DENVER — Caleb Martin was undrafted coming out of college. He entered the NBA with almost no guarantees. He had to play in the G League. Charlotte let him go after two seasons.
Desperate for a second chance, he joined the Miami Heat on a two-way contract to basically start from scratch again.
That’s what it takes for some guys to make the league.
And that’s what it took for Martin to make the NBA Finals.
On a Heat team filled with undrafted contributors, Martin stood out and became the breakout star of the Eastern Conference final. He averaged 19.3 points on 60% shooting, scored a playoff-career-high 26 points on Boston’s home floor in Game 7, and the Heat needed it all to oust the Celtics and earn a trip to the title round against the Denver Nuggets.
“I definitely reflect on where I started and the journey it’s taken to get here, and even as early as the two-way last year,” Martin said. “But I think more than anything, it’s kind of a weird feeling because I’m also understanding that as happy as I am, as grateful I am to be here, I also understand that we have four more. The job is not done. We didn’t go through what we went through all the regular season and my personal journey to stop here.”
That’s the credo for so many in the Heat locker room.
The captain, 20-year veteran and soon-to-be retired Udonis Haslem, was undrafted. Starting point guard Gabe Vincent, undrafted. Starting shooting guard Max Strus, undrafted. Duncan Robinson, who has made more 3-pointers than anyone in Heat history, undrafted. Haywood Highsmith, who gave the Heat tremendous minutes of energy off the bench against the Celtics, undrafted.
Miami will finish this postseason with more points and starts from undrafted players than the other 15 teams that made the playoffs this year will — combined. The Heat currently have 876 points and 39 starts from undrafted guys; the rest of the league has 778 points and 31 starts. Denver basically doesn’t play anyone that isn’t undrafted, so the Heat margin on the rest of the league will only grow the rest of the way.
“That storyline is over,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said earlier in these playoffs about the undrafted contributors. “These guys have proven themselves as competitors and winning players.”
They have. But pointing it out isn’t a sign of disrespect. It’s a hat tip to the Heat buzz word — culture.
Miami’s player development program — taking players that other teams overlooked, finding their strength, figuring out how to implement it into the Heat system and then working them like never before — is raved about by many in the league, and Martin is one of the best examples right now. He was one vote away from being the MVP of the East finals after shooting 11-for-16 and scoring 26 points in Game 7 on Monday night, after not playing at all in a Game 7 loss to Boston in last year’s East finals.
“That might have surprised y’all,” said Heat star Jimmy Butler, who won the MVP trophy. “To the untrained eye, he just looks like he’s an undrafted guy who has been in the G League, who has started with Charlotte and now he’s here. Started on a two-way contract. That’s what it looks like to y’all. To us, he’s a hell of a player, hell of a defender, playmaker, shotmaker, all of the above.”
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It makes sense that some longshot players helped the Heat get here — since as a No. 8 seed that almost was eliminated in the play-in tournament, Miami was a longshot to do much of anything in the playoffs, much less make the finals for the league-best seventh time in the past 17 seasons.
Martin was solid in the first two rounds against No. 1 Milwaukee and No. 5 New York, averaging 10.8 points on nearly 53% shooting. Against the second-seeded Celtics, his numbers soared. Boston took a risk and didn’t spend a lot of defensive effort on Martin.
He made the Celtics pay for that one.
“It’s super-high-level competition,” said Martin, whose twin brother, Cody, has been at many Heat playoff games this spring and has spent his four NBA seasons with Charlotte. “You can’t hide it. You figure out if you’re built for these type of environments or not whenever you get into them. I just I feel like I’ve just been continuously prepping and getting ready for these moments, and when these moments come, I feel like I’m ready for them. I feel like I’m built for these type of moments.”
Martin signed a three-year, $20 million contract last summer. For the real world, that’s a ton of money. For the NBA, that makes him an absolute bargain. It’s something he likely never saw coming when he was in college at N.C. State and Nevada, then never heard his name called on draft night, then got told he’d have to fight for everything he got in the league.
But he was at his best when Miami needed him most. And now the finals await.
“I’m so proud and happy for him,” Butler said. “I think he’s going to be even better in the next round, and I don’t think he’s going to be a surprise to anybody any longer.”
By TIM REYNOLDS AP Basketball Writer