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Between promise and doubt, Josh McRoberts waits to prove himself

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Versatile forward Josh McRoberts struggled through his first season with the Miami Heat - injuries, inconsistency and the constant threat of unconfirmed trade rumors. But finally healthy and eager to return, he could become a vital part of the team's success this year.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

What if I told you that the Miami Heat were adding a 6'10" forward that recently shot 36 percent from 3-point range? That this same player, capable of guarding all three frontcourt positions, was also one hell of a playmaker, with an assist percentage (21.9 percent) just below Goran Dragic (22.8 percent) and Dwyane Wade (32.1)? That, when he last enjoyed full health, played in a total of 78 regular season games, had a win-share of 6.5 and was a key part of a team that tasted the postseason for the first time in years?

And what if he cost Miami just $5 million at a time when the value of versatility is at an all-time high and before the NBA's salary cap was set to explode to unprecedented levels?

Would you consider it a bargain? A game-changer? Perhaps the steal of free agency?

Then I've got good news, Heat fans, because that player is already on the roster and he goes by the name of Josh McRoberts.

To say that it's been an up-and-down year for McRoberts is a vast understatement. When he first agreed to a deal with Miami in the early days of last summer's free agency period, he was expecting to join a talent-laden team as a prized backup. His Bobcats squad had challenged the Heat in the playoffs but was ultimately swept away with little fanfare; in Miami he would contribute to the team's expected pursuit of a championship. Charlotte matched Pat Riley's offer but McRoberts chose to forgo the comfort of a familiar area (as a Duke University alum) and a system that maximized his talents, all for the opportunity to win more than ever.

But then LeBron James announced his decision to join the Cleveland Cavaliers, and Miami's chances for a title became unrealistic. And for all of McRoberts' talent and multi-faceted skills, he wasn't much of a consolation prize for fans that felt spurned by James. It was a recurring theme for the Heat as they were left to rebuild in James' wake...the drafting of Shabazz Napier, the addition of McRoberts and Danny Granger, the lost opportunities to lure other top-name free agents. It was as if James had invited the team to a five-star restaurant and then left Riley holding the bill.

Fortunately, time wore on and with the re-signing of Chris Bosh and the addition of Luol Deng, there was a sense that a new era of Heat basketball had begun. Like the San Antonio Spurs team that eviscerated Miami in the 2014 NBA Finals, this group would thrive on constant motion on offense and could create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. McRoberts was projected to be a big part of that.

It didn't hurt that he was an unusual sight along today's NBA landscape, pony-tailed hair waving freely along with a beard that would make many a Brooklyn-based hipster weep with jealousy. Heat fans had embraced the counter-culture oddity of Chris Andersen in 2013 and McRoberts could become a fan-favorite like he was in North Carolina.

And there were also (now) fond memories of this...

...and this...

But the roller-coaster theme of the season was only just starting and things took an unfortunate turn when McRoberts underwent offseason surgery that kept him from participating in training camp and the preseason. Things deteriorated quickly from there and the season's promise was always dangling just beyond the team's reach.

And McRoberts was like the proverbial carrot on a stick.

An early season lineup featuring journeyman Shawne Williams overachieved and there was the allure that McRoberts, always just around the corner, could turn the team into a legitimate threat in the Eastern Conference. Once he healed from surgery, he'd play short stints at mediocre levels and the frustration would grow once more. Then a foot blister developed and he missed a number of games, never quite developing the conditioning that is crucial for NBA success.

Eventually, there were encouraging signs and he scored 24 points over the course of back-to-back games, all before suffering a season-ending knee injury that required surgery. He played just 17 games and the projected starting lineup of McRoberts, Wade, Deng, Bosh and Norris Cole were together on the court for just 34 minutes all season.

The rest of the year, predictably, would be a meandering mess, buoyed by the addition of Dragic, the continued excellence of Wade and the unexpected emergence of Hassan Whiteside.

The NBA can be brutally obsessed with the latest developments, a focus on what-have-you-done-lately that can range from nearsighted to completely ignorant. McRoberts' growth in Charlotte is overlooked in favor of the previous years of unexceptional production - was it just a fluke? Was it the system or the player? - and it's easy to forget what a factor he can be for Miami next season. Even an outlook on the Heat's title hopes for next season (by SB Nation's Tim Cato) completely leaves McRoberts out of the picture.

Rumors haven't helped, either, with McRoberts constantly linked as a trade asset despite never really getting a chance to prove himself. Consider how that affects a person, suspecting that your employer thinks so little of you that they're always finding somewhere else for you to work.

The rumors went unconfirmed and a recent report by the Miami Herald indicated that McRoberts has, in fact, not been included in trade scenarios the team has explored. To his credit, McRoberts seems focused and ready to put last season's struggles behind him. He recently told Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick that he's on schedule for training camp and eager to see it unfold:

Those lineups do indeed provide an interesting dynamic to next season. The Golden State Warriors won the title just a few weeks ago with an unconventional lineup; Miami's own forays into "position-less basketball" resulted in their two most recent championships. While Whiteside is undoubtedly a great option on offense and a spectacular rim protector, the Heat can roll out multiple combinations of players that feature Bosh at center along with other versatile scorers and defenders. McRoberts figures to be prominently included.

Miami's bench seems as deep as ever and players capable of doing a lot - like McRoberts - can sway a team's title hopes from unrealistic to definitive.

And he might finally get a chance to substantiate Riley's faith in him and to prove himself once more.