Miami Heat works out one Western-based prospect in its draft range, interviews another

Barry Jackson
·7 min read

A six-pack of Miami Heat notes on a Monday:

Less than a month before the NBA Draft, the Heat has ramped up contact with draft prospects, working out Arizona power forward/center Zeke Nnaji on Sunday and interviewing San Diego State point guard Malachi Flynn, according to a source.

Under the NBA’s new COVID-19 pre-draft rules, teams can make 10 pre-draft visits to work out prospects. Those visits are not required to be at the player’s college campus.

The Heat used one of those visits on the 7-foot Nnaji, who averaged 16.1 points and 8.6 rebounds in his one year at Arizona and was named the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year. He shot 57 percent from the field and 29.4 percent on threes (5 for 17).

Rivals rated him the 22nd best player in the 2019 recruiting class, and he picked Arizona over Kansas, North Carolina and others.

ESPN’s Jonathan Givony noted Nnaji “shot 59 percent from 2-point range and 76 percent from the free throw line on the season, making enough jumpers to leave room for optimism for how his shooting range will evolve over time…. [He established] himself as one of the hardest-playing big men in the country and vastly exceeding early expectations thanks to his agility, soft touch and efficient style of play.”

Nnaji is projected to go in the 20s in multiple mock drafts. The Heat has the 20th overall pick in the Nov. 18 draft and Pat Riley was non-committal on Friday about whether the Heat will retain the player drafted.

As for Flynn, the 6-1 guard projects directly in the range of Miami’s pick at No. 20 and he has a lot of attributes the Heat values: he’s mature, a very good shooter, a skilled defender and a hard worker who would fit the culture.

One evaluator said he views Flynn as NBA ready and raised comparisons to Toronto guard Fred Van Vleet.

Flynn averaged 17.6 points, 5.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds and shot 37.3 percent on threes (76 for 204) and 44.1 percent overall in one season for the Aztecs after two with Washington State, where he averaged 12.8 points and shot 35.7 percent on threes over two seasons before transferring.

At San Diego Diego State in 2019-20, he was named Mountain West Player of the Year and the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year. He averaged 1.8 steals per game last season.

“His biggest appeal as a pro prospect revolves around his basketball IQ and advanced scoring instincts,” ESPN’s Givony said. “He has deep range on his jump shot, can create space inside the arc and can finish in a variety of ways.”

Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman pegs Flynn to the Heat at 20 and says: “Playoff teams could see a rookie contributor in Flynn, one of the nation’s premier pick-and-roll operators with deep shooting range and defensive toughness. Athleticism hasn’t been a recent requirement for NBA point guards to succeed, and Flynn has the skill level and IQ to overcome his physical limitations.”

The Heat also has expressed interest in Alabama’s Kira Lewis Jr., but many project him to be gone by No. 20.

Lewis, a 6-3 point guard who played two years at Alabama, averaged 18.8 points and 5.2 assists and shot 36.6 percent on threes last season.

Wasserman has Lewis slotted 14th in his mock, noting: “He was on a tear when the pandemic hit and cut the season short, executing a full package of scoring, playmaking and shooting just before his 19th birthday… A speedster with a well-rounded skill set that just needs fine-tuning.”

Riley said it “remains to be seen” whether the Heat keeps the 20th overall draft pick, keeping in mind that Miami could select someone for another team and trade that player after the draft.

But Riley presented the pros and cons:

On one hand, because the college basketball season ended abruptly in mid-March because of COVID-19, the draft prospects “will not have played basketball for eight to nine months and in any kind of real organized way,” Riley said. “So they’re going to miss a lot. If you draft and there’s just no summer league and or just a training camp and you’re into the next season, then they might not develop as quick as you think they can. We don’t know yet about what’s going to happen with the G league. I think they’re talking about some things that might happen midseason to bring a bunch of teams down there that get together and play.”

But on the other hand… “I’m not too concerned about having too many young players today,” Riley said. “They’re better than they were when I was drafted, and they’re more ready to play and perform and if you get lucky with one and you can develop them, they can get out on the court right now and they can help you.

“So it’s an asset that we’re going to use one way or the other. And I’m just glad that we have six of them [first-rounders] in the next eight years because again you just never know if something happens and, and you can make, a deal that can bring you a player that you really want. So you just got to be ready. So we’re going to go ahead and use the pick. Whether we keep it or not, remains to be seen.”

One question that will always be an unknown: Would the Heat have advanced to the Finals if the season were conducted under normal circumstances?

“I’m not going to say that we benefited more than anybody else because of who we are and what we do and how we go about doing it, and that helped us in the bubble,” Riley said. “I do think there are teams very disciplined in the bubble, very together, chemistry was great. Spo and the staff, everybody up there had to do things for three months, kept it together.

“But we went in there equal. Everybody went in there with the same conditions. Maybe we had a little more of an idea ourselves, in how we talked about it and explained to the players what was going to happen, than other teams….

“Around the middle of May, Spo and his staff and [trainer Jay Sabol] and all of the coordinators that ended up in the bubble put together an incredible program to get us ready for the bubble, educated [players] on what the bubble would be like. And we went up to the bubble, went 3-5 in seeding games and then we hit the playoffs at 12-3 and ended up in the Finals.”

And Riley noted that of the 22 teams that participated in the NBA re-start, “we all went in there equal and nobody had an advantage in any way, shape or form. So I’m not going say that the bubble helped us more than somebody else and we’re not as good as we think we should be because of the bubble, and not going on the road for playoff game, like you normally would, if you didn’t have homecourt advantage.”

Riley, in his postseason Zoom press conference on Friday, took a moment to acknowledge Dwyane Wade’s contributions in helping lure Jimmy Butler to Miami. Wade told Butler he would be perfect for the Heat’s culture and gave Miami a strong recommendation.

“I had a great meeting with Jimmy Butler,” Riley said. “That was about it. And thank God that he came here. I want to throw out kudos to Dwyane Wade, obviously, Father Prime and a dear, dear, dear player, always very close to my heart that sort of helped us in selling Jimmy on that.”

For my three other Monday stories - on Heat assistant coach Dan Craig’s departure to the Clippers and potential replacements; a Hurricanes 6-pack; and Dolphins/Tua Tagovailoa notes, please click here.