Rodney McGruder used to be an unknown name, now he’s one of the NBA’s top rookies

ORLANDO — Rodney McGruder took a long and winding road to get to the NBA.

After going undrafted out of Kansas State in 2013, it took McGruder three years to make his NBA debut. Now, the 25-year-old is having a better “rookie” season than most.

Jamal Crawford #11 of the LA Clippers drives on Rodney McGruder #17 of the Miami Heat during a game at American Airlines Arena on December 16, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Jamal Crawford #11 of the LA Clippers drives on Rodney McGruder #17 of the Miami Heat during a game at American Airlines Arena on December 16, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

McGruder was even a finalist for February’s NBA Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month award, but it ended up going to 76ers forward Dario Saric. McGruder averaged 8.0 points on 45 percent shooting and limited players he was defending to 41.7 percent shooting (3.5 percent under their usual shooting percentage) in February.

“It is nice to be mentioned,” McGruder said Friday in advance of Miami’s game in Orlando. “But I’ve just got to thank my teammates and the coaching staff for putting me in a nice situation.”

That outside attention is new for the Heat’s starting small forward, but he’s earned it. McGruder began Friday ranked 10th among rookies in games played (57) and second in minutes per game (25.9).

The only rookie who’s averaging more minutes than McGruder this season is Lakers forward Brandon Ingram, who was the second overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.

McGruder’s defense has been the primary reason behind his extensive playing time, as he’s already been asked to defend stars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Paul George this season.

But McGruder’s offense is now starting to pick up, too, as he ranks 10th among rookies with 9.0 points per game over the past 10 contests. He’s also shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from 3-point range during this stretch.

“A player that has given everything with purity to the team and every single day, he’s giving you his best and doing it for the guy next to him,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of McGruder. “You love to see players get rewarded for that kind of purity. He embraces competition. He doesn’t look at you sideways when you give him different challenges and maybe things that he hasn’t been prepared for. He just takes it on and accepts the challenge of guarding the very best wings in this league. His role has grown because he’s been extremely persistent.”

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