Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon
While the HEAT fell just short of the postseason, there were still some positives to takeaway from the 2014-15 campaign. For starters, Miami found a true physical presence inside with Hassan Whiteside and acquired Goran Dragic at the trade deadline. Perhaps just as importantly, the HEAT also developed some young rookies throughout the course of the season.
“One of the silver linings was the experience that our young players received this year, and that’s not something that’s guaranteed obviously for young players,” Erik Spoelstra said during his exit interview. “When you’re usually competing and contending, you’re not relying on younger players to produce for you. But one of the ancillary benefits of all the adversity this year was the minutes for James Ennis, Bazz [Shabazz Naper], Tyler [Johnson] [and] Hassan [Whiteside]. All of them experienced impactful minutes.”
Ennis in particular saw his minutes increase the last ten games of the season. During that stretch, Ennis began to cut to the rim with purpose, enabling him to get some easy buckets. He also hustled on both ends and fought hard on the offensive glass. From March 29 to April 15, Ennis averaged 9.5 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game in 27.1 minutes of action.
Perhaps the most impressive part of his late season surge was that he was in and out of the rotation leading up to that point. Because of that, Spoelstra was pleased with how Ennis improved down the stretch.
“James [Ennis] was able to play 62 games and be in and out of the rotation a couple times, but his strongest minutes and games were at the end,” Spoelstra said. “And I liked to see him show resilience during the year and improve. Player development is not just about the next five and a half months [of offseason], it’s how you can improve during the course of a season and James [Ennis] showed an ability to do that.”
Ennis attributed his improvement to increasing confidence and hard work behind the scenes, both of which certainly paid dividends for the 24-year-old swingman.
Another rookie who kept working and fighting throughout the season was Tyler Johnson. Johnson took a slightly different path than Ennis, as he went undrafted, played with the HEAT’s summer league team and joined the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the D-League before signing with the HEAT for the remainder of the season in February after a pair of 10-day contracts.
“Tyler [Johnson], these are the Miami HEAT stories, guys that are undrafted. It just doesn’t happen that often. You have to have the right fit, the right organization, the right player, the right makeup,” Spoelstra said. “He’s relentless with his work ethic [and] his drive. A lot of players would have gotten discouraged by being cut after a full summer, having to go to Sioux Falls, and he looked at it as an opportunity to get better and play minutes under our guidance and our system.”
Thanks to that guidance, Johnson did well whenever his number was called and showed an uncanny ability to drive to the hoop. Like Ennis, Johnson is very athletic and never stops fighting for loose balls. Perhaps Johnson’s two best performances came in early March against the Suns and Kings. Against Phoenix on March 2, Johnson stepped up with Goran Dragic in foul trouble and scored a career-high 26 points on 10-of-13 shooting. Five days later against Sacramento, Johnson helped lead Miami to victory with 10 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter and overtime period combined.
While Johnson thinks he showed that he belongs in this league, he isn’t satisfied with just that.
“I got to experience what it’s like to play basketball at the highest level,” Johnson said. “But at the end of the day, I’m not really satisfied with just being here. I want to stay here and stay in the league for a long time and make this a career.”
Both Ennis and Johnson are expected to play in Summer League this July, giving the pair another opportunity to hone their skills and expand their game entering next season. After going back to California for a little bit, Ennis said he’ll be back in Miami working with the coaches. Johnson, meanwhile, will make sure he is ready, too.
“I’m going to get an opportunity again to showcase my talents [in Summer League],” Johnson said. “And anytime you get a chance to do that, you want to make sure you’re at the top of your game.”