How the Heat landed a diamond in the rough in Kendrick Nunn
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How the Heat landed a diamond in the rough in Kendrick Nunn

Kendrick Nunn has been among the biggest surprises in the NBA landscape this 2019-20 season. Nunn earned a spot in the Miami Heat’s starting lineup and has so far been thriving as part of a new nucleus in South Beach.

So, how did the Heat land an undrafted rookie with such high upside and untapped potential?

The Heat have had a long history of finding diamonds in the rough — from Bruce Bowen to Malik Allen to Tyler Johnson to Udonis Haslem, who spent his entire career next to Dwyane Wade and still finds himself employed by the team at 39 years old.

Those reasons start with the scouting department, as they are the ones tasked with identifying potential NBA players and tracking them through their venture into the league:

“There’s a story behind each one of them,” said Miami’s longtime Director of NBA Scouting, Chet Kammerer, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic. “We’ve been fortunate the last three or four years getting a guy that goes undrafted that we like. Part of it is I think we probably spend more time looking at ’61,’ as I call it, than most teams. Because most teams have two draft picks. They take a long look at guys who go in the 40s and 50s (in the second round). There’s years where we don’t have any draft picks. Since I’ve been there, we’ve always looked at finding the best undrafted players. I think that gives us a little bit of an edge. People ask me that and I think we spend a little more time combing through those guys.”

Nunn was no different. He played for the Golden State Warriors during Summer League after going undrafted out of Oakland. He was second in the nation in scoring, finishing right behind Trae Young with 25.9 points per game while winning the Horizon League Player of the Year award.

Pleading guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge in 2016 kept bigger schools at a distance, which is why he wound up at Oakland after getting kicked off the Illinois team following his plea deal.

It took one matchup between Golden State and Miami for the Heat to see his potential:

“The day we played them, he was really good,” Kammerer said. “He was better than most of us thought. We kind of talked about that, this is a kid we need to track. I give Adam (Simon, the Heat’s assistant general manager) and Andy (Elisburg, Miami’s Senior Vice President of Basketball Operations) a lot of credit for that. Rather than just bring him up, we hoped he’d be available for a late signing in April (of 2019) like most teams are doing now. We were thinking of bringing him up earlier and they were like ‘no, let’s wait a little longer and see if he’s there.’ And he was available. He was a guy who was available.”

The Heat would have to do some waiting, however, as Nunn signed an Exhibit 10 contract with Golden State before he was cut during training camp in 2018 and promptly stashed to the Santa Cruz roster of the G League.

Nunn came off the bench for Santa Cruz in a Lou Williams-like role — something that made a lot of NBA teams barely gloss over his resume, despite averaging 19 points in 29 minutes per game for the G League team, shooting 47.3% from the floor, 33.5% from deep, and a strong 85.6% from the foul line.

The young guard pushed hard for a 10-day contract, but the Warriors were already elbows-deep in the luxury tax, and signing him to a 10-day deal would result in hundreds of thousands in tax payments.

After the G League playoffs had come to an end, the Heat swooped in swiftly, offering Nunn a three-year deal shortly after waiving Rodney McGruder, who the Los Angeles Clippers picked up from waivers.

The rest will be part of NBA lore from here on.

Nunn posted 112 points in his first five games in the league, breaking the record for most points scored in that stretch by an undrafted player, surpassing Connie Hawkins’ 105. The 6-foot-2 rookie impressed even more, as his 112-point tally was the most recorded by a rookie in his first five games since Kevin Durant scored 113 in 2007.

Through seven games, the rookie gem is leading the Heat in scoring with 18.3 points per game on 45.9% shooting from the floor and 40.9% from deep, showing that rough diamonds just need the right polishing to shine the brightest.