Miami Heat: Rodney McGruder’s Quiet Year-One Excellence

In a year particularly low on impact rookies, Rodney McGruder was a rare exception. We break down the Miami Heat shooting guard’s first season.

Admit it. You can’t name more than five rookies from the 2016-17 class. And of those you can name, how many actually had good first-year campaigns?

The Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid is a stud. His understudy, Dario Saric, had an impressive stretch after the behemoth center went down. And Malcolm Brogdon provides the Milwaukee Bucks with a calming presence at the point despite it being his first season of NBA basketball.

But apart from those three? You have the Los Angeles Lakers’ Brandon Ingram, who finished 2017 with the fifth-lowest Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) in the league.

What’s worse, the guy directly beneath him on that list is fellow first-year forward Domantas Sabonis of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Production-wise, this was one of the worst seasons for rookies in recent NBA history. (No, that’s not hyperbole.)

However, one guy who flew vastly under the radar is the Miami Heat‘s Rodney McGruder. By first-year player standards, he’s an old man; he’ll turn 26 before his sophomore campaign even begins. His upside isn’t close to that of the Ingrams of the league.

But his age — and thus, experience — is exactly what helped him have such a quietly impressive commencement to his career.

An injury to Justise Winslow opened up a starting job on the wing for Miami’s rookie and he did the opposite of disappoint. Though he may be better served playing backup 2-guard going forward, his versatility allows him to slot in at either wing position.

McGruder doesn’t have illusions of grandeur, either; he knows his role and plays it exceptionally well. And his meek brilliance will be key for the Heat benches of tomorrow.

Let’s recap his first season as an NBA player by the numbers.

Compared To Other Rookies, McGruder Statistically Shone

McGruder’s value isn’t fully shown through statistics. Even as such, he still had a better year than most other rookies when you take into account advanced metrics and availability (missed merely four games in 2016-17).

  • Raw stats: 41.3 field-goal percentage, 33.2 three-point percentage, 62.0 free-throw percentage, 0.9 threes, 6.4 points, 2.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.2 blocks, 0.7 turnovers
  • Advanced metrics: 2.9 Win Shares (170th in the NBA), 0.8 VORP (141st), -0.4 Box Plus/Minus (165th), 11.69 Total Points Added (227th) 

Not bad for a guy who’s spent three of his four years as a pro either playing overseas or in the D-League.

And upon closer examination, he stands out in two other metrics: McGruder placed third among rookies in both defensive win shares and NBA Math‘s Defensive Points Saved (for first-year guys with at least 1,000 minutes played).

This makes sense. After all, he was one of Miami’s better perimeter defenders this season, especially when facing isolation attempts. McGruder allowed just 0.87 points per possession on such looks.

That’s the fourth-best mark on the Heat among players who saw action in at least 65 outings. Using the same barometer for games played, it was also the third-sturdiest mark for first-year players.

The Heat’s lone rookie spent time defending the brightest stars in the game, often going up against the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George. During one particular matchup, he seemed to really get in that last guy’s head, too.

On Feb. 25, in a game between the Heat and the Indiana Pacers, George played just more than 19 minutes, scoring 10 points on 3-of-8 shooting. The reason for his short stint? Two quick technicals after a shoving match with McGruder.

Afterwards, James Johnson provided one of the soundbites of the season:

Hard to find a more fitting slogan for the not-so-young rookie, and his team as a whole. Both enjoyed unexpectedly successful seasons, in the face of mounting adversity.

But the question (for both) now becomes: What’s next?

Upcoming Sophomore Campaign

Barring a disastrous free agency or an abrupt injury coming out of training camp (knock on wood), McGruder is destined to return to the bench in 2017-18.

But it’s a move that will benefit both parties; the Heat would be adding to their already elite reserve group and the 6-foot-4 shooting guard will terrorize opposing second units.

McGruder’s ability to impact games in brief stints will only intensify coming off the bench, considering he will no longer have to do his damage against starter-level talent.

Just how important is he to what Miami does? As a bit of evidence, we can point at the Heat’s offense being 1.1 points-per-100-possessions better with him on the floor. His most uncanny skill — to keep the ball moving no matter what — gives the team energy and purpose.

You can often find McGruder on the wing as a kick-out option. When he does receive it, as opposed to wasting the ball’s leather away by mindlessly pounding it into the hardwood, he is resolute.

He wants to either shoot the open three (McGruder boasts a healthy 38 percent success rate on threes with no defender within six-plus feet), or put his head down and attack.

He has an awkward little floater that tends to drop more often than not and he’s also adept at finding open teammates.

Moreover, McGruder averages the 17th-most loose ball recoveries league-wide (among players who play fewer than 30 minutes), a rate that earned him the moniker “The Scavenger” from Goran Dragic.

Vital defensive player who chases down extra possessions for his team and makes the offense hum without reinventing the wheel. It’s clear why the former Kansas State Wildcat enjoyed such a successful rookie campaign.

And most importantly? McGruder don’t care. He just wants to compete. Which, as we all know, fits perfectly within the Heat’s infamous culture. The future is very bright for Miami’s little secret.

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