Picking up pace with the season’s latter half - Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant has created some separation between himself and the field in this enthralling Rookie of the Year race. With Zion Williamson swiftly mounting a stout campaign, others like Miami Heat rookies Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn remain in shouting distance but on the outside looking in.
While the duo won’t cover enough ground should the season return, it is great to see them garnering attention for their efforts. The latest ESPN straw poll saw voters acknowledge the stellar seasons of both Herro and Nunn while making it clear barring some extraordinary happening, Morant would likely capture the award. Nevertheless, of 70 total votes, Nunn came in third behind Morant and Williamson, receiving 14 second-place votes and 35 third-place votes. Not bad for an undrafted rookie, huh?
Overwhelmingly, the story of Miami’s season has been about major contributions from young players. Nunn and Duncan Robinson have been staples in the starting lineup, heading the depth chart in over 60 of the 65 games played. This while Herro has consistently provided an admirable scoring boost from the bench - logging over 1,200 minutes before a foot injury shelved him for an extended amount of time. First and second year players make up nearly 40% of Miami’s total scoring.
Earlier this season, from November through January, Nunn was named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month three straight times. The former Oakland guard became the first undrafted player in NBA history to earn this honor on more than one occasion. He is the second Heat rookie to earn Rookie of the Month multiple, joining Caron Butler who earned four nods.
ESPN polled 70 voters on NBA rookie of year and Ja Morant got all 70 first-place votes. Zion W. finished 2nd, and Kendrick Nunn third, with 14 second-place vote and 35 third-place votes. Herro got 1 third place vote.— Barry Jackson (@flasportsbuzz) March 24, 2020
Among rookies, Herro is tied for the most three-pointers made and eighth in points and free throw percentage, while ranking 13th in assists. He has also poured in more than a few big-time, late-game flurries that have carried Miami to much-needed wins.
It all starts with the pairs’ phenomenal work ethic. Of Herro, Kentucky head coach John Calipari told the Sun-Sentinel “I used to bust him down a little bit in practice, and he’d look at me like, ‘There’s nothing you can do too hard – give me more.” He went on to say, “I’d say we’re doing extra work for March. He’d say, ‘Do more.’ He was in there every night. He was obsessed with being in a gym.”
Coach Cal told Herro, “That’s why I said, ‘Miami’s perfect for you. You’re into basketball. That culture is perfect for you.’ And look how good it is.” And what a fit he’s been. The 20-year-old is posting 12 points per game and shooting 39% from three-point range.
Of his success with the Heat, Nunn told Forbes “You come in every day with a mindset and a work ethic to get better,” Nunn said. “And you stay on that program and if you do it for a number of days, eventually you’re gonna get better. So that’s what I did, locked in every day and put in the work.” Nunn’s grind has translated into 15 points and 3 assists per contest.
Round out the young core with Bam Adebayo, who was voted to his first All-Star game this past February and Miami is loaded with budding talent weighing light on the organization’s pocket book. After shipping out high-priced contracts like Dion Waiters, James Johnson and Justise Winslow, future implications of financial flexibility loom large with Pat Riley and company certainly plotting.
Prior to the NBA season being halted by the spread of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus, Miami sat comfortably in the East’s fourth seed — victors in five or their last seven games. Because of the strong contributions from players with minimal impact on the salary cap, Miami could be in prime position to pouch an MVP-caliber players like Giannis Antetokounmpo in off-seasons to come. A pairing of Giannis and Jimmy Butler along with youngsters like Nunn, Herro, Adebayo and Robinson could spell championship bliss in Miami.