From 15th man to Rookie of the Year?
While it sounds CRAZY undrafted Miami Heat wing Rodney McGruder could take home the honor awarded to the NBA’s finest first-year player, it’s not quite as farfetched as one would think.
I’m not here to tell you McGruder will be the best player five years from now from what’s been a slow-starting rookie class, but he’s certainly been among the most impactful this season. It just requires looking way beyond the box score.
The traditional stats don’t put him anywhere near the discussion, with McGruder averaging 6.4 points and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 41 percent from the field and 35 percent from three. He is, however, second among rookies in minutes (26.0) and is among the few playing a meaningful role on a playoff-caliber roster.
McGruder is carving out a nice niche of late as a dependable 3-and-D wing on a team that ranks seventh in Net Rating since New Year’s Day.
Some advanced metrics are quite fond of the undrafted guard from Kansas State, though the often obscure on/off numbers don’t work in his favor. He does rank second among rookies in WORP (Wins Over Replacement Player), while trailing only Joel Embiid, who is out indefinitely with a knee injury after logging just 31 games.
The top 10 in Wins Over Replacement Player among NBA rookies this season may surprise you… pic.twitter.com/DmhA3EZE8P
— Andy Bailey (@AndrewDBailey) February 27, 2017
McGruder’s three-point shooting has improved of late, hitting 41 percent over his last 10 games, and his defense has been potent, ranking fourth in Defensive Points Saved on the team, which holds the NBA’s No. 6 defense in terms of efficiency.
He has received glowing praise from his teammates, drawing nicknames like “scavenger” and “pit bull” after his tenacious defense on Paul George led to the Pacers superstar growing frustrated and getting ejected on Friday night.
James Johnson: "Paul George is a great player. Rodney McGruder don't care."
— Manny Navarro (@Manny_Navarro) February 26, 2017
McGruder is not that tall, long or especially athletic yet continues to be a nuisance on that end. He’s also busting tail on every possession, with 53 loose balls recovered on the season, which leads all rookies (and his team) by a whopping 10-ball margin.
So much hustle! pic.twitter.com/rSuVX17YB8
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) February 11, 2017
He also gives up just 0.70 points per possession in isolation situations, with The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks proclaiming him as “one of the best isolation defenders in the league.” Not many rookies are capable of processing the intricate layers of modern NBA offense in real time, which is why we see so many young players struggle on that end. But McGruder shows no signs of mental lapses and displays good lateral quickness, capable of at least holding his own against some of the most feared attacking wings in the league.
Playing big minutes on a team that has won 18 of 20, it’s clear McGruder is providing an impactful role on what’s become a good team, which cannot be said for many other first-year players across the league. It’s similar to what Justise Winslow was doing last year, though this year’s rookie class is inferior to last year’s.
Embiid, a former Top 5 pick, has been sensational in 31 games for the Sixers but could end up playing less than half the season if his injury woes continue. It wouldn’t feel right to have a season award go to a player appearing in less than around 50 games, right? Fellow Sixer Dario Saric is scoring the ball (11.1 PPG) but doing so at an inefficient rate (40% FG, 32% 3FG). No. 3 pick Jaylen Brown of the Boston Celtics flashes potential but is averaging just under 16 minutes.
Second-round pick Malcolm Brogdon, a guard for the Milwaukee Bucks, may be the most impressive of the bunch statistically, averaging 9.5 points and 4.2 assists on a 44-41-86 (FG-3FG-FT) shooting split. Yet the Bucks have also lost five of 10 and sit behind the thriving Heat in the Eastern Conference standings.
I think it’s safe to say the 25-year-old McGruder will never be an All-Star. He’ll never lead an NBA team in scoring. He’ll never be among its highest paid players.
However, with this year’s rookie class seriously lacking in quality production it’s time for ROY voters to at least get familiar with Rodney McGruder’s name and his scrappy game because it’s difficult to find many others across the league who have played as big of a role on what’s quickly becoming a playoff team.