The NBA Player Who Went from Anonymous to Irreplaceable
You might not know Rodney McGruder's name, but he is Mr. Miami Heat, and his journey is one of the great stories in today's NBA.
Photo by Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE. Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz.
It’s 2013, and Rodney McGruder is alone in Hungary. The Miami Heat guard was then a 22-year-old recent graduate of a Kansas State Wildcat program designed by Frank Martin to physically and mentally break those who participate. He’s exhausted from the first leg of his club team’s (Atomerőmű SE) grueling practice regimen, wondering why he’s halfway across the world, thousands of miles from his family, just about as far from the NBA’s radar as anyone who’s already tasted that lifestyle can possibly be.
A few months prior, after he was cut by the Oklahoma City Thunder, those close to him said get your money. They warned him about the D-League’s inability to offer a competitive wage, and advocated against that as an option. Playing overseas, though, was. Soon after, McGruder’s agent called with two options: Australia or Hungary. McGruder wanted to be different, carve his own path, and experience something unique. So he chose Hungary, despite "how beautiful Australia is."
For about eight months—the first two completely isolated from loved ones before his girlfriend moved in—this was McGruder’s life. Games, practices (for which he was in the gym from 10 AM to noon, followed by another run from 6-8 PM) and everything else, which was nothing else. There was never enough time to sightsee or take in the culture of a foreign country. A two-hour drive north to Budapest was out of the question. McGruder lived in a small town where everything closed early. All he had was basketball, his club’s looming championship run—two hard practices were held the day before the Finals—and God. He prayed and dove deeper into his faith. He sat and thought about life.
Hungary confirmed to McGruder just how badly he wanted to be in the NBA. The experience reaffirmed his love for the game, and doubled as something he wouldn’t trade for the world while not wanting to endure it ever again. McGruder’s agent kept telling him NBA teams were watching. That he was on their radar. But it never seemed that way. Only six months removed from being named first-team All-Big 12, McGruder felt like his basketball relevance was already dangling by a fingernail.
“The one thing that came to my mind when I was over there was ‘what are you doing? This wasn’t your dream. Chase your dream. Don’t lose sight,’” McGruder remembers. He instructed his agent to find him a spot in the D-League next year, closer to family, his home, and the attention of all 30 NBA organizations. No matter what.
McGruder’s story is filled with pivotal moments and decisions designed to shatter confidence and distract from the original goal he first had as a young boy growing up ten minutes outside of Washington D.C., playing in the same AAU program as Kevin Durant and Michael Beasley. Those two gave him hope. They grew up at the same recreational center, and when they made the NBA, McGruder didn’t see why he couldn’t too.
The youngest of four, he was introduced to the sport as a five-year old by an older sister whose basketball games he frequently attended. The stint in Hungary was his first extended involvement in professional basketball, but it was so far from where he wanted to be; it helped push him to where he is today.
Five years later, McGruder sits in the lobby of a luxury hotel in SoHo. He’s 27 now, bundled up in a black Miami Heat sweatsuit, polite with an easy laugh as the drawn hood outlines his face. One month into his third season, McGruder is your favorite Most Improved Player candidate’s Most Improved Player, a blossoming offensive weapon who never lost track of the intangibles that convinced Miami to offer him a contract. Nicknamed “The Scavenger” and “Sweet Spot Rod” by teammates, he’s averaging more minutes and front-court touches than everyone on the Heat except Josh Richardson, posting an assist rate that’s nearly twice his career average.
McGruder’s journey is inspirational. But what makes him so intriguing is the future. He contributes to winning with the exact skill-set that’s in demand by every coach in the league. And as a restricted free agent this July, entering a marketplace that’s flush with cash, McGruder’s story feels like it’s only begun.
“He’s probably surpassed everyone’s expectations,” Heat center Kelly Olynyk says. “And I think he still has more room to keep growing.”
McGruder can still remember the sting of draft night, huddled in front of a TV with his family in a room full of hope, prayer, and tension, all waiting to hear then deputy commissioner Adam Silver say his name. Earlier that night, McGruder’s agent called with good news: the Orlando Magic were interested, and there was a chance he’d be their 51st pick. McGruder’s mind raced back to how good he felt after his workout with the team. He didn’t want to sound a false alarm, though, so he kept the information to himself. When Silver walked to the podium to announce Orlando’s pick, a nauseating jolt ran through his body. The Magic took Romero Osby instead. (McGruder has Osby’s name stashed in the forefront of his memory like it’s his own phone number.)
Most of his family was understandably distraught, but McGruder’s mother, a strong woman who spent 30 years as a bus driver for the Washington D.C. transit system, didn’t let him feel sorry for himself. “It’s all in God’s time, baby. What’s meant to be will be.”
The next morning, he woke up at 7 AM and immediately put himself through an intense workout. He couldn’t stop thinking about every name that echoed through Barclays Center over his own. What’s done was done, though. McGruder pressed on to prepare for the next opportunity. A few weeks later he was down in Orlando with the Magic’s summer league team. Then he flew to Las Vegas to play for the Charlotte Bobcats. Integrating with a horde of new teammates so quickly was a challenge, but McGruder was impressive enough to land a training camp roster spot with the Thunder. They cut him after a month.
“I looked at it like ‘Yo, I’m in the NBA!’ And when you get a taste of something that you love and really enjoy doing and get that taken away from you, it hurt a little bit.”
“When you get a taste of something, something that you really wanna do, like, I didn’t look at it like preseason,” McGruder says. “I looked at it like ‘Yo, I’m in the NBA!’ And when you get a taste of something that you love and really enjoy doing and get that taken away from you, it hurt a little bit.”
Next was his season-long odyssey in Hungary, the experience that somehow pushed a maniacal worker even harder to get back to the league he was desperate to crack. The following July he was back in Vegas, this time playing for rookie head coach Steve Kerr’s Golden State Warriors. “Just being able to learn from him, it was fun. It was a lot of fun,” McGruder says.
That led to a training camp deal with the Boston Celtics, where Brad Stevens was entering his second season at the helm. It felt familiar. He knew Marcus Smart and Phil Pressey from battles in college. When the Celtics waived McGruder, he accepted an offer to play for their D-League team, the Maine Red Claws. But midway through a scrimmage that was held right before the season began, he pulled his groin. He returned two weeks later and promptly pulled it again. That slow start prevented McGruder from cracking their rotation, and shortly before the playoffs began his agent asked the team to release him. McGruder packed his bags and flew back home to Maryland, unsure of what was next.
His agent soon texted with two more options: the Austin Spurs (the D-League affiliate of the San Antonio Spurs) or the Sioux Falls Skyforce (the D-League affiliate of the Miami Heat). He chose Sioux Falls, and spent three games there before the season ended. Next was a spot on Miami’s Summer League team, and then...crickets.
“The lowest point for me was I played Summer League with the Heat and I was just waiting. I didn’t get any camp invites. I was like ‘man, what am I gonna do? Should I go back overseas?’ And then I was like, you know what? I feel like I didn’t get a full D-league experience because I was hurt most of the year. So I’m talking to myself, I’m talking to my family, I’m talking to my girl, and they’re like ‘You say you want to play in the D-league, why are you mentioning overseas again? You said you want to play in the NBA.’”
Heat assistant coach Dan Craig, who’d just been named the Skyforce’s new head coach, eventually called McGruder up to offer a spot on the team. Sioux Falls went 40-10 (a D-League record) and won the championship. McGruder led the league in Win Shares and finished fourth in total minutes.
“It might not happen overnight but this has been a four-year process,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says. “He helped us win a championship. It’s one of the reasons we signed him to this deal. He had winning qualities in big moments. There were a lot of other guys who got call ups before him. We cut him twice before that.”
After his second-straight Summer League with Miami, McGruder received a training camp invite and made the team on the last day of cuts. It felt surreal. He didn’t sleep that night. And from the public relations staff he shocked by knowing their names before they knew his, to the coaching staff that admired how hard he worked on a daily basis, the feeling throughout Miami’s organization was that they just added an ideal player and person to their program.
“There’s been a lot of sweat equity behind the scenes,” Spoelstra says. “He’s a great example of how much better you can get with time.”
“When I came to Miami they asked me what I thought I was going to do and what our philosophy was and it was simple,” Heat President Pat Riley told me last year. “Become the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, unselfish, toughest, disliked, nastiest team in the league.”
Almost a quarter of a century later, Heat culture is defined by those qualities. They’re the backdrop of three world championships, the league’s second-best defense, and a higher winning percentage than all but four organizations since Riley was hired.
But with success comes envy, and for some, Heat culture is like an artificial biosphere sponsored by GOOP. Hot air: Enter our habitat and discover your best self. That’s not true, though. Their ethos is more like a buzzsaw that’s engineered to weed out those who believe they’re above off-court discipline and persistent work ethic. Rejuvenation, tenacity, and relentlessness. The Heat promote it not because they’re willing to promise positive results to everyone who signs on the dotted line. Fierce commitment is mandatory, and McGruder has molded himself into a walking billboard for the Miami Way. Come to Miami and be the next Rodney McGruder may one day become the sales pitch that encapsulates why they spread the message they do.
“He’s an embodiment of what we preach at the Miami Heat,” player development coach Eric Glass says.
The organization doesn’t like to hang ceilings over players when they first enter their development program. It’s a mindset that limits growth and embraces the natural inclination to label someone off what they can or can’t do on day one. That corollary is pure cynicism, and they go out of their way to avoid it. McGruder’s growth explains why. He reminds Heat icon Udonis Haslem of a smaller version of himself, someone who’ll do whatever it takes for the team to win without ever backing down from challenges that stand in his way.
Shortly before his rookie season began, Haslem invited McGruder over to watch some football. Once he realized McGruder didn’t have a car to drive himself home, Haslem—whose high-school coach was McGruder’s college coach—lent him a tinted out Mercury Marauder...for the year. “Once we signed Rodney, Coach Frank reached out to me and said ‘You’ve got one of my guys, make sure you take care of him,’” Haslem says. “So from that point on, Rod became one of my guys. It’s family.” (McGruder now drives a Mercedes Benz.)
His sophomore year was all but entirely lost to a stress fracture suffered in his left leg during the preseason. The news came days after he won Miami’s notorious conditioning test—McGruder laughs now, “I think I really can’t speak too much on that”—with an entire summer’s worth of work freshly laid in his rearview mirror. McGruder thought the pain was caused by shin splints, and his heart dropped when surgery was presented as the only option.
“I just thought about all that it took to get here and counted the hours in the gym. But then I also put things into perspective,” McGruder says. “Everything happens for a reason.”
A protective walking boot prevented McGruder from sitting on the bench during Heat home games, so he sat in the back, beside Glass, and watched how the the team’s former video coordinator coded each possession.
“I think for most people it’s just a different type of environment and different way to look at the game. Even for coaches, when you’re new to a video room you have no idea what’s being tracked, how the game’s being perceived and viewed, and for a player who knows one thing on the court, visually through movement and all that stuff, it’s different when you look at it from a video standpoint,” Glass says. “You’re seeing the game, you’re seeing the court, but when you’re in a video room and you’re not playing, you’re seeing all ten guys at one time. You’re seeing different angles and different schemes, so I think that’s helped open the game up for him and I think it’s really helped slow the game down now that he’s back out playing.”
The experience was a revelation, one he otherwise wouldn’t have had if he were healthy and on the court. McGruder became a sponge, asking questions, realizing an opportunity to get better was staring him straight in the face. He leaned into different dimensions of the game that he previously thought he already knew. For example: the critical importance of spacing.
“If you’re spacing the right place offensively you help your teammate out. Not only may you get a shot, but you help open things up for your teammate. And defensively, just being in the right spots, not allowing guys to penetrate whenever they come off the pick-and-roll because you’re in that correct shrink spot,” McGruder says.
He spent hours upon hours beside Glass. He absorbed how to read the floor from a completely different angle when operating a pick-and-roll, something that’s evident to anyone who’s watching him right now. In the first few weeks of his third season, McGruder has become so much more than anything even the Heat could’ve expected.
His career high coming into this season was 15 points. In 16 games, he’s already topped that five times. After shooting only 33.2 percent from three as a rookie, he’s making 42.3 percent now and is trusted to fire away from all different spots on the floor, in every setting. He can stand still, fire away on the move, and pull-up off the dribble. “He’s an exceptional three-point shooter now,” Spoelstra says.
But his most critical growth has been as a playmaker, putting the ball on the floor, and pressuring the defense. According to Synergy Sports, the percentage of his possessions that are run out of the pick-and-roll has more than doubled since his rookie season. It’s something McGruder didn’t anticipate coming into the season, but the organizational mantra to never limit yourself convinced him to work on it anyway.
“He’s able to see reads that maybe he wasn’t able to see before,” Glass says.“His pick-and-roll offense has been a lot better. He’s been able to get into the paint and do some of the things that we’re emphasizing and I think just seeing the game over and over and over again on film, I think it really helps clear the picture up and helps him think less and more specific on what he’s trying to do.”
Spoelstra agrees: “Making plays in the paint and making the game easier for other guys. He did not have that when he first got here.”
Over the summer, McGruder woke up everyday at 6:30 to lift weights and do agility training that was designed to strengthen the muscles around his injured leg. Afterwards, he’d drive over to the arena, watch film, and partake in on-court workouts with Glass. They focused on everything, including the refinement of a teardrop floater that’s allowed McGruder to finish more plays on his own when defenses play the pass and force him to shoot.
As they worked through it, Glass would stop McGruder’s reps if from start to finish they weren’t executed as he would during actual competition; five game-like floaters are more important than 100 that aren’t.
“Rodney is as committed to improvement as any player that’s come through our system. That says a lot because we’ve had a lot of incredibly hard workers,” Spoelstra says. “Since [he entered our program] it’s just been daily incremental progress that nobody has noticed.”
On the defensive end, Miami wanted McGruder to body the opponent’s top scorer every night. They force fed him film of elite on-ball defenders, like Jimmy Butler and Avery Bradley. “He’ll guard the toughest matchup every game,” Haslem says. “A lot of times he doesn’t get the respect from the officials that he probably deserves, but he comes out and competes every night.”
In addition to growing on the court, McGruder’s recent lifestyle alterations have widened his never-ending path towards an unknowable ceiling. On July 4th, after watching the documentary Forks Over Knives on Netflix, he decided to become a vegan, volunteering to punish himself by cutting some all-time favorite pleasures from his diet. “I love ice cream. I love all kinds of shakes. I can go to Chick-Fil-A and get two cookies n’ cream milk shakes and call it a day,” he says. “I would get a Snickers Blizzard from Dairy Queen. Oh man, I would get extra Snickers in there.”
His teammates doubt he’ll stick with it after the season’s over. They call him a fake vegan. He laughs it off, knowing anything that makes him better is not about to exit his routine. It’s provided more energy than he thought was possible. He never stops moving.
A few months ago he won Miami’s conditioning test for the second year in a row, and right now he’s performing like the most physically fit individual in the entire NBA. Right now, there are 121 players who run at least two miles every game. Only Jrue Holiday, DeMar DeRozan, and Zach LaVine average more than McGruder’s 2.65 miles, and only Buddy Hield clocks in at a higher average speed (4.63 miles per hour).
“I really wanted to push myself and see if there was another level I could go to with my conditioning,” McGruder says. “And I did.”
As he heads into restricted free agency this summer, what makes McGruder so interesting is he’s at once a product of Miami’s environment and a plug-and-play individualist. He’s succeeding inside their frenetic system but with tools every single team in the league really wants. Wings who can shoot threes and guard multiple positions are coveted over just about everyone else, but those who can do both while also attacking with creativity after a defense takes away the offense’s initial action are officially invaluable.
In the play below, the Heat want to run McGruder off a stagger screen along the baseline to free him up for a spot-up three on the other side of the floor, but Indiana fights through and cuts off his air space. McGruder doesn’t panic. Instead of passing out and letting Miami reset its offense as the shot clock nears zero, he executes a nifty pick-and-roll with Hassan Whiteside.
Instead of someone who’s dependent on others to make something happen for him, McGruder is independently productive. Rosters flooded with role players like that, those who can shoot, pass, and dribble, have a leg up on the competition. McGruder can do all of the above, and he never gets tired.
Translation: he’s about to get paid. McGruder acknowledges how distracting something like a contract year can be, but he doesn’t let it disrupt his day-to-day progress. The Heat give their players a meditation app called Vision Pursue, and McGruder uses it all the time.
“Everyone thinks about their future and what that holds, but really you have to live in the moment, and expand your A before you worry about your B. And my A is my everyday, working out, trying to be a good teammate, you know, just living in this moment,” he says. “If I focus on [free agency] I wouldn’t be living right and I would be cheating myself, because I’m not living in this moment being the best me I can be. You think about it, but you have to stop your mind because your mind does wander to all different kinds of things. But you have to quiet that mind and live in this present moment.”
McGruder is entering his prime with a skill-set that should keep him in the NBA for years to come. All-Star games are an immense long shot, and no team will ever offer him a max contract. But people like McGruder are the lifeblood of any healthy basketball team, especially when they come from absolutely nowhere and shatter all possible expectations. While providing bottom-line results, McGruder symbolizes the constant grind that’s attached to professional ascension. He doesn’t say no when instructed to do something, but knows how to balance his trust of Miami’s coaching staff with the need to listen to hear his own gut. He’s humble and solid and hungry, laboring beneath a spotlight and in the shadows.
The best NBA stories are seemingly unrealistic. McGruder’s feels that way, but a logical explanation can be found with a closer look. Study the finer details of his all-around betterment and everything, more or less, falls into place. That doesn’t make it any less spectacular or impressive, but it does allow us to give credit where credit is due. In a few years, he ventured from the fringe of NBA periphery into a respectable playoff contender’s starting five. From anonymous to irreplaceable.
When asked to describe what McGruder’s next chapter may bring, Haslem didn’t mince words: “People are gonna find out who Rodney McGruder is real soon.”