Miami Heat‘s head coach Erik Spoelstra has thrown out six different lineups in six games, however, one young exciting player hasn’t seen extended time on the court since the team’s 144-97 blowout loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on December 29: KZ Okpala.
Okpala’s only playtime in 2021 was a whole six minutes during the Heat’s game against Oklahoma City on January 4 where the forward scored two points. The 21-year-old Stanford alum, who’s in his sophomore year with the Heat, is easily a fan favorite and his absence on the court has not gone unnoticed.
So what’s the deal? According to South Florida Sun Sentinel’s Ira Winderman, the answer is quite simple — Okpala is just not playing well. While Okpala had a breakout game during a Heat preseason tilt, Winderman pointed out that if he was performing well during practice, Spoelstra wouldn’t hesitate to get him going in the always shuffling rotation:
“Far, far, far more than is on display on game days is viewed by the coaches and front office during practices, sessions held (unfortunately in recent years) out of the view of the media and fans. It is during those sessions that evaluations are made on the most efficient ways to utilize the roster and the playbook.”
“Are you believing that KZ Okpala is showing out on the practice court at American Airlines Arena, with Erik Spoelstra (and Pat Riley) then saying, ‘Nah, we don’t want to use that skill set on game nights?’ Yes, KZ had a solid preseason game against the Raptors in Tampa,” Winderman continued.
In 34-minutes of playtime against Toronto on December 18, Okpala scored a team-high 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting along with 6-of-10 from beyond the three-point line, five boards, two assists, one steal, and one block. Spoelstra needs to see that kind of performance on a consistent basis, at least in practice, before giving him the nod.
Okpala Can Absolutely Still Step Up & Become a Huge Playmaker this Season
Slow starts can be par for the course for even the most veteran NBA players, and being just six games into the 2020-2021 season, this small sample is not necessarily indicative of how the rest of the year will go for Okpala.
“There is hope for something more at some point,” Winderman said. “But the Heat… [is] in win-now mode. So Erik Spoelstra is trying to win now. If KZ Okpala has the skill set that many believe, than it will manifest itself on the practice court to the degree to that the Heat will have no choice but to let the kid play.
“They’d want nothing more,” Winderman continued. “For now, the wheel of lineups instead stopped on Kelly Olynyk, a proven NBA commodity.”
Jimmy Butler Sees Huge Potential in Okpala
Butler appears to be particularly impressed with Okpala, who was originally picked up by the Phoenix Suns in the second round of the 2019 NBA Draft but quickly traded to the Heat. In December 2019, Okpala was assigned to the team’s G League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, where he averaged 11.7 points, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.4 steals throughout 20 game appearances.
Before the season started, Butler revealed his “favorite” part about the 6’8, 215-pound forward. “He cares more about getting a stop than getting a bucket,” Butler said. “What I see in him, is what I was when I was a young guy in the league.”
“He knows that he can compete with the best of them,” Butler continued. “Confidence is key…He’s only gonna continue to get better. He’s gonna be a very great player for us.”