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‘He was terrific’: Nikola Jovic showcased plenty of potential in first career start amid Bam Adebayo’s absence

The only question remains: Can he earn a consistent rotation spot?

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Poor rebounding, a dastardly 21-0 third-quarter outburst capped-off by heedless care for the rock were at the forefront of the Miami Heat’s 112-104 downfall to the ever-so-feisty Toronto Raptors Wednesday night, squandering away an 11-point second-half lead without two of their top players, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo.

But one of the bright sides to Wednesday’s contest was Nikola Jovic, who started in-place of Adebayo (ankle) at the five — his first career start.

The rookie entered the evening having only logged 24 combined minutes across four games — the most recent coming last Saturday against the Charlotte Hornets for a two-minute stretch. His only appearance of double-digit minutes, Jovic was confined in foul trouble, racking up five fouls in 13:43 of action on Oct. 26 against the Portland Trail Blazers in his first career regular season game.

That changed Wednesday.

With Omer Yurtseven undergoing ankle surgery — that could sideline him the entire season — Jovic, Dewayne Dedmon and Orlando Robinson, who was recently signed to a two-way deal, were their only active 5s on the roster.

Against a hyper-lengthy Raptors squad, head coach Erik Spoelstra threw the 19-year-old — who’s had to adjust to playing the 4-5 in the NBA, as opposed to a guard-wing in Europe — in the fire, and he offered plenty of promising results.

“I was encouraged by his play,” Spoelstra said on Jovic after the game. “We felt putting him with the starters would give him the best chance to compliment that group. He was terrific, particularly in that first half. He played with a lot of energy. He gave us some relief baskets. His skill level — all of those things are good.

“He’s just going to continue to get a lot better with more experience, more time, more development — all of that. But I was encouraged, stepping in and playing as well as he did on the road.”

This was an important moment for Jovic, who finished the game with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting in 24 minutes.

Not only did he showcase potential as a possible rotation player Wednesday, but he did so against quality NBA competition in #NextManUp™ fashion, so much like Kyle Guy, Yurtseven, Max Strus, Caleb Martin and Gabe Vincent had to do last December/January, among others.

He only had 15 minutes (four games) of experience next to at least three of Strus, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry or Martin beforehand — those lineups were a plus-24.2 points per 100 possessions. Though continuing to perform — and perform well — within the offense alongside key rotation players is important, as opposed to others in garbage time situations or just in the preseason. There’s a stark difference, even in lieu of Adebayo’s injury.

Jovic didn’t just run around for cardio — the 19-year-old immediately popped off the page, starting by having good pick-and-roll synergy with both Butler and Lowry. He found the open pockets of space, had good hands and did a fine job finishing around the lengthy Raptor arms in the lane.

Spoelstra even whipped out actions that tried to feature Jovic as a lob-threat (!) if the predecessing actions were ineffective.

The SLOB begins with Strus roaring off the Vincent pin-down screen, while Butler dashes to the rim (for a potential lob). Strus immediately flows into the pick-and-roll with Jovic — the inbounder. Vincent, spaced-out above-the-break instead of at the corner, is the only Heat player on that side of the floor — thus eliminating any help from Dalano Banton.

Jovic didn’t convert the Strus pass, but it was a fascinating design, I’ll say!

He had additional (on-ball) screening opportunities throughout the game — not every rep was perfect — but his angling and (some of his) point-of-contact suggested the potential to be a solid screener is *there* (once he adds muscle and gets more reps, that’ll grow).

Oh, and I’d be remiss to mention his pin-in screen he set on Thaddeus Young in the third quarter.

After the inverted Butler-Strus pick-and-roll, with Lowry moving from one corner to the other, that left VanVleet to offer extra help on the Butler drive with no other rim protection nearby. The 19-year-old shielded Young en route to the wide-open Lowry triple.

Overall, it was a good first impression in that department.

But perhaps his most impressive feat Wednesday was his connective passing.

Jovic showcased phenomenal spatial and personnel awareness; he would find open pockets of space, and if nothing was there, would immediately fire an accurate pass to keep the hyperactive Raptor defense shifting and keep the rock moving.

There is no timetable for Adebayo’s return, but if he has to miss any additional time, expect Jovic to get even more run. These reps for him — as a scorer, screener, roller, connected passer, rebounder (an area he said he needed to improve on after the game) — are important because of who they’re with, who they’re against (ahem: NBA Talent!) and it helps him further gain familiarity and iron out any kinks within his newfangled role.

“I was working hard the last month,” Jovic said after the game. “I think I was just waiting for them to call my name up. I was ready for whatever. What happened with Bam happened — I needed to step up in the starting lineup and I tried to help my team win.

“It was a tough loss, but I hope next time, I’m going to help them more.”