The Miami Heat surprised the NBA world by starting the 2019-20 season 10-3. The real shocker is the player at the center of that strong start — 24-year-old undrafted guard Kendrick Nunn.
Nunn regularly scores big. He shows no signs of needing to adjust to the brutal level of play demanded by the NBA. He has a strong case for Rookie of the Year. Better than that, he’s the closest thing to the next Dwyane Wade the league has yet seen.
Here’s how a player who missed the 2018 draft turned into the next big thing for the Heat.
How Kendrick Nunn rebounded from a criminal conviction
Kendrick Nunn didn’t hit the basketball scene out of nowhere. He led his Illinois high school basketball team to state championships all four years he played. He was so good his school retired his jersey number.
His dominance in high school gave him his pick of schools to continue polishing his game. He landed with the Illinois Fighting Illini, where his star continued to rise. That all came crashing down when he made what will hopefully remain the worst mistake of his life.
Nunn plead guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge in 2016. At that crossroads in his life, he made the right choice. He immediately expressed his embarrassment and willingness to better himself. The judge asked for a written apology, a small fine, and 100 hours of community service. Nunn got it all done, expunging the charge from his record.
The episode lost him his spot with the Illini. His future in basketball was at risk. So he did the only thing he could: grind.
Nunn’s strange journey to the Miami Heat
Nunn recovered by putting out feelers for schools willing to take him on despite the black mark on his reputation. The Oakland Golden Grizzlies took a chance on Nunn. It got them the second-highest leading scorer in the 2017-18 college basketball season.
The NBA was not quite so forgiving. Even with the years gone by, Nunn fell through the cracks. Every single NBA skipped him in the 2018 draft. The Golden State Warriors eventually doubled back and signed him to their G-League affiliate, the Santa Cruz Warriors. They barely used him, even though he dropped 32 points on the Iowa Wolves one of the few times they bothered.
The Miami Heat jumped on the opportunity and signed Nunn. They tried him out in a preseason game. Heat star Jimmy Butler stayed on the bench, while the iso ball maestro James Harden saw heavy use by the opposing Houston Rockets.
Nunn scored 40 points in a losing effort, and it finally earned him a start on an NBA roster in a regular-season game.
The move went over better than anyone except Kendrick Nunn could’ve expected. He poured in 112 points in his first five games, the first rookie to put up those numbers since Kevin Durant back in 2007.
That’s where his similarities with Durant mostly end. There’s another player that best matches Nunn’s profile.
How Kendrick Nunn mirrors a young Dwyane Wade
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra made the call on promoting Nunn off his 40-point preseason shooting clinic. But another key figure for Heat fans also took note: Dwyane Wade. The recognition from the name that defines the previous era of Miami basketball is crucial. Chances are that Wade sees a lot of himself in Kendrick Nunn.
Both players came up in Chicago. Both play shooting guard — although the current basketball metagame pushed Nunn to work as a point guard as well. Each came into the NBA with questions raised over whether the risk was worth it.
Wade reached out to have a face-to-face with Nunn. The chat focused on their shared roots and what it means to be an up-and-coming star for the Heat. It likely won’t be the last. After all, who could be a better mentor for the Heat’s next Dwyane Wade than Dwyane Wade himself?