There aren’t a wealth of reasons to be excited about the 2014-15 Miami Heat.
The four-time defending Eastern Conference champions are 9-11 through 20 games and are perfectly mediocre on both ends of the floor. According to ESPN.com, the Heat sit No. 17 in offensive efficiency and 26th in defense.
The problems are, to an extent, predictable. Chris Bosh is struggling to adjust to the role of the offense's prime mover, while Dwyane Wade—though he’s been effective when he’s suited up—has already missed seven games with a hamstring injury.
Meanwhile, Chris Andersen is cratering, Josh McRoberts has made zero impact and Erik Spoelstra hasn’t managed to coax every bit of potential production from what’s still a reasonably talented roster.
There is a bright spot, however. His name is James Ennis.
Ennis, in the first quarter-season of his NBA career, has been wonderful for Miami. While his counting stats don’t look like much—Ennis is averaging 3.7 points and 2.3 rebounds in 14 minutes a night—they obscure his actual significant value.
The 6’7” small forward has proved to be a very efficient player.
Per 48 minutes, according to BoxScore Geeks, Ennis is a plus-rebounder and an efficient scorer—his true shooting percentage of 55.5 is 2.5 percentage points above his positional average—who blocks shots at twice the rate of the average 3 and flat-out never turns the ball over.
Basketball-Reference.com, while a little more bearish on Ennis’ 2014-15, has him producing .113 win shares per 48 minutes, still 13 percent above the league-average rate.
What’s most surprising about the 24-year-old’s hot start though is that we probably could have seen it coming. In relative anonymity in the past several years, Ennis has put together a persuasive resume.
His journey has been long and strange. He played his freshman season at Oxnard College and his sophomore year at Ventura College before transferring to Long Beach State for his junior and senior seasons. In his final campaign, Ennis averaged 16.5 points and 6.7 rebounds, led his team to the Big West championship, won Big West Player of the Year and became an honorable mention All-American in the bargain.
That is when things got even weirder. Ennis was selected in the second round of the 2013 NBA draft by the Atlanta Hawks before he was traded to the Heat for a future second-round pick. Miami was capped out and wanted to put the forward in the D-League, where he would have played for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, but he would have earned just a $25,000 salary if he made the move.
This was a problem for Ennis. Per an interview with Fox Sports' Chris Tomasson, his family needed his financial support—he has five brothers and sisters and a mother who he said is disabled—so he signed in Australia to play with the Perth Wildcats of the NBL for what his agent told Tomasson was a “six-figure” contract.
"I basically put my family first,” Ennis told Tomasson at the time. “My family is struggling (financially), and I want to help support them. So that's why I'm going (to Australia)."
It was a move he surely doesn’t regret.
Ennis was tremendous overseas. In 33 games, he averaged 21.2 points on 46.8 percent shooting, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists. At season’s end, he was named All-NBL and finished third in MVP voting.
The momentum carried over. After a 12-game stay in a professional league in Puerto Rico, Ennis joined Miami’s summer league team. He was great in the summer league, great in the preseason and then, in his NBA debut, he did this:
Heat fans should get used to rooting for No. 32. Ennis isn’t and won’t ever be a superstar-level player, but he might just be the next-best thing: a cheap, productive young piece.
Miami has Ennis under contract though 2016-17 at salaries of $507,336, $845,059 and $980,431, according to HoopsHype.com. At his current level of production that’s a great deal. And if Ennis continues to improve, it looks even better.
A caveat: It's hard to say just how much improvement Ennis has ahead of him. While he's an interesting player with great leaping ability (all dissenters can review the above video evidence), he's also already 24 years old, an advanced age for a rookie. Anthony Davis, for point of reference, was 14 when Ennis was old enough to join the military.
And he's still raw. Ennis' value comes almost entirely from his physical gifts. At this point he's a much better athlete than he is a basketball player. He needs to be coached. And, seven months shy of his 25th birthday, it's not clear how much room he has to grow.
But, at his level of production, he doesn't need to grow much to be worth a roster spot in Miami. His ability and pay grade make him a perfect fit on a team that prioritizes the pursuit of superstar players.
Miami is widely believed to be keeping its books clean so it can make a splash in the stacked free-agent class of 2016. Ennis, suffice it to say, does not draw a salary that will interrupt that pursuit.