As one of the most popular basketball players in recent Kansas State history, Rodney McGruder gets a warm welcome whenever he returns to Manhattan. That’s one of the reasons he visits his alma mater every summer.
But it’s far from the only reason.
McGruder, now a starting guard with the Miami Heat, has become a solid enough pro that he gets love from NBA fans, too. He may actually be more popular on South Beach than he is in the Flint Hills.
“Those people just love him there,” K-State basketball coach Bruce Weber said. “I went to one of his games last season and he had everyone from the ushers to the elevator lady to the owner of the team seeking him out and talking to him and thanking him afterward. It was really cool.”
They even gave him a nickname – The Scavenger.
“It’s a compliment,” McGruder said Tuesday while attending a K-State basketball camp, “because a scavenger goes out there and tries to get whatever he wants and does whatever it takes to survive. I like that compliment.”
It’s an appropriate label for an unheralded guard like McGruder who rarely does anything flashy but routinely finds little ways to help his team. After several years of playing overseas and in the NBA’s developmental league, McGruder caught on with the Heat last season and made a surprising impact. He only averaged 6.4 points, 3.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists, but he made 65 starts and appeared in a team-high 78 games.
The former K-State standout cracked the starting lineup mostly because of injuries to other guards, but as the season went on his playing time increased.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wasn’t surprised.
“He has absolutely fought, scratched and clawed his way into the starting lineup,” Spoelstra told reporters in March.
As the Heat asked for more from him, good results followed. After a putrid 11-30 start, Miami flipped the script and nearly made the playoffs with a 30-11 finish.
Being a part of that turnaround was the highlight of McGruder’s rookie year in the NBA, even more than his individual success.
“It showed the fight in us and the trust management and everybody else had in us,” McGruder said. “We could have made trades at the trade deadline, but they believed in us and the core that we had. That’s satisfying. We went from being the worst team in the league to tying for eighth.”
McGruder has come a long way since his days at K-State.
As a freshman, he helped the Wildcats reach the Elite Eight as a reserve. As a senior, he helped them share a Big 12 championship as the team’s go-to player. Then he went undrafted and had to reinvent his game. He spent a year playing in Hungary, he gave the D-League a try and he eventually caught the eyes of scouts with the Sioux Falls Skyforce in South Dakota.
After guiding them to a D-League championship, he earned a partially guaranteed contract with the Heat last summer and made the opening day roster.
What made the difference?
“Just playing hard and bringing energy. I think that is my niche,” McGruder said. “That and competing, no matter who you are competing against just bring it every night.”
An improved outside shot helped, too.
“Eighty percent of the players in the NBA are role players and you have to figure out a role that makes you wanted,” Weber said. “He has got the work ethic and the passion. He will guard people. The thing we really pushed on him was to get to where you can make three-pointers. Once he was able to do that consistently on top of all that other stuff he started to have success.
“We are so proud of him. He had a dream, and he went after it.”
Motivation was never a problem.
“My goal in life was never to be an overseas basketball player,” McGruder said. “Growing up, I never said, ‘Man, I can’t wait to go play overseas.’ That’s nobody’s dream as a kid. No offense to overseas basketball at all, but that wasn’t what drove me as a kid. I wanted to play in the NBA.”
The future seems bright for McGruder. Though he may not retain a starting spot with the Heat next season, he will almost certainly remain an important member of the roster. He thinks his game will improve as he matures, and he is confident the Heat have what it takes to make a playoff run.
His rookie year might have been the start of something special.
Kellis Robinett: @kellisrobinett