In a lot of ways, Miami Heat forward KZ Okpala still feels like a rookie, even as he’s in year three with the team. To date, he has appeared in just 48 games for Miami, usually as a garbage-time player. Moreover, after missing out on summer league as a rookie, the COVID-19 pandemic precluded him — and many others — from getting court time during the summer of 2020 or in the G League the following year.
Consequently, there are some who expect his greatest value may come as a trade piece for the Heat. And if he’s not getting the minutes he needs to develop, they may just be right.
So far this season, it has largely been more of the same for the 22-year-old. On Monday, however, Okpala finally received his first extended playing time of the season in OKC as the team was without Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. He took advantage of the opportunity, too.
In 15 minutes on the court, Okpala scored eight points and added seven rebounds, an assist and a steal. After the contest, his coach couldn’t help but praise the performance.
Spoelstra Speaks out on Okpala’s Night
Okapala has yet to prove himself as a shooting threat at the NBA level — and his 3-of-9 (and 0-of-3 from deep) performance against the Thunder definitely didn’t do the trick. What he was able to do, though, is show the skills that have allowed him to hold down a spot on a contending roster across multiple campaigns.
And Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is definitely here for it.
“KZ’s versatility defensively really helps and that’s ahead of the other aspects of his game while he’s developing all those other aspects,” Spoelstra said, via the Miami Herald. “He was able to play to his strengths tonight and gave us a really good boost. I was really encouraged by his minutes.”
Spoelstra also noted that, while fans haven’t seen him much on the court lately, the former second-round pick has kept himself busy behind the scenes.
“He has been putting in the time,” he said. “Everybody else on the road trip has really had their opportunities and finally KZ had his opportunity and made the most of it. He was ready.”
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What Does the Future Hold for Okpala?
As it stands, Okpala is in the third and final year of the three-year, $4.2 million pact he signed in 2019. If the Heat tender him a qualifying offer this summer, he’ll become a restricted free agent. However, there is no guarantee that team president Pat Riley does so.
While his defensive energy, versatility and work ethic are strong fits in the Heat culture, he’ll need to develop some kind of offensive game to remain in the NBA long-term. Before the season, the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson wrote this of Okpala:
The Heat believes Okpala can be a rotation player if he ever develops his corner three (a big if). Okpala is just 12 for 51 (23.5 percent) on three-pointers in his career and struggled with three-point shooting during most of summer league.