While it’s still early in the season, the Miami Heat has settled into what looks like a permanent starting lineup and rotation of players coming off the bench. However, one player who’s rarely seen any minutes thus far, KZ Okpala.
Back in 2019, the Heat sent their 2022, 2024, and 2026 second-round picks to the Indiana Pacers in a three-team deal that gave them the rights to Okpala. Due to the timing of that draft trade, the 22-year-old guard wasn’t able to participate in the Heat’s summer league as an incoming rookie, and after suffering a strained left Achilles, the Stanford alum missed 19 consecutive games.
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Because of coronavirus, Heat’s summer league was cancelled in 2020, as was the franchise’s G League, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, which left Okpala minimal opportunities to refine his skills, or to take advantage of Miami’s famous developmental program.
Now, Okpala is in the final season of his three-year, $4.2 million contract, and it’s largely expected for the 6-foot-8, 215-pound guard to be traded before the season ends. Hoops Hype reporter Yossi Gozlan believes he’ll be unloaded sooner rather than later, as head coach Erik Spoelstra has looked toward Markieff Morris and Caleb Martin as permanent parts of the rotation off the bench.
“Okpala… it seems that he is no longer in the Heat’s plans,” Gozlan wrote.
Given their contender status, they will surely look to make upgrades on the margins in the trade and buyout market. Miami is just $236,443 below the luxury tax and will probably need a little more flexibility to improve the roster during the season. Offloading Okpala’s $1.8 million salary could be the move.”
Okpala has only appeared in five games thus far this season, where he’s averaged 0.6 points and 0.6 rebounds in a total of 19 minutes of play.
The young guard admitted before the season started that he needed “to be working double overtime,” to earn a spot on the rotation, however, we’ve yet to see his talent breakthrough during the 2021-22 NBA season.
Okpala Struggled Hard During Summer League Play
In August, Okpala got his first chance to participate in the Heat’s summer league. During the first four games, he scored a total of just 25 points, shooting a paltry 23.5% both from the field and beyond the line.
Okpala’s best performance came during the final game of the Heat’s summer league, when Omer Yurtseven, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, and Marcus Garrett were out. During the Heat’s 83-82 loss to the Dallas Mavericks, Okpala scored 16 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, 4-of-5 on threes, four rebounds, three assists, one steal, and one block.
“I think today I was really working through the system,” Okpala said after the game, as reported by Miami Herald’s Anthony Chiang. “Obviously, a lot of our scorers were out. So everybody gets more shots. So it’s just a matter of knocking them down.”
Last season, Okpala showed a spurt of what he’s capable of during the Heat’s regular-season game against the Detroit Pistons on May 16, scoring 17 points in 34 minutes of play. But finishing summer league play averaging 8.4 points, 6.2 rebounds, and two assists — these disappointing stats did nothing to propel Spoelstra into using him as a primary backup playmaker.
Time Is Not On Okpala’s Side
While Okpala can create a defensive presence on the perimeter, his offensive struggles “limit him to a 3-and-D option at best,” Sun Sentinel‘s Ira Winderman surmised following the conclusion of the NBA’s summer league.
Malik Allen, Heat’s regular-season assistant coach who led the summer league team in Las Vegas and Sacramento, noted that Okpala is putting in his best effort. “Outside of practice, he was in the gym trying to get himself back,” Allen said. “And, again, it culminated on the last day. It was great to see. But for him, it was a work in progress.”
Unfortunately, time is not Okpala’s side to make a statement on the court. During the Heat’s tilt against the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday night, Spoelstra sent in veteran Udonis Haslem, who rarely ever jumps into regular-season games, and Omer Yurtseven to fill in for an injured Jimmy Butler. Okpala got zero minutes.
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