MIAMI – Rodney McGruder didn’t expect to get this many starts. And the rookie definitely didn’t expect to be the Heat’s go-to defender against the NBA’s top scorers.
But 42 games into the season, those expectations have changed. McGruder ranks sixth among rookies in starts with 25 and he’s already been asked to defend future Hall of Famers like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant.
“At this point now, I think this is the world that Rodney knows,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s either going against MVPs, former MVPs, future MVPs, definite All-Stars every single night. Whoever that big ticket player is, Rodney you got him. Make him work. He’s absolutely stepped up to that challenge.
“Does that mean he’s winning battles? No. But he makes you earn everything and fight for every inch that you get.”
McGruder will take that approach into Thursday’s home game against the Mavericks (7:30 p.m., Fox Sports Sun). And Tuesday’s win over the Rockets was a perfect example of that approach Spoelstra admires.
As the Heat’s primary defender against Houston guard James Harden, the four-time All-Star recorded his 13th triple-double of the season with 40 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists. But McGruder didn’t make it easy on him, as Harden made 12 of his 30 shots.
“He has incredible perseverance, grit,” Spoelstra said of McGruder. “He will not stop coming at you. It doesn’t matter if he gets scored on. He’s going to continue to make you feel his presence and that annoys guys. Great Hall of Fame players, they can score on him. But it’s not going to be off of mistakes and it won’t be easy.”
That quality won McGruder the Heat’s 15th and final roster spot in the preseason over Beno Udrih and Briante Weber. That quality has also earned McGruder the third-most starts on the team behind just Hassan Whiteside (38) and Goran Dragic (34).
McGruder ranks sixth among rookies in starts this season behind Domantas Sabonis (first-round pick), Marquese Chriss (first-round pick), Pascal Siakam (first-round pick), Joel Embiid (first-round pick) and Dorian Finney-Smith (undrafted).
“I didn’t think this would be my role or I would be starting,” said McGruder, who went undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013 and played a full season for the Heat’s D-League affiliate (Sioux Falls Skyforce) last year. “I didn’t know what to expect. I just tried to stay ready and be prepared for any situation. So that’s just what I try to do myself, try to be prepared for any situation that comes my way.”
A long list of injuries has forced McGruder to play in many different situations based on necessity. 14 Heat players (including Chris Bosh) have combined to miss 173 games due to injuries over the first 42 games of the season.
The 6-foot-4, 205-pound McGruder has spent 11 percent of his minutes at point guard, 49 percent of his minutes at shooting guard, 39 percent of his minutes at small forward and the remaining 1 percent at power forward, according to Basketball Reference.
“I think this is it right now,” Spoelstra said when asked what the next step is in McGruder’s development. “He needs game minutes, playing against the very best, serving a role. He’s already gotten a lot better offensively. There’s nothing more we could do to fast-track his growth.
“Again, ideally, a perfect world for this team would be he comes in as a bench player with tremendous energy and toughness. I think that’s ultimately the role for him. Until that time, these minutes are valuable for his career.”
Minutes that not a lot of Heat rookies have gotten in the past.
In Heat history, 14 players have averaged 25 or more minutes of playing time in their rookie seasons and McGruder is on pace to join that list with 25.8 minutes per game. Some of the other names include Caron Butler, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Glen Rice.
And with McGruder on pace to start 48 games this season, he would join a short list of Heat rookies to start more than 45 games in their first NBA season. The 25-year-old would become the 10th Heat rookie to accomplish that feat.
“I just love the way he competes every game,” said Udonis Haslem, an undrafted player who went on to have a productive NBA career. “He’s going up most of the time against a guy who’s going to get all the respect and he’s going to get none. Guys he’s guarding are going to get all the calls and he’s going to get none.
“It reminds me of the situation I was in my rookie year. I think about coming in as a young power forward. One night it’s Tim Duncan, one night it’s Kevin Garnett, the next night it’s a young Elton Brand. I was just a no-name undrafted guy. Every night I was on edge and I just wanted to compete and I didn’t want to let my team down. I understand the situation that he’s in.”
McGruder’s offensive game is still a work in progress, as he’s averaging 5.7 points on 38.5 percent shooting. But he feels like he’s already finding his niche in the NBA.
Opponents are already noticing him, too. After a loss to the Knicks on Dec. 6, Carmelo Anthony complimented McGruder’s effort and told him “keep playing hard.”
Making McGruder’s development even more important, the Heat’s investment in him could end up being a long-term one. Miami has him on a non-guaranteed contract at the minimum for the next two seasons.
“I just love the way he competes,” Spoelstra said of McGruder. “I love the way he does it without any excuses. He goes out there against the best, puts his heart out on the line for the team. And he puts himself out there for competition. And sometimes you get beat. Sometimes great scorers are going to put you in tough situations. But he’s going too continue to come at you, every single time and not bail out from that competition.”