Diamonds in the rough: Unlikely finds keep Heat afloat in playoff race

(L-R) Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Henry Walker and Michael Beasley have all paid dividends for the Heat this season.

USA TODAY Sports

MIAMI — Change has been the only constant during the Miami Heat’s wild 2014-2015 year. From the offseason departure of LeBron James to the season-ending setbacks of Josh McRoberts and Chris Bosh, the Heat have been forced to adapt and to refine their roster in order to stay competitive.

Of the 15 players who made the roster to begin the 2014-15 season, just seven are currently active. Veterans who were inconsistent have been phased out, and younger prospects such as Andre Dawkins and Justin Hamilton have been let go or traded. In their stead, the roster has been filled with reclamation projects and Development League talent who have proven they belong in the NBA.

First, it was the incredible rise of center Hassan Whiteside, who has proven that his early monster games were no fluke. He has 14 double-doubles in 32 games and has led the Heat in rebounding 22 times. Beyond his freakish rebounding and blocks totals, Whiteside has displayed the total package with a soft touch around the rim and some occasional mid-range success. He has scored in double figures in 21 of his past 23 games.

Passed over in favor of Dawkins and Shannon Brown at the conclusion of training camp, Tyler Johnson worked on his craft with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the Heat’s D-League affiliate. The undrafted rookie out of Fresno State first got his chance with the Heat when he signed a 10-day contract in early January. He scored 13 points on Feb. 1 against the Boston Celtics in his third game for the Heat. Five days later Johnson poured in 18 points against the San Antonio Spurs, though he hasn’t seen much playing time since the acquisition of Goran Dragic.

After scoring a career-high 26 points in Monday’s win against the Phoenix Suns, Johnson’s no longer the Heat’s best-kept bench secret. Though he was initially known as an athletic player with plenty of hops, Johnson has shown much more since his time in Sioux Falls.

His former Skyforce teammate Henry Walker has also impressed after being out of the league since 2012. After signing with the Heat on Feb. 21, he reached double figures in his first four games with the Heat and earned himself another 10-day contract in the process.

"When you come to Sioux Falls, there’s one thing about it is you’re going to work and they’re going to work you," Walker said. "That’s what the culture is there. We’re going to come in, we’re going to get our work done, and we’re going to work extra. So you’ve got to know that going down there and just having that mindset. You’re going to get better if you work at it every day and you go in there and attack the workout. You’ll definitely get better, and you can see the results."

All of this is by design. Since the Heat franchise entered into a single-affiliation partnership with the Skyforce and took over the basketball operations in 2013, the benefits of their farm system has paid big dividends this season.

"Player development is something very important to us," head coach Erik Spoelstra said of the partnership, in which the Heat have coaches working dual roles with both teams. "We’ve always prided ourselves in trying to develop players, invest our time and sweat equity into players so that it’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s not just about the players giving to us, it’s us putting in a lot of time. Our coaches put in a lot of time with our players on and off the court."

With a solid understanding of the Heat’s development process, perhaps it’s little surprise that players such as Walker have hit the ground running upon entry.

"It’s not only the Heat system, it’s the Heat culture as well in which you come in and get your work done and just work as hard as you possibly can and try to get better every day," Walker said. "That’s what these guys do here. It’s constant work and having you focus on your craft.

"I watch Tyler come in from training camp (with Miami) to just last night, just watching him develop, and he’s gotten so much better since the first time I’ve seen him play. It’s just amazing. His professionalism of staying sharp — he hadn’t played in I don’t know how many games — going in there and he had a big night. So that just goes to show all the work we’ve put in down there (in Sioux Falls) and up here."

With Bosh unable to play again this season because of blood clots in his lungs, the door has been opened for 2008 first-round pick Michael Beasley to become another reclamation project for the Heat. After a successful stay in China, Beasley had been working out for three weeks in Miami before getting a call from Pat Riley to meet him at AmericanAirlines Arena to set the wheels in motion for another reunion.

Already in his short time with the Heat, Beasley has displayed more maturity and dedication on both ends of the floor in what is his third stint with the team.

"I came here last year with the same scoring mentality, and we had every horse in the league in our team, so I had to come here (this year) and show something different," Beasley said. "Not that I’m not the same scorer but there’s a whole other side of the floor that I wasn’t playing basketball. Not that I wasn’t trying, it’s just that I wasn’t committed 100 percent like I was on the offensive side. So now I’m trying to flip it and balance out my commitment on both sides. I’m trying to get 100 percent on the defensive side and let the offensive side take care of itself."

His hard work and hustle has not gone unnoticed by his coach.

"We’ve spent a lot of time developing him the first two years and all those summers," Spoelstra said. "Last year I thought he made great progress. It was a different team, a veteran-laden team but he really made strides in terms of his approach, his work and in his improved game. He’s more versatile now on both ends of the court. So now you’re seeing another step in that direction. He just has to continue to work."

Whether it’s due to a chip on their shoulder or because of the Heat’s deep integration of their system with the Skyforce (or both), there’s no question that the new players are being productive when called upon.

"They all have and that’s the whole point that I keep on making with this team," Spoelstra said. "Be open to whatever opportunity you may get and make the best of it. It’s only about what’s best for the team and how can you contribute and how can you help? But everybody at some point has been given an opportunity because of the circumstances of the season and you like to see guys stay ready, step up, commit to the player development without any guarantees of playing time.

"We like it. I don’t know where we’d be without guys from the D-League or China."

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