'Rent Is Due Every Day to Be the Best': Meet the NBA's Unlikeliest Rookie Star

Jake Fischer@JakeLFischerContributor INovember 22, 2019

Miami Heat guard Kendrick Nunn (25) drives as Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova (18) defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019, in Miami. The Heat won 124-100. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

DENVER — "Is he still out there working?" Jimmy Butler asks. Miami's splashy offseason acquisition leans forward from his Pepsi Center courtside seat, craning his neck around a reporter to scan the entire hardwood. The Heat's morning shootaround before that evening's game against the Nuggets has long ended, yet there is Kendrick Nunn, Miami's undrafted rookie point guard, launching three-pointers with assistant coach Anthony Carter. "Yep," Butler nods, answering his own query. "That's what I'm saying. That's just what he does."

The 6'2", 190-pound Chicago native arrived in Miami on the final day of the 2018-19 regular season, when the Heat signed him from the Warriors' G League affiliate to a multiyear, non-guaranteed minimum deal. After an eye-opening preseason in which Nunn hung 40 points in Miami's tuneup finale, and a suspension sidelined Dion Waiters, Nunn learned he would start two hours before the Heat's opening game against the Grizzlies. "He's got a tremendous work ethic," head coach Erik Spoelstra says, uttering the description Miami personnel repeat on loop. "He deserves to be in this league. But you have to find the right fit, the right place." 

So far this season, that place has been Miami for Nunn, who has become a key cog in the Heat lineup, logging more than 30 minutes per game while shooting better than 48 percent from the field. All that for a team that has begun the season with 10 wins in its first 13 games.

Nunn's emergence is just the latest accomplishment for an organization that views itself as the ideal home for polishing basketball's overlooked. In the Dwyane Wade era, the Heat unearthed Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, undrafted bigs who both contributed to championships. In July, Rodney McGruder signed a $15 million deal with the Clippers after spending three seasons in South Beach, three years after going undrafted in 2013. Now Duncan Robinson, once relegated to Division III, has rounded into a critical reserve flamethrower. The Heat have also transformed Derrick Jones Jr. from a Slam Dunk Contest string bean into an optimized weapon.

"They dig deep, and they find diamonds in the rough," Haslem says. "They just do their homework." For Nunn, Miami's research expanded beyond scouts' skepticism of his jumper and playmaking. Before he starred in the G League for Santa Cruz last season, the Warriors needed the NBA's approval for Nunn to join their summer-league outfit in Las Vegas after a domestic violence case led to his dismissal from Illinois in 2016. That spring, Nunn was accused of choking a woman he was dating. He denied the allegation, although he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge after the woman accused him of pushing her to the ground and pouring water on her amid their confrontation. Authorities dropped two other battery charges.

After redshirting his senior season, Nunn resumed his college career at Oakland. Pouring in 25.9 points per game and draining 39.4 percent of his attempts from three, he reemerged as a fringe NBA prospect. The on-court prowess and off-court growth overseen by head coach Greg Kampe, was enough to convince the Warriors to prioritize Nunn as a free agent at the immediate conclusion of the 2018 draft.

He entered Golden State's training camp with a chance to earn the Warriors' final roster spot, but the big club's dearth of frontcourt players soon made it clear he wasn't needed. The Warriors suggested Nunn emulate Lou Williams, pragmatically projecting his NBA opportunity would come as a reserve. Santa Cruz slated Nunn on its bench as a microwave scorer, auditioning him for a theoretical backup role in the NBA.

Nunn and the Heat had other ideas. "We thought he would be a guy that we could develop," Spoelstra says. So Miami signed Nunn on April 10, the last day of the season, to that non-guaranteed deal—merely a $4,737 gamble (his pay for that final game) that its laboratory could yield another once-disregarded rotation piece.

The Warriors tried to prepare Kendrick Nunn for a career as a bench scorer with their G League team before the Heat signed him on the final day of last season.
The Warriors tried to prepare Kendrick Nunn for a career as a bench scorer with their G League team before the Heat signed him on the final day of last season.Noah Graham/Getty Images

He moved into a South Beach two-bedroom. Nunn's sister, Kendyl, also migrated south after completing her collegiate hoops career at St. John's. Only a year and countless youth one-on-one battles separate the siblings. "That's basically my twin," Nunn, now 24, says. He analyzed her nightly boxscores, affirming her outside stroke still proved lethal. She boasted an array of post moves and a versatility to guard multiple positions. "She can kind of do it all," Nunn says. Kendyl now plays his jack-of-all-trades roommate, assisting in daily minutiae and other tasks.

Nunn sought another familiar face to ease his transition, a fellow Chicago product also yearning to establish his basketball footing—Jahlil Okafor. The No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft was once a rival of Nunn and his onetime teammate Jabari Parker when Okafor's Whitney Young teams battled Nunn and Parker's Simeon High School for prep-basketball supremacy in Chicago. While the jerseys in the rafters at Simeon are a testament to how Nunn and Parker bested Okafor enough times to go on and capture four Illinois state titles, the trio eventually joined forces to win a gold medal at the 2012 FIBA U17 World Championships in Lithuania, quickly replacing any remnants of a high school feud.

This summer, Okafor rented a house in Miami as he prepared for a second reclamation season with the New Orleans Pelicans. It didn't take long for the two former rivals to meet up. They occasionally drilled pick-and-rolls together, and in between the big man's private training sessions and Nunn's workouts at the Heat facility, they reconvened at Okafor's home, reminiscing and playing 2K well into the night. While Okafor finished chiseling his body and increasing his foot speed, Nunn became further indoctrinated in Miami's program. "I was locked in training," Okafor says. "He was on a mission. We clicked."

As the Nuggets dance team rehearses one final routine before the evening's performance, Nunn and Carter are back collaborating on the floor. The rookie bolts off Miami's first bus to the arena each game night, racing to hoist jumpers before the pregame chaos fully ensues. "Nobody's out there," he shrugs. "I can get my work done when no one's on the court." Carter and Nunn simulate a series of three-pointers out of dribble-handoffs, where he either flares along the wing toward the corner or scurries back toward the top of the key. His shots flick softly off his left hand, arcing higher than most trajectories toward the rim. He wades into the paint and catches short touch passes from Carter before Eurostepping around the coach into variations of hook shots and floaters and other crafty finishes he'll need to score against the world's elite rim protectors.

Studying Steph Curry and Kevin Durant when he was in camp with the Warriors taught Nunn the NBA virtue of routine. They designed each repetition, he noticed, to keep the pair of MVPs locked into their respective rhythms. "In this game, how competitive it is," Nunn says. "Rent is due every day to be the best."

Nunn was told he would be in the Heat starting lineup hours before their first game this season, and he has remained there ever since.
Nunn was told he would be in the Heat starting lineup hours before their first game this season, and he has remained there ever since.Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

When he returns to the locker room, Nunn slinks into his stall, tucking his arms into a sleeveless hoodie, his eyes seeming to wish his entire frame could retreat inside the sweatshirt. He is a man of few words. His conversational voice hardly rises louder than a mutter. When he was with the Warriors, staffers quickly realized he was not one to open up over lunch. "I observe and I listen before I talk," Nunn says. "That's just how I am." Miami veterans have appreciated his approach. Far too many youngsters bark louder than their bite. "He's paying attention," Butler explains. "He's in the film room, and he wants to learn. A lot of guys just want to come out here and hoop."

As Nunn locks his eyes on the rolling Nuggets film projected on a giant screen in the center of the visitors' locker room, Haslem expounds on his next of undrafted kin a few seats down. "He's a very humble kid. He's quiet and not believing the hype," Haslem says. The veteran stops, surveying the room in search of Nunn. While he's not entirely burrowed into his hoodie, Nunn manages to walk directly past Haslem without notice. "That's him," Haslem smiles. "We gotta be able to get him to be a little more vocal."

Nunn has long let his skills speak for him. He is cut from the Chicago cloth now deeply intertwined in the fabric of the NBA. On the park district playground courts, Nunn found that age matters no more than your game. "I played with men in the streets early," Nunn says. "I was one of the better players there. I just always loved to compete in the backyard."

The Heat's development program might as well serve as the league's concrete slab. Years of competing for titles restricted Miami to selecting in the back of the first round—when the Heat hadn't shipped picks to acquire and then supplement their Big Three—forcing the front office to mine the depths of basketball talent bins to replenish Spoelstra's bench. "We believe in it. It's a pretty big lifeblood of our program," Spoelstra says. "We love helping players achieve their dream."

Nunn often lingers near Jones Jr. and another undrafted find, two-way player Chris Silva, having teamed with the duo in this past July's summer league. They're essentially members of the same pledge class in the Heat's non-drafted fraternity. They've even choreographed handshakes. After Silva and Nunn clasp hands and dance, Nunn turns to Jones Jr. They slap hands twice and wiggle their fingers upward. "We built a close bond," Nunn says. "We've been together longer than everybody else on the team."

Jimmy Butler has come to quickly appreciate the work Nunn has put in while with the Heat this season.
Jimmy Butler has come to quickly appreciate the work Nunn has put in while with the Heat this season.Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Now they must pave a path of consistency. That trio has logged arduous developmental minutes with Heat staffers dating back to the spring. The rookie wall lurks somewhere in Nunn's future—as he was capped at 49 games in the G League last season—despite notching 17.3 points per contest with Miami. A nasty hesitation dribble has frozen countless defenders. He has finished efficiently among the giants stalking the paint. Nunn could stand to improve his pick-and-roll defense, where he sometimes is prone to dying on opposing brutes' ball screens. Yet, he's entrenched his spot alongside Miami's alpha. Butler has succeeded as Miami's cornerstone, and he'd prefer the team's point guard remain in his starting backcourt. "He's definitely going to be in the league for a long time—don't get me wrong," Butler says. "But I hope he's a part of this organization for an even longer time."


Jake Fischer covered the NBA for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter @JakeLFischer.

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