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

‘I feel a sense of comfortability here’: A look into Caleb Martin’s development and why he belongs with Miami beyond this season

Martin’s role in the team has been invaluable this season.

Miami Heat forward Caleb Martin is the franchise’s newest two-way discovery, both literally and contractually.

Contractually, the Heat signed Martin to a two-way contract in early September, weeks after the Charlotte Hornets waived Martin to clear the books for newly-signed forward Kelly Oubre. The transaction separated Martin from his twin brother, Cody, for the first time in a long time (maybe ever?).

It’s fair to assume that the Martin Twins were teammates for, at least, most of their life as basketball players. They both played two seasons at NC State. They both transferred to Nevada and were key cogs for two NCAA Tournament teams under then-Nevada head coach Eric Musselman before both declaring for the 2019 NBA Draft after their senior seasons. Though Cody Martin was selected No. 36 overall to the Hornets, Caleb Martin inked a two-way deal with Charlotte that summer which turned into a multi-year contract nearly three months later.

Charlotte Hornets v Miami Heat
Cody Martin (left) of the Charlotte Hornets and Caleb Martin (right) of the Miami Heat exchange jerseys after a game on October 29, 2021 at The FTX Arena.
Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Now, however, the Martin twins — born a minute apart — have both underwent versions of NBA success away from each other as third-year players. Cody Martin is averaging 8.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.4 steals per game while leading the NBA in 3-point percentage at 47.4 percent (min. 75 attempts).

Miami’s acquisition of Caleb Martin — occurring in the same offseason as the new additions of six-time All-Star Kyle Lowry, reigning NBA champion P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris plus the re-signing of sharpshooter Duncan Robinson — has quickly shifted into one of its more important offseason moves.

Typically, that declaration for a player on a two-way contract might be a bit much. No, wait, that’s actually more than “a bit much”; it’s considered foolish. If you made that claim about any other NBA team, you’d get laughed at on the spot. Also, success for said team is likely far and few inbetween, so it might not matter or mean that much anyways.

Nevertheless, this is the exception, not the rule.

The Heat are fourth in the Eastern Conference at 24-15, three games back of first (Chicago Bulls: 25-10) and 1.5 games back of second (Brooklyn Nets: 24-12). Throughout the season, Miami’s been ravaged by injuries and COVID-19 absences (who hasn’t, honestly?).

Bam Adebayo has missed the team’s last 18 games (21 total) due to a torn UCL in his right thumb; Jimmy Butler has missed 16 games due to tailbone and ankle injuries; Markieff Morris has missed the last 30 games due to a neck/whiplash injury stemming from the Nikola Jokic incident; Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent are missing or have missed time due to COVID-19.

In steps Martin, who, too, has missed time because of COVID.

But he, much like his peers, has still found way to string together success despite the slew of swarming chaos bombarding the league on a minute-by-minute basis. He’s averaging 8.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, 0.9 steals and 0.6 blocks across 22.4 minutes in 29 games this season. He’s shooting 50.5 percent from the floor, 36.4 percent from 3-point range (2.7 attempts) and 66.7 percent from the free-throw line.

His counting stats might not be all that appeasing to the general eye, but his on-court impact translates way beyond that.

Per Cleaning the Glass, Miami sports a plus-7.3 NET rating with Martin on the court and are plus-4.6 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor versus when he’s not. He also boasts the team’s third-highest WAR (wins above replacement) at 2.1, per Five Thirty Eight’s WAR metric, despite playing the third-fewest minutes of the 10 players listed (min. 500 minutes).

While he may not be the third-most important player on the team, that’s a testament to the overall impact he’s displayed for one of the East’s top teams — who’s missed two of their three main stalwarts for a sizeable chunk — this season.

Remember, Miami nabbed him on a two-way contract.

Amid the injuries and absences of players going in-and-out of the seemingly never-ending COVID-protocol revolving door, Martin was recently inserted into the Heat starting lineup. In his last five starts, He’s averaged 12.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. Over that span, he’s shooting 52.0 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent from 3-point range.

“I’m so honored to be a part of one of those guys that [the Heat] find that is kind of under-the-radar,” Martin said December. “They allow them to come here and allow them to be themselves, develop them, become good players and do things that they need to do.”

As Hot Hot Hoops’ own Matt Pineda illuminated a few weeks ago — Martin has a case for not just the best player on a two-way contract this season, but maybe ever.

Among 40 such players who have played at least 10 games this season, Martin leads the group in points, assists, blocks and field goals per game, while ranking second in 3-point makes per game and third in assists and steals. Those could be attributed to having the most opportunity, however, but it’s still well-deserved opportunity nonetheless.

Over a full season, no two-way player has posted a 8 point-4 rebound-1 steal stat line like Martin. But two-way contracts — first instituted in 2017-18 season — previously limited players to a maximum of 45 days with the team, so any full season statistical measuring stick was literally impossible.

It wasn’t until the start of last season where the NBA said two-way players could be eligible for a maximum of 50 of the team’s 82 games regular season games. That changed again in December — since practically every team has been torpedoed with a bevy of COVID-19 absences — the league scrapped that 50-game threshold for the remainder of the season, rewarding Miami or any other team the flexibility to play its two-way players as often as one pleases.

Regardless, Martin’s deserves a second contract with the Heat after this season.

His never-ending motor, sheer athleticism, astute understanding of the game and, simply, his on-court production fits perfectly with the #HEATCulture™ mantra that Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra and president Pat Riley have spent years refining and instituting throughout their respective careers with the organization.

Here is what Spoelstra told the media ahead of its game on Nov. 24, per the Miami Herald’s Anthony Chiang.

“It’s the speed, quickness, the efforts. It becomes contagious,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Martin. “He’s that kind of player that inspires more energy out of the unit that he’s in and that’s unique. We were fans of his before we signed him and we felt very fortunate that we were able to get him in September. He’s just continuing to work and do everything that he needs to do to be ready for his opportunities.”

Martin’s already seen considerable growth with the organization — for reasons I’ll delve into below — after nearly four months in a Heat uniform. And while it might be (a bit) pre-mature, his time in South Beach shouldn’t conclude at season’s end.

Now let’s dive into the “why”:

Transformation from a scorer to a stopper

Since he’s been in South Beach, Martin’s defense — on- and off-the-ball — has stuck out the most.

He and Heat guard Gabe Vincent spearhead the top of the Heat’s 2-3 zone. Both also lead the point-of-attack at the top of Spoelstra’s 2-2-1 full-court press, using their length, quickness and physicality to pressure ballhanders and slow the pace before the offense even performs its subsequent actions in the half-court.

Even when Miami isn’t in a zone, Martin will still press — oftentimes against one of the team’s top ball-handlers or shot creators. It’s a responsibility he’s welcomed and, at times, shined in. As a hyper-active defensive presence, Martin generates deflections and disrupts passing lanes — occasionally thwarting possessions before they even begin.

Martin will also utilizes his high motor, bouncy athleticism and pristine timing to swat jump shots or anything around the rim.

All that said, believe it or not — his defensive acumen hasn’t always been recognized.

Under Musselman, a former NBA head coach with the Golden State Warriors (2002-04) and Sacramento Kings (2006-07), at Nevada, Martin’s game centered on his multi-level scoring.

Musselman, a highly-regarded innovative offensive mind known for getting the absolute most out of his players, helped evolve Martin into Wolf Pack’s most dynamic shot-maker. Regardless of where he was on the floor, how much time was left on the shot clock or how many defenders surrounded him at any immediate moment, if the Wolf Pack needed a bucket, Martin was the primary player relied upon.

He combined to average 19.1 points on 43.1 percent shooting — including 36.6 percent from 3-point range — earning the Mountain West Player of the Year award in 2017-18. He helped lead Nevada to two straight NCAA Tournament berths, one of which featured a Sweet 16 trip (against Loyola Chicago) in 2017-18.

“Before I even got to the league, I was a scorer,” Martin said. “First and foremost, that’s what I did. That was my job coming out of college. I was always an offensive threat before I became a defensive threat.”

Make no mistake — Martin was still a good defender at Nevada, though it was never at the level of Cody, the conference’s defensive player of the year in 2017-18. It also wasn’t at the level required to be a consistent high-caliber NBA defender — at least at the time — per pundits.

He, in fact, took bits and pieces from his twin brother — as well as from other NBA players — to help fashion the dynamic, versatile defensive force he’s been with Miami.

“I really worked on my defense and stole a lot of stuff from my brother (Cody) and just stole a lot of stuff from guys in the NBA just (from) talking and just trying to steal stuff to become a better defender,” he said.

“That’s why it’s crazy whenever guys say that about defending because I’m like, ‘Dang, that wasn’t even my primary (job),’” Martin added. “One of my biggest knocks coming out of college was not being able to defend. And that’s all I heard coming through the process. Obviously, the mechanics on my shot (was one) but another big one was being able to defend. I was offense; Cody was defense. It’s nice to see it going full circle and see that people can recognize that I can defend.”

Since entering the Association, Martin’s improved his defense significantly (while also quieting his very-exaggerated leg kick and hitch in his shooting stroke that he had at Nevada). He’s transitioned into one of Miami’s more versatile and instinctual defenders — showing capability guarding smaller, shiftier guards on the perimeter and against bulkier wings. Martin’s also became one of Miami’s smartest positional defenders, too.

Though he’s accrued the fewest possessions defensively in isolation (10), Martin ranks in the 95.6 percentile — trailing only Dedmon — surrendering just 0.4 points per possession and holding opponents to 1-of-9 shooting in such instances. Against pick-and-roll ballhandlers, he ranks in the 81.7 percentile, giving up just 0.69 points per possession (in 84 possessions).

According to Five Thirty Eight’s defensive RAPTOR metric, the 6-foot-5 forward improves the defense by 3.4 points per 100 possession when he’s on the court, tied with Adebayo for the team’s top spot.

Per the same metric, he improves the defense by 2.6 points more than Butler — a five-time All-Defensive second-team honoree — despite playing 126 fewer minutes; he’s 1.5 points above Kyle Lowry (in 549 less minutes) and 2.7 points above Tucker (in 290 less minutes) — Tucker and Lowry being of Miami’s fiercest bulldog defenders.

Yes, you read that correctly.

Stats through Jan. 6.
Five Thirty Eight

Plus, Martin’s also taken the likes of defending Stephen Curry, the greatest shooter ever, plus Khris Middleton, Bradley Beal and Kevin Porter Jr., among quality talent. He’s held the aforementioned quartet to a combined 3-of-23 shooting (small sample size galore, I know) as the primary defender. While those numbers could be deceiving and not tell the true story, his defense hasn’t always been perfect, but he’s rightfully held his own most of the time against a few of the league’s more prominant creators.

While advanced defensive metrics are more difficult to take at face value compared to others, my point is that Martin’s metrics illustrate he’s a much better defender than many ever to perceived him to be out of Nevada. And I believe it’s been better with the Heat than most thought, too. The 26-year-old’s high-energy defense has helped stem the gap that might’ve been left by the absences of Adebayo, Butler and Tucker, among others.

“I like to use my energy,” Martin said. “I don’t like to be selfish with my energy. I like to try to spread it and let it radiate and let guys feel how hard I’m playing.”

Revitalized Confidence

Though Martin was a pretty efficient shooter at the collegiate level (55.5 career TS%), his shot has waxed and waned throughout the start of his NBA career.

In his first season, he shot 44.0 percent, but sank 20 of his 37 3-point attempts (54.1 percent) and 17 of his 21 free-throw attempts (81.0 percent). Conversely, in a larger sophomore sample, Martin shot just 37.5 percent from the floor, including 24.8 percent from distance (125 attempts) and 64.1 percent from the free-throw line.

Martin, who shot 52.5 percent on catch-and-shoot opportunities and a combined 42.6 percent on open or wide-open looks (closest defender 4+ feet away) as a rookie, per Synergy, saw those percentages dip to 38.6 and 32.7 percent, respectively, in year two. His true-shooting percentage also dipped 13 percentage points (59.5 to 46.5 percent) over his first two seasons.

“I didn’t play with a lot of confidence last year,” Martin said earlier this season. “A lot of that was on me and just in my own head.”

Martin’s shooting didn’t immediately take off at the start of 2021-22, either, knocking down just 43.8 percent of his attempts — and 20.0 percent from 3-point range — with a below-average 48.8 true-shooting percentage through his first 11 games. He averaged just 14.4 minutes over that stretch.

More familiarity in Spoelstra’s complex system paired with increased usage and opportunity evidently generated better results.

Due to a myriad of injuries and COVID absences, he’s seen 26.8 minutes per game in his last 18 games since, including seven starts. And he hasn’t disappointed. Over that span, he’s tallied 11.3 points on 52.7 percent shooting, including 42.1 percent from distance and 72.7 percent from the charity stripe (62.8 TS%).

Washington Wizards v Miami Heat
Caleb Martin #16 shoots over Davis Bertans of the Washington Wizards during the second half at FTX Arena.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Martin’s most notable performance came in a Dec. 8 nationally-televised bout against the Milwaukee Bucks, helping lead the Heat to a 113-104 victory without Adebayo and Butler. He tallied a game-high 28 points on 9-of-12 shooting with six 3-pointers — all career highs.

Since he’s joined Miami, Spoelstra — as well as his teammates and other members of the coaching staff — have re-infused his confidence, a requisite trait in order for him to be successful.

“I feel a sense of comfortability here and confidence from my coaching staff, my peers and my teammates,” he said after his 28-point outing. “The fact that they’re telling me to shoot the ball, wanting me to shoot the ball, wanting me to be great, wanting me to be a good shooter and they recognize that I can be a consistent shooter — that’s what I’m going to be continuing to work towards. I put a lot of work in. I shoot as much as anyone over the summer, so I feel like I’m just as deserving to get them up as anyone else. When the opportunity comes, it feels good that guys want me to take those opportunities.”

His confidence and quick-er decision-making in rhythm has allowed him to shoot (pun intented) up to 35.9 percent on catch-and-shoot looks and 42.9 percent on open or wide-open shots this season. Over his last 18 games, those figures boost to 40.0 and 47.4 percent, respectively, per Synergy.

“[Making quick decisions] makes the game easier, honestly,” Martin said. “The more I hesitate, the harder the game is. It’s harder to figure it out on the fly because guys are so athletic and so smart. You’ve got to figure it out pretty quick so that’s why I feel like the game is slowing down for me because I’m starting to read that better and make quicker decisions.”

Sprinkling on the finishing touch!

Martin initially struggled finishing at the rim entering the league, a common theme amongst young players at his size. He was able to use his long strides in getting to the rim, but finishing through bigger, more athletic defenders was a difficult — yet beneficial — long-term challenge he encountered.

With more reps, he continually got better throughout his rookie season — translating into incremental improvement throughout his first three seasons. Martin, shooting just 40 percent (2nd percentile amongst other forwards) at the rim as a rookie, improved to 54.2 percent (20th percentile) last season to a remarkably efficient 71.6 percent (85th percentile) in 2021-22, per Cleaning the Glass.

Martin’s been one of Miami’s premier lob threats, too.

He’s been one of the Heat’s most efficient slashers as well. He’s scored 67 points on 87 drives — equating to a team-best 77 percent scoring rate on drives — this season (min. 50 drives), per Second Spectrum.

Oh, and he’s not afraid to throw it down, either. Watch you’re head!

Just by looking at the tape above, Martin possesses an elite first step with the ability to generate clean looks at the rim concluded by a combination of soft scoops, right-handed lay-ins and thunderous slams.

If he’s able to continue improving his bag of tricks at the rim, thus leveraging his drive, it will further open up his budding shot — like it did against Milwaukee — as well as open up additional creases for his teammates to operate in.

“A lot of good stuff happens when I snap and make decisions and get downhill,” he said. “Whether it’s get to the line, get to the basket or make plays for other guys.”

Whether it’s in the upcoming offseason or in the middle of this season, the Heat could hypothetically convert Martin’s two-way contract into a one- or two-year minimum salary deal — the most common “next contract” for two-way players.

They could also act similarly to what the Houston Rockets did with Garrison Mathews or what the Memphis Grizzlies did with Killian Tillie recently: Negotiate a multi-year contract with said player.

Mathews inked a four-year, $8 million deal with the Rockets with only his first year guaranteed; Tillie signed a two-year, $4 million extension earlier this week. Both of those aforementioned deals have similar average annual dollar figures to minimum salaries, so the cap hit is all but large.

I presume Martin’s upcoming salary figure — especially if he sustains this level of impact — would be higher than both Mathews and Tillie. But what would that contract ultimately look like? I’m not sure.

Assuming they choose to re-sign him after the season, would Miami do the former and give him a minimum deal — similarly to what Miami did with Vincent or Max Strus? Or would it do the latter in negotiate a multi-year contract with a larger salary figure? Would it be willing to eat into its non-taxpayer mid-level exception (~10.0M in 22-23) or bi-annual exception (~$3.9M in 22-23) to potentially risk it being hard-capped once again? To any and all of those questions: Again, I’m not sure. Cater those questions to former front office executives Bobby Marks and John Hollinger, cap-guru Albert Nahmad or anyone that’s not me.

But I do believe Martin’s deserves another contract with Miami. Riley, the godfather himself, and Heat general manager Andy Elisburg are two of the best in the NBA in configuring the cap and making deals work. So I would trust them — if re-upping Martin was in their best interest.

Here’s what Martin told the Sun-Sentinel’s Ira Winderman in November about being converted to a standard contract.

“Obviously that standard contract is what anybody who comes in on this situation works toward. So, obviously, if that was the case, I’d be more than grateful and it would allow me to not only focus on my position here or not, because I just want to play, but it certainly would make things a lot easier. But, yeah, that would be great if that happened.”

I know. It might be too early to make any sort of conclusions on who should, or shouldn’t be on the roster in 2022-23 and beyond.

But there’s recent precedent to suggest otherwise.

Miami developmental track record — specifically of undrafted players — isn’t one to balk at. The results churned from their two-ways have forced them to convert contracts on multiple occassions.

Strus and Vincent (who I wrote about more here) both converted to two-year minimum contracts this past offseason after impressive — and needed — two-way stints a year ago. Prior to the 2019-20 season, the Heat converted sharpshooter Duncan Robinson from a two-way into a multi-year standard deal that he eventually leveraged into a (well-deserved) five-year, $90 million extension after he set the nets on fire as one of the best shooters on the planet over the last two seasons.

If carried into the offseason, Martin’s situation — unless his dollar amount becomes drastic that it’s out of Miami’s price range — shouldn’t be handled any different. If it plans to act before the regular season’s end, it’s best to act towards the end of the season so the prorated dollar figure doesn’t push Miami into the luxury tax.

He’s on track to produce more than the aforementioned three players during their respective two-way stints, by necessity. That doesn’t mean he’ll end up as a better player, but it amounts to something. At the very least, in my view, Martin’s constant motor, defensive versatility and promising offensive development should warrant consideration from the Heat brain trust to re-up come next July.

“Caleb is just a great competitor,” Spoelstra said. “As a head coach, I really enjoy watching him work every day, watching his approach to this and watching him compete. The guys love playing with him. He inspires everybody with his crazy efforts and his competitiveness.

“He’s our kind of guy.”

What do y’all think? Comment below!

If you want to see more of Matt’s Heat takes and more incessant sports-centric tweets, follow him on Twitter @mph_824_.

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