the next five and a half months, it’s how you can improve during the course of the season and James showed the ability to do that."

Playing behind starter Luol Deng and fighting for minutes with veterans Danny Granger and Shawne Williams, minutes were initially hard to come by for the rookie and he was forced to adjust on the fly as his role fluctuated through the season. After the departures of Granger and Williams in the Goran Dragic trade in February, Ennis still was not a regular member of the rotation — including a stretch of eight games in March where he didn’t play a single minute — until coming on strong for the rest of the season.

"Basically I learned to be mentally tough because that can be hard as a young player just to play and not play because where I came from, Australia, I played a lot and to come here and not get those minutes as I used to, it was tough," he said. "But I just kept my head up and just did what I do best."

With the Heat clinging to hope of capturing a playoff berth, Ennis raised his season averages of 5.0 points and 2.8 rebounds per game to 9.0 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 43.1 percent off the bench during the month of April.

WHAT HE DID RIGHT

In addition to his well-known athleticism, infectious energy, and dunking prowess, Ennis showed solid decision-making skills and high basketball IQ despite his NBA inexperience. Though his outside shot is still a work in progress, there’s plenty of potential there and will only improve in that category with more time in the Heat’s player development program.

"Mainly confidence," said Ennis on what factor led to his improved play during the course of his rookie season. "I got more comfortable towards the end just by telling myself to play my game and also behind the scenes, upstairs, just working hard and stuff like that."

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Defensively, Ennis displayed good footwork and proper technique as part of his team’s overall system and his athleticism served him well to help pull down rebounds in traffic. At 6-7 and with an impressive 6-11.5 wingspan, he already has a solid framework to become an even better one-on-one defender if he puts in the time to learn more.

WHERE HE NEEDS TO IMPROVE

After one season in Australia where he lead Perth to a championship averaging 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 31.7 minutes per game, Ennis had to adjust to a completely different role on the Heat where minutes fluctuated wildly and he had to defer to his teammates on offense while choosing his spots. 

Ennis must work on his shaky ball handling, especially in transition and when trying to create his own shot. He’s shown fearlessness when slashing into the paint and attacking the rim but his skills at finishing at the rim when he’s not throwing down monster dunks could use some polishing heading into next season.

"Just getting stronger, ball handling — that’s the main thing that I’m going to be focusing on," said Ennis after his exit interview last week. "Just shooting the ball as well."

After shooting nearly 50 percent from 3-point range in the Summer League, his averages fell back down to earth during the NBA season to 32.6 percent but he has displayed the ability to space the floor with his long range shooting. Now he just needs to work on showing consistency with his shooting, which will only help open up the rest of his game — including his penetration — if defenders are forced to respect his shot out on the perimeter.

BEST GAME

Ennis saved his best for last in the Heat’s final game of the season when he poured in 17 points and recorded 12 rebounds and six assists while playing all 48 minutes in a win against the Philadelphia 76ers. Though his shot wasn’t particularly effective, he displayed an impressive all-around game that just might give Spoelstra more confidence in playing Ennis heavier minutes next season.

LOOKING AHEAD

The future looks bright for Ennis, who showed a great attitude on and off the court even during a difficult season for both himself and his team.  

"It was a good experience and I enjoyed it," he said. "I embrace all of it. I’m just very thankful to get this opportunity to play for the Heat."

What comes next is an offseason in which he must show more consistency as he develops his overall game to allow him to play at a more controlled and focused pace. Above all else, Ennis is at his best with a bigger role to play on offense and he can flourish in that role during Summer League.

"I’m going to go back to California and then I’m going to come back and start working with the coaches," he said of his summer plans.

You can follow Surya Fernandez on Twitter @SuryaHeatNBA or email him at SuryaFoxSports@gmail.com .