Best available Kentucky Wildcat for Heat? Spoelstra respects NBA draft bluegrass bent

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Kentucky's Tyrese Maxey reacts in the second half against the Michigan State at Madison Square Garden in New York on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019. - Emilee Chinn/Getty Images North America/TNS

MIAMI — Apparently, the Miami Heat’s scouting for this year’s NBA draft will come down to freshman guard Tyrese Maxey, sophomore guard Immanuel Quickley or junior center Nick Richards, with an outside chance of sophomore guard Ashton Hagans.

At least that will be the case if the approach remains to select the best available Kentucky Wildcat.

“We love what Cal does,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said of Kentucky coach John Calipari during a recent appearance on SiriusXM NBA Radio.

It shows in the draft room at AmericanAirlines Arena, with Kentucky center Bam Adebayo the Heat selection at No. 14 in 2017 and Wildcats guard Tyler Herro at No. 13 last June.

In fact, dating to when a former Kentucky forward by the name of Pat Riley took charge of the franchise in 1995, the bluegrass bent has been significant.

Among the Kentucky Wildcats to have played for the Heat under Riley’s stewardship have been Rex Chapman, one of the first players to suit up after Riley took over as Heat coach in 1995; forward Jamal Mashburn, who was part of a 1997 trade that was one of Riley’s biggest in-season moves; guard Derek Anderson and forward Antoine Walker, components on the Riley-coached 2006 Heat championship team; center Jamaal Magloire, a member of the Heat’s 2011 NBA Finals roster; as well as Gerald Fitch, Josh Harrellson and DeAndre Liggins.

“We have to,” Spoelstra joked, “because I think, our general, our boss, we got to have some Kentucky blood coming through this program every few years, starting with Rex Chapman, way back in the day.”

The Heat’s Kentucky connection now extends to Spoelstra.

“I’ve been up there a few times, just to see how he does his program,” he said of Calipari. “We like talking shop and everything. But he’s going to coach you hard. They’re going to spend a lot of time with player development.

“They’re not going to treat you with kid gloves because of whatever you were ranked in high school.”

The discussion started with a question from Heat television host Jason Jackson about this breakout season by Adebayo, who is in the running for NBA Most Improved Player and possibly even a spot on an NBA All-Defensive team.

That led to Spoelstra to opening up about a Kentucky program that last year produced three first-round picks (including Herro), produced three in 2017 (including Adebayo) and is projected to possibly do the same this year, with the Heat currently situated at No. 23.

More so, it had Spoelstra discussing how it had Adebayo arriving from a good place.

“I loved the fact that he played a role at Kentucky,” Spoelstra said. “I mentioned that when I first met with him. He said he was capable of more, but he loved being in that program, loved being developed by that coaching staff of Cal, Kenny Payne. But he had no problem playing that role.

“As he’s telling me that, I’m like thinking, ‘Well, sure, Bam.’ I mean a lot of young players think they can always do more. I like that fact that he was just willing to play defense, to rebound, to set screens and do that kind of thing and be OK with that.”

From there, particularly this season, the skill set blossomed.

While the current sports shutdown due to the new coronavirus pandemic eliminated the opportunity to scout Kentucky in the canceled SEC or NCAA Tournaments and could preclude open workouts prior to the draft, the Heat had scouts at Kentucky’s preseason session that was open to NBA scouts, the South Florida Sun Sentinel confirmed.

So they know.

But they already knew.

“None of those guys ever average over 25 points a game,” Spoelstra said, with Adebayo averaging 13 during his lone season in Lexington, Herro 14. “That’s just not the deal when you go to Kentucky. You’re going to have to defend. You’ve going to have to play a role. There’s going to be a ton of talent, a ton of lottery talent around you. So you’re going to have to be willing to share in the game, share in the success, and enjoy other people playing well, and not play for numbers.

“So I think for a college program, there’s no better way to develop, to get ready for the next level in this league.”

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