MIAMI — Erik Spoelstra isn’t sure who should win the Rookie of the Year award, but he is sure that Rodney McGruder should be in the conversation for the honor.
76ers center Joel Embiid seems like the front-runner for the award, leading rookies in points (20.2), rebounds (7.8) and blocks (2.5) per game. But now the question is should Embiid earn the honor after injuries limited him to 31 games this season.
“I don’t know,” Spoelstra said when asked if Embiid should be the Rookie of the Year despite an injury-shortened season. “I mean he was fantastic in those 31 games — head and shoulders above all the rest in all of those games. It’s tough. But let’s get Rodney McGruder in some kind of conversation for sure. What he’s done every single night, he merits the conversation.”
Then Spoelstra paid McGruder an enormous compliment. A compliment that’s hard to top when it comes from inside the Heat organization.
“Rodney brings that toughness and the identity we have,” Spoelstra said. “How do we want to play? What’s our habits? What’s our identity? That guy. That’s what it is. What is UD in terms of his meaning on Miami Heat player and then culture. That’s him. Rodney is a 6-4 version of UD.”
Like Udonis Haslem, McGruder went undrafted. Like Haslem, McGruder played overseas before breaking into the NBA. And like Haslem, McGruder is making his name known on the defensive end of the court with his toughness and persistence.
But like Haslem, McGruder’s stat line isn’t usually a fair representation of his contribution. That could hurt McGruder in the competition for the Rookie of the Year award and even affect his chances of earning a spot on one of the NBA’s All-Rookie teams.
“What he does, you can’t see in stats,” Heat point guard Goran Dragic said of McGruder. “Sometimes people they’re just looking at stats. But we know what he’s all about, what he means for this team. You know, I think the other coaches they recognize this.”
McGruder entered Wednesday’s game averaging 6.5 points on 41.1 percent shooting, 3.3 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game this season. Rookies like Embiid, Dario Saric (11.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists), and Malcolm Brogdon (10.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists) have better numbers.
But McGruder is making the Heat use him in a more consistent role than most other rookies. McGruder began Wednesday ranked third among rookies in starts (47), 10th in games played (60) and fourth in minutes per game (25.7).
The only rookies with more starts than McGruder this season are Domantas Sabonis (11th overall pick in 2016 draft) and Marquese Chriss (eighth overall pick in 2016 draft).
“Hes really anchored — along with Goran and Hassan — he’s anchored that starting unit,” Spoelstra said of McGruder. “He’s been the more consistent guy in that unit in terms of games played and being available every single day and what he brings.”
Now, McGruder is hoping he will make one of the NBA’s All-Rookie teams like Haslem. Haslem was named to the All-Rookie Second Team for the 2003-04 season.
“That’s a good comparison,” Dragic said of Spoelstra’s Haslem comparison for McGruder. “He’s going to play so hard every night. Even when we don’t have a game, he’s going to play hard in practice and he’s a true definition of a warrior. I like that comparison. The smaller version of UD.”
When McGruder was asked what came to mind when Spoelstra compared him to Haslem, he ran down a list of thoughts.
“I just think of Udonis just flying around the floor on defense,” McGruder said. “Udonis making big shots, making plays for those teams in the Finals and playing great defense against Dirk [Nowitzki] in the Finals. I just think about all the big plays that Udonis made for the Heat and makes. That’s what I think of, inspiring plays. Just the way he inspired the Big Three team. You heard what Shaq came out and said about him, that says a lot about Udonis. It’s an honor for coach to say that about me.”
And if the comparison sticks, McGruder might start referring to Haslem as “the 6-foot-8 version of Rodney.”
“I’m going to have to tease him and put that in his ear,” McGruder said with a laugh. “But that’s my guy. That’s my vet. I look up to him. Whenever I need advice, he’s there. He’s given me great advice and he’s a great mentor.”