How the Heat and Raptors uncover hidden talent

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It seemed that with every 3-pointer, steal or block Terence Davis made during his first Vegas Summer League game in July, his agent got a text message from another interested team.

At halftime the contract offers began rolling in. Within hours after the game, during which he scored 22 points with five 3-pointers, he had a guaranteed contract with the Toronto Raptors, who had been there to watch him.

“I had to make sure nobody was looking over my shoulder reading my texts,” agent Adam Pensack said. “Several of the teams I was texting with were sitting near me and I didn’t want them to see the conversations I was having about TD. It was a very unique situation.”

Davis went undrafted in June, a common plight for summer league players. But not many create a battle for their services after one game.

He has proved a boon to the injury-plagued Raptors as a 3-and-D player, hitting 41 percent from 3-point range and ranking among the league’s best defenders at shooting guard, according to ESPN’s real plus-minus.

Thursday, the Raptors visit the Miami Heat in a potential playoff preview featuring the Eastern Conference’s two most surprising teams. While other teams hunt the summer leagues and the G League for talent, the Raptors and Heat are making a cottage industry of finding overlooked talent. Undrafted players underscore the surprising nature of each team’s success.

Fred VanVleet‘s story is well known. The Raptors targeted the undrafted point guard after four years of college at Wichita State, gave him a shot in summer league and immediately signed him to a multiyear contract in July 2016. VanVleet was a core piece last spring of the first NBA championship team that didn’t include a player drafted in the lottery.

In addition to VanVleet and Davis, the Raptors have Chris Boucher, an undrafted big man from Montreal who has played a big role for the Raptors as they’ve dealt with injuries to Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam. Boucher, previously on a two-way contract with the Golden State Warriors, has great athleticism and plays with defensive energy, earning minutes from coach Nick Nurse.

Nurse also has used rookie undrafted players Matt Thomas, a 3-point specialist, and Oshae Brissett, a defensive-minded forward, to fill holes. All these players fit the Raptors’ mold as versatile defenders, contributing to Toronto’s 23-11 record and top-three defense.

“You’re seeing more undrafted guys contribute, and I think a possible reason is the difference between the 25th player in the draft and the 95th player is getting thinner,” said Nurse, who won a championship as a G League head coach and has always believed in the potential of players in the minors. “It makes player development and using your G League team important factors.”

The Raptors firmly believe the Raptors 905’s 2017 G League title, with VanVleet and Siakam playing large roles, was a stepping stone to winning the big one last year.

Two members of the Heat’s 2012 title team — Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony — were undrafted, part of the Heat’s history of finding and cultivating undrafted talent. In recent years they discovered guards Tyler Johnson and Rodney McGruder, bringing them up through their G League team in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

This season, coach Erik Spoelstra is using a remarkable four players in his rotation who weren’t drafted: Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Derrick Jones Jr. and Chris Silva.

Nunn, a shooting guard, and Robinson, a forward, are starters and big parts of the Heat’s 3-point shooting machine that is second in the NBA in percentage.

Nunn was tracked by Heat assistant general manager Adam Simon in the G League last season after Nunn showed promise with the Santa Cruz Warriors. Simon pestered general manager Andy Elisburg and president Pat Riley incessantly to sign Nunn before another team did. With a series of roster moves, Miami cleared a spot and signed Nunn on the final day of the season.

Robinson played at Michigan but was lightly pursued by NBA teams until he was spotted in a Los Angeles workout in 2018 by longtime Heat scout Chet Kammerer, who has a history of finding diamonds in the rough for Riley. The Heat got Robinson on their summer league team and now he’s third in the NBA in 3-point field goal percentage at .462.

“He’s one of the best shooters on this planet,” Spoelstra said. “He’s hungry, he’s driven and he’s ambitious.”

Jones, a long-armed wing, and Silva, a big man, are role players and more dunkers than 3-point shooters. But both have excellent athleticism and can fly around on defense, earning steady minutes from Spoelstra. Jones, known for his highlight dunks, has made an impact with his perimeter defense and turned into a force when the Heat play zone.

Nunn, Robinson, Jones and Silva will make around $5 million combined this season. Those bargains are vital for the Heat, who are paying noncontributing veterans Dion Waiters and James Johnson $27 million and not missing them one bit so far.

“What the Heat have been able to do with those guys is a good story,” Nurse said. “The talent pool is getting deeper.”

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