IT WAS AN early April evening, and the Miami Heat had just gone up by 18 points with 1:36 to play against the Chicago Bulls. It was time to call it. So when coach Erik Spoelstra looked down his bench, he called out a familiar name.
Udonis Haslem, now 41 years old and with scattered gray hairs to prove it, rose up, walked down to the scorer’s table and checked in.
Haslem, now in his 19th season, went undrafted in 2002 and played in France for a year before making the league with his hometown squad.
Every team uses undrafted players, a reality in a league with 510 roster spots (including two-way contracts) and only 60 draftees a season. Miami, however, became the fourth team in NBA history this season to use at least five undrafted players in at least 65 games, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Of the four teams, the Heat are the only one with a winning record.
The Heat have perfected the art of winning with undrafted talent — because they have to.
Pat Riley, Miami’s team president since 1995, has made an effort to go after big names through trade and free agency during his tenure. The strategy has worked — championships in 2006, 2012 and 2013 back it up.
When he first arrived in Miami, he traded for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway. Then there were Eddie Jones and Brian Grant in 2000. And Lamar Odom in 2003. Odom and Grant were used in the deal to acquire Shaquille O’Neal in 2004. And then there was the decision to bring in LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010. In 2019, Riley brought in Jimmy Butler.
But those types of names often come with large salaries. It also often means picks get moved. Since taking over, Riley has made only 14 first-round picks in 26 drafts — and three of them were traded in draft-night deals.
To do that — and be successful — Miami has to hit on its undrafted signees.
“It’s an organizational philosophy of ours,” Spoelstra told ESPN. “We’ve done it now for several years. We know what we’re looking for. We’re not for everybody, but we love to be dream makers.”
IT WAS THE spring of 2018, and Chet Kammerer, a longtime member of the Heat’s player personnel department, was working out players for the upcoming NBA draft — one in which the Heat didn’t actually have any of their picks.
At a private workout at Los Angeles, he saw a player who wasn’t on many draft boards, but one he felt personified what his team had so often found: an unheralded prospect, with a defined role, who could be a mainstay for years to come.
That player was Duncan Robinson, the former D-III transfer turned Michigan standout.
Kammerer turned to one of the then-24-year-old’s reps. “So, what’s the kid’s plan?” Kammerer asked.
“Uh, this is our first workout,” the rep replied. “We don’t have a plan.”
But Kammerer had his own idea. He turned to his phone and dialed.
“I just wrapped up the greatest shooting workout I’ve ever seen,” he told Spoelstra.
The head coach excitedly asked who the promising young prospect was. Duncan Robinson, Kammerer told him.
“You mean the sixth man from Michigan?” Spoelstra asked incredulously.
And so it was that the Heat set their sights on the 2017-18 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year after his first professional workout.
After going undrafted, Robinson signed on to be a part of Miami’s summer league squad. Over seven games across the Sacramento and Las Vegas leagues, Robinson averaged 12.4 points, shooting a scorching 21-of-38 from distance.
That performance helped to earn him a two-way contract with the Heat. From there, Robinson spent time with Miami’s G League team, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. By the time the 2019-20 season rolled around, Robinson had earned a starting spot.
Last summer, Robinson signed the largest contract in NBA history for an undrafted player — $90 million over five years.
Robinson’s story is a familiar one within the Miami franchise. Step 1: Find a prospect. Step 2: Give him a chance. Step 3: Watch him succeed.
“We’re gonna give you the same opportunity we’re gonna give the No. 1 draft pick,” Haslem says. “You gotta work hard. But we give everybody that confidence. We believe in leadership at all levels.”
The Heat’s recipe for success really is that simple. While not every player the Heat discover turns into a success story, the organization is consistent in its search criteria.
“People that are committed to the work and that process,” Spoelstra says. “Our coaching staff, the majority of them are products of our player development program. They do an outstanding job.”
Max Strus, for his part, says what it all really comes down to is that the team cares about individual players.
“They want to work with you and see you be great,” Strus says. “When you fully indulge yourself into the culture and the work, they reward you for all the efforts that you put into it. … That’s really just the biggest thing that separates the Heat from a lot of other organizations: how much they care and want to develop guys.”
Spoelstra says player development comes down to the work put in from veterans such as Haslem.
“That’s really our biggest thing. You can put in all the work, but if your veterans aren’t really promoting that and facilitating that, it’s really tough for young guys in this league,” Spoelstra says. “Our vets have been outstanding.”
And the biggest vet of all leads that charge.
“The reason we can get these guys to work hard is before we even approach these guys about basketball, we let you know you’re part of the family and we want the best for you,” Haslem says.
“I understand your career might not be here as long as you want it, but while you’re here, I’m gonna invest in you so you can get the best out of your career no matter what and where you go.”
And they listen.
“As an undrafted guy, you step into this organization and wear this jersey, you don’t need to look any further than [Haslem],” Robinson says. “He loves underdogs. He loves guys with chips on their shoulders. That’s a perfect fit.”
ROBINSON STARTED all but 16 games he played in the past three regular seasons for the Heat.
His role changed late in the 2021-22 regular season. Spoelstra shifted Robinson to the bench and moved Strus — another undrafted player — into the starting lineup. With Strus as a starter, Miami went 14-2.
“It’s a competitive environment,” Strus says. “It suits guys like us because we’re just trying to take advantage of every opportunity because you never know when you’re gonna get one or if we’d ever have one in the first place.”
Robinson didn’t skip a beat.
He had 27 points in Miami’s 115-91 Game 1 victory over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday — matching his best output during a game in the regular season — and set a Heat playoff record with eight 3-pointers.
Miami’s undrafted players racked up nearly 40% of its total points this season, second best in the NBA. Robinson (10.9 points per game), Strus (10.6 PPG), Caleb Martin (9.2 PPG) and Gabe Vincent (8.7 PPG) accounted for nearly 80% of those 3,595 points.
On Dec. 17, 2021, against the Orlando Magic, Miami’s undrafted players accounted for 83 points — second most by any team this season. In fact, there were 14 instances of undrafted players scoring 70 points or more in a regular-season game this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. The Heat had eight of them.
Four of the top five in games played this season for the Heat were undrafted players: Robinson (79), Vincent (68), Strus (68) and Dewayne Dedmon (67). P.J. Tucker, a 2006 second-round draft pick, was second on that list with 71.
That balance led the Heat to a 53-win season, the first 50-win season in South Beach since the final year of the Big Three in 2013-14 — and a No. 1 seed.
“We don’t have the leash that the draftees got,” Haslem says. “We don’t have the luxury of making the mistakes that the draftees got. We don’t have the luxury of being lazy like the draftees got. We don’t have the luxury of not knowing the plays like the draftees got. We don’t have the luxury of not playing hard like the draftees got. We don’t have those luxuries when you’re undrafted.”