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KZ Okpala had a rough start to his career. He found a role last night.

Okpala has thrived as a small-ball center this season.

Milwaukee Bucks v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

The Miami Heat traded three second-round picks for KZ Okpala on Draft night in 2019. Up until Wednesday night, Okpala was largely a Heat developmental misfire. Last year, the Moe Harkless disaster (as well as the departures of Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr.) gave Okpala opportunities. He didn’t show much when he got the chance.

Before this season, Ira Winderman of The South Florida Sun-Sentinel pondered if the Heat would have to attach a second-round pick along with Okpala in a trade to simply get rid of his contract. And for most of this year, Okpala didn’t inspire confidence.

The one exception came during the Heat’s Nov. 15 victory at the Oklahoma City Thunder, a game Miami played without Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Markieff Morris. The Stanford alum played well as a small-ball five, finishing with eight points and seven rebounds.

Last night against the Milwaukee Bucks, Okpala again thrived as the small-ball five. (As I mentioned before, Spoelstra goes to either Omer Yurtseven or Okpala. Last night, Yurtseven played a brief early stint before Spoelstra stuck with Okpala.) With eight seconds left in the first half, the third-year pro nailed a corner 3. On the other end of the floor, he stole a Khris Middleton pass intended for Giannis Antetokounmpo to close the half.

With 9:28 left in the third quarter, Okpala subbed in for Dewayne Dedmon. Erik Spoelstra never went back to Dedmon, instead using Okpala and P.J. Tucker up front. The two were effective on both ends of the floor, defending multiple positions and making timely buckets. Okpala’s biggest shot came with 3:18 left, when he drained a corner 3 at the shot-clock buzzer to put the Heat up 105-98.

To be sure, it wasn’t all great for Okpala. Midway through the fourth quarter, he caught the ball right below the basket. Instead of passing out or hitting the ball off an opponent’s body out of bounds, Okpala missed a layup when he never had the angle for it.

But 10 points, nine rebounds and two blocks is a nice stat line for him.

Markieff Morris has worked out before Miami’s last two games, signaling that he may be nearing a return. But Adebayo will remain out, and we don’t know when Jimmy Butler will return. Okpala will have opportunities to contribute. Wednesday night’s performance was a good showing.