Around the World in 365 Days

Heat rookie James Ennis is primed to play a big role in South Beach after season overseas.
by July 10, 2014

Just over two minutes remained in the first half against the Brooklyn Nets in Orlando on Sunday. Miami Heat rookie Shabazz Napier grabbed a defensive rebound, immediately looked up court and took one dribble before spotting James Ennis streaking down the right-hand side of the floor. Napier’s nifty, two-handed bounce pass from above his head found Ennis in stride and the swingman only needed one dribble to throw down a vicious one-handed, tomahawk jam.

Ennis hung 29 points on the Nets in the game, draining seven of his eight attempts from three-point land. Over Miami’s first three Summer League bouts this week, the former Long Beach State forward is posting 17.0 points and 6.3 rebounds per contest while shooting 55.2 percent from the floor and a blistering 69.2 percent from deep.

His form isn’t fluid like a natural-born sharpshooter, but his bombs always look smooth, ripping through the net while hardly ever grazing the rim. At 6-7 and 200 pounds with a 6-11.5 wingspan, he’s got the look of today’s prototypical 3-and-D NBA small forward. Yet despite Miami selecting him No. 50 in the 2013 NBA Draft, Ennis did not play for the Heat during the regular season.

The 24-year-old Ventura, CA, product is poised to make his rookie debut with the defending Eastern Conference champions this winter after the Heat drafted Ennis and stashed him overseas in Australia during 2013-14 season. Ennis was one of the 15 second-round picks in last year’s Draft that played overseas or in the D-League this past season. Eight of those players were American.

“I would say there are approximately 10-15 second-round slots [each year] that the player actually has a chance to make the NBA roster,” one NBA agent told SLAM. “The rest have pretty much been agreed prior to selection that the team will likely stash the player and hold his rights for a season.”

Another agent added: “That’s just what today’s NBA has become.”

The concept is a byproduct of teams concentrating more than ever on every single cent of precious cap space in today’s era of rediscovering the greatness of super teams. It comes from the same line of thinking that led Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin to trade Jarrett Jack, Tyler Zeller, Sergey Karasev and a protected future first-round pick this week, opening $24 million in cap room based on the mere hope of signing LeBron James to a max contract.

Teams are opting to stash second-round prospects to clear up just about $500,000 in cap space for Championship-contending free-agency maneuvers.

If you’re the American player selected with the second-round pick, choosing to play overseas rather than slog through an often-tumultuous D-League season seems like a no-brainer. The maximum a D-League player can make is $25,500 per season, league sources told SLAM prior to this past season. And, only one player on each team can earn that A-contract salary. Most D-Leaguers collect B- or C-contract salaries of $19,000 and $13,000, respectively.

Most European contracts start salaries for American-born players at around $75,000, according to league sources, with fringe-NBA players often pulling six-figure deals loaded with amenities like free housing, a car and per diem. The financial aspect is what led Ennis abroad rather than playing for the Heat’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

“It gave me an opportunity to help my family out. The main reason I went overseas is just because of my family,” Ennis told SLAM. “I came from a poor background, so when I had a chance to play in the D-League or go overseas, I looked at my family and I was like, They’re my motivation. They kept me going. It was kind of tough, but I pulled through it.”

Ennis’ mother, Denise, is slightly disabled and is physically unable to work while rehabbing a leg injury. His father, James Sr, works part time for a painting company. Ennis’ contract with the Perth Wildcats in Australia was worth six figures, according to his agent Scott Nichols. That money certainly went a long way for Ennis, his parents and his five siblings.

Meanwhile, the chance to play in a competitive league overseas provided an opportunity for Ennis to freely develop the specific skills Miami preferred he improved.

“We’re very optimistic about James. He exceeded what we expected,” Heat Vice President Chet Kammerer told reporters on June 23. “He should have been MVP in the league [in Australia]. His numbers were very good. We are very happy with what transpired.”

In 33 games, Ennis averaged 21.2 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game for the Wildcats while shooting 46.8 percent from the field. He earned team MVP while leading the Wildcats to the 2013-14 National Basketball League championship. Today, he laughs off being snubbed in the NBL’s overall MVP voting which named former Butler guard Rotnei Clarke the league’s top player.

“I think I got cheated,” he says with a big smile. “But it’s all good. It was politics.”

Ennis returned home for four days before signing with Piratas de Quebradillas of Puerto Rico’s Baloncesto Superior Nacional. He lit up the BSN for 12 games before returning to the Heat in June to prepare for Summer League.

Miami was pleased with Ennis’ progress during his “stashing” year, to say the least.

“James did a good job across the board,” Kammerer continued. “We wanted him to expand his range. He shot the ball well from three. He was the fourth rebounder in the league [in Australia]. Averaged over 7 rebounds a game for a wing, which was very good. We want to see him create a little more off the dribble. A lot we’ll see this summer and in the fall.”

This summer has treated Ennis well. Alongside the Pistons’ Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Ennis has clearly been one of the top performers in Orlando. His success is not only crucial for the Heat, but he’s also a perfect example for NBA teams of how progressive drafting and stashing American second-round picks can prove to be.

“I worked a lot. Once I went there, I had a coach named Adam Tatalovich and we worked each and every day after practice,” Ennis says. “We put a lot of shots up, you know, off the dribble, pull-up game, three pointers. He worked with me a lot and I think I gained a lot of confidence overseas.

“I think I improved my defense a lot. Last year in Summer League, I used to just reach a lot, but now I think I can actually contain my guy by moving my feet laterally.”

Individually, Ennis is sitting in a perfect situation for next season. If the Big Three stay put in Miami, the Heat would benefit from Ennis’ ability to fill a void on the wing left by Shane Battier while also likely only earning a rookie minimum salary per the CBA. Meanwhile, if the Heat fail to retain James and Chris Bosh, there will be a surplus of playing time for Ennis on a would-be diminished Heat roster.

Of course, Ennis is hoping to join an NBA contender rather than a middling team in the Eastern Conference. But regardless of what scenario he joins in Miami, Ennis can’t help but beam about realizing his childhood dream.

“It’s really exciting and I just thank God for giving me another opportunity to represent the Heat and actually get a chance to play for them,” Ennis says. “Man, it’s a dream come true. I’ve been dreaming about this since I was little. I always told my brothers and sisters I would play in the NBA and here I am.”