Grading the Miami Heat’s Playoff Rookies
After a surprisingly deep playoff run, the Miami Heat fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA FInals. Heading into the playoffs, Miami had a number of core players that had just finished their first full NBA regular season, let alone experience the blinding lights of the playoffs. Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, and Tyler Herro comprised a core of unproven playoff rookies that would be Miami’s x-factor in determining how far the team would go. Now that Miami has wrapped up it’s run, it’s time to see how the rooks did.
First, Kendrick Nunn had a great rookie season and was deserving of second place Rookie of the Year. Second, he’s shown an ability to bust through walls all season. Third, he’s still only 25 and has room to get better, especially in the playmaking department. That all needs to be said because there’s a lot of bad up next.
Nunn struggled heavily in the playoffs, with pretty much all of his per game and advanced stats from the regular season dropping in the playoffs. All season long Nunn's role was to score, he finished at 15.3 points per game. Yet in the playoffs his shot wouldn’t fall and he never cracked double digit points once in the first three rounds. As a limited defender and rookie playmaker, Nunn couldn’t provide much else. He started his debut in the last game against Indiana, played off the bench every game after, and ended up sitting out the last three games against Boston when rotations started to tighten.
Were it not for an unfortunate Goran Dragic injury, Nunn possibly may not have played in the Finals. As Herro stepped up the starting lineup, Nunn became the guard off the bench, hitting double digits finally in three of the six games. His 14 points in Game 5 played a role in Miami’s win to extend the series and that’s got to mean something. Despite showing some promise at the end, Nunn’s struggles were evident and over the course of the playoffs ended up hurting them more than helping them.
The Miami Heat struck gold finding Duncan Robinson, who went from undrafted to a starter on an NBA FInals team. An elite shooter, Robinson ran through countless screens and dribble handoffs before launching threes over exhausted defenders. The spacing provided by his shooting and off-ball movement was a key part of Miami’s system all year. Going into the playoffs, it was certain teams would emphasize Robinson to limit the Heat’s offense.
Robinson’s performance is a mixed bag of mostly good stuff. Between the intensity of the playoffs and the defensive game plan, Robinson was hounded everywhere he went on the court. Most of his per game numbers fell from the regular season and he had many games where his shot wouldn’t fall. Robinson, however, stuck to his role and continued until it bore success. Despite the defense, he still dropped at least one 20 point game a series. Though his production declined, Robinson still had a positive impact on the offensive end finishing with a 1.3 offensive +/- over the playoffs.
Perhaps no area improved as clearly for Robinson as defense. Robinson was thrown through the gauntlet being constantly targeted and yet actually improved as the playoffs went on. His defensive +/- actually improved from the regular season to the playoffs, from -1.0 to 0.0, so it’ll be interesting to see how his defense is next year. Overall, Robinson had troubles with consistency but was a positive presence with his ability to light up a game and his evolving defense.
Between the swagger and the shotmaking, there hasn’t been a rookie in Miami quite as exciting as Tyler Herro. Coming off the bench all season, Herro was instant energy and provided a healthy mix of playmaking and scoring. The All-Rookie 2nd team guard had never been afraid once in the regular season, now he’d get to try the playoffs.
While Herro was great in the regular season, he showed that rare ability to step up in the playoffs. Almost all of his per game and advanced stats increased in the playoffs. Outside of the FInals Game 6, Herro scored in double digits in every other playoff game. In Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, Herro dropped 37 points to lead Miami to a 3-1 series lead. Only Magic Johnson scored more points in a playoff game as a rookie than Tyler Herro.
Perhaps as important as the stats was the way Herro carried himself. It was clear he lived for the moment, taking huge shots and thriving in fourth quarters. The only time he stumbled was against the Lakers, where Dragic’s injury forced Herro to take a starting role. Still, Herro did plenty to suggest he has the potential to be a phenomenal playoff performer.
Honorable Mention: Bam Adebayo
Technically, Bam Adebayo had his first playoff appearance back in 2018 where he played 77 total minutes against the Philadelphia 76ers. Since then, Adebayo has become a full time starter and All-Star level player. Like Herro he stepped his game up in the playoffs, being arguably the best player in the Eastern Conference Finals. A neck strain in Game 1 of the Finals limited what he could do on Anthony Davis, but that’s about it for negatives. The floor seemed high for Adebayo regardless, but he flashed a high ceiling these playoffs. As he continues to improve his jumper, who knows how much higher it could get.
Nunn, Robinson, and Herro went into the playoffs unproven and are now proven. Nunn struggled but ended on a high note, hopefully signaling a return to form in the next playoffs. Robinson was targeted but survived while Herro thrived. Overall Miami’s rookies were productive, and became a key reason why the Heat made it out of the East. With playoff experience under their belts, it’ll be exciting to see how things turn out next season.