DAVIE — At the end of last season, Wayne Ellington’s NBA future was uncertain. But Heat president Pat Riley left the 29-year-old guard feeling optimistic about his chances of returning to Miami.
“I want to get better, but I want to get better with you,” Riley said to Ellington as the Heat began their offseason in April.
Riley kept his word. Miami found a way to sign James Johnson, Dion Waiters and Kelly Olynyk to long-term contracts and also fit Ellington’s $6.3 million salary for next season under the 2017-18 salary cap threshold of $99,093,000.
It wasn’t easy, though, as the Heat faced a July 7 deadline to make a decision on Ellington and barely had enough salary cap space to bring him back. To create enough room for Ellington’s $6.3 million salary, Miami traded away Josh McRoberts and shaved off additional money from the cap hits of Waiters and Olynyk by including bonuses in their contracts that don’t count against the team’s salary cap.
“I was just patient and relaxed, honestly, because I understand at the end of the day that I had to listen to what Pat told me and I had faith in that,” Ellington said Tuesday during an appearance at the Heat’s summer youth basketball camp at Nova High School.
The salary-cap gymnastics Miami performed to keep Ellington for a second season did not go unnoticed. It gave him the stability he’s been looking for, as he’s played for seven different teams over eight NBA seasons and just became a father for the first time in March.
“It means a lot to me,” Ellington said. “It’s my first time returning to a team since my second or third year in the NBA. It means a lot. It means a heckuva lot to me that a team wanted me back. Obviously Andy [Elisburg] did some amazing things to be able to fit everything in. … I’m ecstatic about that. It feels good. I know we’re all hungry this season and we’ve got a lot to prove.”
Ellington, who averaged a career-high 10.5 points and made 37.8 percent of his threes last season, played an important role off the bench during the Heat’s 30-11 second-half turnaround. He played in each of those 41 games, averaging 10.3 points and shooting 40.7 percent from 3-point range during this stretch.
Ellington generates a lot of his offense by chasing defenders around multiple screens on his way to making catch-and-shoot jumpers, which even led coach Erik Spoelstra to compare his game to that of Ray Allen. Among players with at least two shots coming off screens per game last season, Ellington ranks fourth in the NBA in effective field goal percentage (52.8 percent) behind just Kevin Durant (56.7 percent), CJ McCollum (57 percent) and Stephen Curry (60.5 percent).
“It would have killed me to see him go,” Riley said of Ellington last week. “Just like James Johnson and Dion, he changed everything about how he played [physically]. I look at Wayne as a Udonis Haslem type of person, J.J. type of personality. He’s so in, so committed, and he can see what that did for himself with our help, and how it improved his game. He’s one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league – forget about just standstill threes. I’m talking about a guy who can run off screens at 100 mph and raise from three feet behind the line [and hit the shot].”
And Ellington wants to play even faster moving forward, as he said Tuesday that he wants to start next season at around 195 pounds. He was playing at about 203 pounds and 6.5 percent body fat in March after weighing in at 222 pounds when he signed with the Heat last summer.
“I kind of compare [last year] to one of those [toy] cars when you’re a kid that go back in order to go forward,” said Ellington, who missed 16 games at the start of last season with a bruised right thigh and then another four games in December with a strained right hamstring.
“We had to kind of go backwards and learn each other and figure it out. Toward the end of the year, the car was all the way back and ready to go forward. I think we’re ready to just go forward. We’re all anxious, man. We know the work that we put in and we know the work we’re continuing to put in this offseason. So, we’re ready to show that last season, the second half was what we are, who we are and we can have some great success.”
Ellington is one of 10 players from last year’s season-ending roster the Heat now have under contract for next season. And although Ellington is set to become an unrestricted free agent next summer, Riley made it seem last week that he’s in Miami’s long-term plans.
“Now we get the chance to negotiate with him,” Riley said. “He’ll be here basically for two years, and so we’ve got Early Bird rights on him. And, so, I’m glad he’s going to have that opportunity. I just want us to have a great shot at it. He’s relatively young still, 29. When these guys get in that kind of shape they go back to maybe 25, 24… he’s just a great leader, great guy, so crucial for us.”