The Miami Heat’s Strong Player Development Program — Not Stars — Behind Stellar Start

That the Miami Heat are near the top of the Eastern Conference is a surprise to no one considering their elite veteran talent, high-level coaching, and long history of success.

The fact that the Heat are where they are by riding the play of guys named Max Strus, Kyle Guy, Caleb Martin, Gabe Vincent, and Omer Yurtseven — instead of veteran stars Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry and Bam Adebayo — is most definitely a surprise. It speaks volumes about the value of Pat Riley’s organizational leadership, Erik Spoelstra’s high-level coaching abilities, and undoubtedly the NBA’s best player development program.

The Heat are third in the Eastern Conference at 25-15 even though star guard Jimmy Butler has missed 17 games, center Bam Adebayo hasn’t played since Nov. 29, and COVID has repeatedly ravaged the roster. To compensate for those losses, the Heat have used 19 players — many of them you couldn’t pick out of a lineup even if they were wearing their Miami jerseys.

Despite their personnel losses, the Miami Heat have somehow stayed at the top of the East

Look no further than recent games in Portland and Phoenix for two examples of how the Miami Heat have overcome the losses of their stars and how they have ridden their lesser-known players.

Against the Blazers, the Heat didn’t have Butler (sprained right ankle), veteran point guard Kyle Lowry got ejected in the first half and they had just nine available players. Strus, who has played just 70 career games over the last three seasons, proceeded to hit seven 3-pointers and score 25 points as Miami rolled to a 115-109 win.

On Saturday, the Heat were seemingly set up for a disaster while facing the red-hot Suns with eight players inactive and just 11 available. Sure enough, it was a blowout — only it was a Miami team with Strus, Martin, and Yurtseven in the starting lineup doing the pummeling. That 123-100 rout happened when the Heat tied a franchise record with 22 3-pointers — the third time they have done that in a month — and Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson combined to score 60 points off the bench.

“I think we all, whether or not we acknowledge it or talk about it every day, have that subconscious chip on our shoulder,” said Robinson — one of several undrafted players on the Heat roster — during a recent postgame press conference in Orlando. “I think that compels us when we do get opportunities to make the most of them.”

The Heat’s vaunted player development program continues to bear fruit

The Miami Heat have been able to weather Butler’s numerous ailments, Adebayo’s thumb injury, and Markieff Morris’ prolonged absence following a run-in with Nikola Jokic with the many unheralded players on the roster.

Strus, a Division II product who never saw a shot he didn’t like, has had games with eight, seven, six (twice), and five 3-pointers, pumped in 32 against Orlando, and has four other games with at least 20 points. Yurtseven, who was undrafted out of Georgetown, gobbles up rebounds like a vacuum cleaner and had 16 boards in the defeat of Phoenix. Vincent, another undrafted player out of UC Santa Barbara, had out-of-nowhere 26- and 27-point nights in mid-December.

Haywood Highsmith, Chris Silva, and Kyle Guy, a trio of players who sound like starters in a Beer League basketball game, have come through Miami’s vaunted player-development system and made contributions. That’s the system, of course, that Dwyane Wade credited for helping him become a star in the NBA years ago.

“These guys, they’re the lifeblood of our player development program,” Spoelstra said in a news conference in Orlando last month. “Guys that haven’t been drafted who have big dreams, they’re willing to put in the work, and gradually, incrementally, they get better over time. This is not something that just happened overnight.”

With Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo back soon, the Heat should be even deeper

Even with relevant no-names in the rotation on a nightly basis, the Heat have the NBA’s sixth-best offensive efficiency and the league’s eighth-best defensive efficiency. Golden State, Milwaukee, Phoenix, and Memphis are the only other NBA teams that rank in the top 10 in offensive and defensive ratings.

The Heat’s effectiveness figures to rise even higher when Butler and Adebayo return to the rotation. Butler, who rolled his ankle on Friday, could be back as soon as Wednesday in Atlanta, while Adebayo might be back in games by the end of January.

The Heat will most likely continue riding homegrown players developed in-house until then. Spoelstra, one of the league’s best coaches at holding players to high standards, is quick to give the credit for Miami’s development program to assistant coaches Chris Quinn and Malik Allen and development coach Anthony Carter — all former Heat products of the organization’s elite development system.

“To be able to develop players, I think the magic is in the human side of it,” Spoelstra said. “Developing the relationships, breathing life into the young guys, and doing it particularly when the days are tough, means we have a really unique staff.

“(Quinn and Allen) and (Carter) have been right there where these guys have been,” Spoelstra continued. “They’ve been in our locker room, they’ve been undrafted, they’ve been overlooked, they’ve had to go through the player development program and earn the trust of the staff and the players. So, they’re incredible resources for our young guys.”

All quotes in the story were obtained firsthand.

Statistics courtesy of

RELATED: Miami Heat Guard Tyler Herro is Already Winning Over Teammates with his Tremendous Growth