The Miami Heat’s scouting department is regarded as one of the best in the NBA.
The organization’s eye for talent has unearthed several gems that slipped through the cracks of the NBA draft. Duncan Robinson and Max Strus weren’t seen as surefire NBA players after college, yet they filled crucial roles on a team that reached the Eastern Conference finals last season.
So if the Heat like a player enough to warrant longer looks, that causes observers to sit up and notice. Such was the case when Miami signed former Marquette and Oakland University forward Jamal Cain to an Exhibit 10 contract earlier this month. That means the 6-foot-7 Cain will get an invitation to training camp in the fall, and there are financial incentives to stay with the team’s G League affiliate if he gets waived.
“Players with potential that might not have the hype around them, I feel like they give them a great opportunity,” Cain said. “And I feel like that was perfect for me because I didn’t have a lot of hype.
“But I feel like I can bring a lot to the table, just in terms of my competitiveness and my athletic ability and being able to guard multiple positions and being able to knock down open shots.”
Cain arrived at MU in 2017 and showed flashes of his potential with an explosive vertical leap and good shooting touch from the corners. But he didn’t earn consistent playing time until he was a senior, averaging 9.6 points per game in the 2020-21 season.
The Pontiac, Michigan, native then took advantage of the NCAA allowing an extra season of eligibility by transferring to Oakland University, where the coaching staff knew him well. Golden Grizzlies assistant Mychal Covington was Cain’s basketball mentor and high school coach.
“You got somebody who’s got genuine love for you that’s not basketball love,” Covington said. “Telling you the truth and pushing you and holding you accountable to what you want to achieve.
“This has nothing to do with me. It’s just what your goals are and this is what you want to achieve. I’m going to hold you accountable to what you wanted to go get.”
Covington and Oakland head coach Greg Kampe figured there was still some untapped potential in Cain.
“I just knew we could do more than what he was able to do at Marquette,” Covington said. “Different system. I know how our system works.
“I know that his mom and his family would be happy to see him come home to play. And I knew we needed him at Oakland. We needed somebody who could produce at both ends at a high level. We needed his athleticism. We needed his versatility. And we needed his character in our locker room.”
The move worked out better than anyone could have expected with Cain averaging 19.9 points and 10.2 rebounds, thriving in the mid-range and on post-ups. He was named co-player of the year in the Horizon League.
“I learned how to be more impactful around the basket,” Cain said. “And just to be a leader. Trying to hold guys accountable. Keeping everyone comfortable, everyone confident.”
When Oakland played UW-Milwaukee at UWM Panther Arena on Jan. 22, dozens of MU players and support staff were in attendance.
“I wasn’t expecting that many people to be there, I’m just going to be honest,” Cain said. “And it was heart-warming for me just to know that I still have family out there in Milwaukee. Who cares and wants to support me. It was definitely a good feeling for me.
“I took a picture. I had to. I had to post on my Instagram, just to let people know that Marquette is still my family.”
The breakout fifth season earned Cain several pre-NBA draft workouts, including one with the Heat.
“The coaches liked me,” Cain said. “It was tough. A lot of conditioning, but I was expecting that with the Miami culture and stuff like that. How hard they go. The workout was good. I felt good about it.”
Cain also got the chance to meet Pat Riley, the Heat president, ex-coach and godfather of the team’s vaunted culture.
“He was super cool,” Cain said. “He said he liked how I played. Gave me some tips.”
The Heat saw enough to sign Cain to its summer league team, and he impressed in his first game in the four-team California Classic with three steals and five offensive rebounds. But then it looked like his big chance would be taken away when he tested positive for COVID-19 and he had to isolate for six days while the team moved on to the main summer league in Las Vegas.
Cain returned to play four games and showed enough that both the Heat and Orlando Magic wanted to sign him to Exhibit 10 deals.
“I wanted to be with Miami,” Cain said. “Because I felt like they develop players better. They have a nice culture and they win. It was kind of a no-brainer for me. And I’ve been playing with them already.”
In addition to finding overlooked talent, the Heat also has a long history with former MU players. Dwyane Wade is the best player in franchise history. Jae Crowder and Jimmy Butler teamed up in recent seasons, and Butler remains the team’s centerpiece.
Cain will have to beat the odds to reach that level of status. But he has a foot in the door.
“Same mentality that I’ve had for years,” Cain said. “Just try to maximize my opportunity. I’m going to play at a high level. I’m going to listen. I’m going to try to learn and try to soak in as much from the place as I can. And whatever happens, happens.
“I’ve been on this journey. I’m wounded to even be in this position I’m in now. I’ve done made it further than anyone in my circle has made it. It’s just a beautiful thing to be on right now. Just enjoying it right now.”
Contact Ben Steele at (414) 224-2676 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenSteeleMJS or Instagram at @bensteele_mjs