SE: McGruder Makes Mark in D-League, Seeks Heat Roster Spot

If Rodney McGruder had made a to-do list for last year, he would’ve crossed about everything off of it. 

Win a Development League Championship, check. 

Become a factor in nearly every facet of the game, highlighted by steady defense and reliable 3-point shooting, check. 

See years of hard work, heartache and perseverance pay off in the form of a three-year, partially guaranteed contract in the NBA, check. 

“It’s been a whirlwind, really, but it couldn’t have happened at a better time,” McGruder said during K-State’s home football game against Florida Atlantic. “I couldn’t have asked for a better year, really.”

The former K-State star helped guide the Sioux Falls Skyforce to the program’s first D-League title, which followed a 40-10 regular season that set a new league record for wins. 

Playing nearly 38 minutes a game, McGruder averaged 15.8 points, 5.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists in the team’s record-breaking regular season. In 48 games, he shot 51 percent from the field and 38.4 percent from 3-point range, a mark that would have ranked him in the top 35 last season in the NBA. 

“I’m proud of Rod. I’m probably one of his biggest fans,” said former K-State teammate Jacob Pullen. “I watched him grow. I watched him work as hard as he did to get where he’s gotten. I think he deserves it all and more, so I’m happy for him and I just hope that he continues to work.”

In seven postseason battles with the Skyforce, the Miami Heat’s D-League affiliate, McGruder worked for nearly 23 points a game. He highlighted his postseason production with a 30-point, 11-rebound outing in the opening game of the championship series. 

“I think Rodney McGruder is the most underrated player in the D-League,” Skyforce coach Dan Craig told the Argus Leader in April. “He’s been the rock of this team. He’s been Mr. Consistent. When he gets out on the court, we know what he brings every night. I believe he’s an NBA player.”

The Heat believed the same thing, offering McGruder a three-year deal to play at the level he’s been trying to reach since going undrafted out of K-State in 2013. 

“It’s so special. I’m just so happy for Rodney,” K-State head coach Bruce Weber said. “He had a chance, probably, to go make more money in Europe but he stuck with the Development League and just really worked on his game.”

McGruder played one season in Hungary after being cut by the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013. From there, he dedicated himself to the D-League to master his craft. He got another chance with the Boston Celtics in 2014, but was eventually cut and spent time with two D-League teams that season. 

Still, the downs never deterred McGruder from his dream. Sure, his opportunities abroad were more lucrative, but they weren’t paths toward his ultimate goal.

“My goal when I first started was to play in the NBA. It wasn’t about the money,” he said. “Money is nice and everybody can use it, but at the end of the day you won’t be happy chasing money and not trying to chase your dreams. I’d rather chase my dreams than chase money.” 

So, the 25-year-old Washington D.C.-native grinded until everything — his health, his play and his opportunities — aligned last season. 

“Finally, I’m putting everything together that I’ve learned from playing here at K-State, playing for Coach (Frank) Martin, playing for Coach Weber, playing overseas. I’m putting everything together,” he said. “It’s helping me translate to the next level and I’m incorporating everything I’ve learned in my game.”

At K-State, where McGruder ranks seventh on the all-time scoring list, he developed a “certain toughness” that’s stuck with him during his professional career.

“That’s what I’ve kept with me since I left here and that’s helped me out a lot, mentally and physically,” he said, also crediting Weber for advice throughout the process. “He’s helped me a lot. Bruce is so even keeled. He helps me stay poised, see the bigger things and keep my head on the right path.”

Weber recalled a conversation with McGruder two years ago in which he broke down what it would take for the former Wildcat to reach the NBA. McGruder took the advice and ran with it. 

“I said, ‘Rod, if this is really your dream, you got to find a niche, you got to get your 3-point percentage up and everything’s got to continue to get better.’ He’s made that commitment,” Weber said. “I just couldn’t be more thrilled for him. There’s no more deserving guy. I hope it’s a great story and he has success in in the NBA and gets to play for a while because he’s the kind of guy that deserves it and you’re happy for. He would be a great representative of K-State and what NBA players should be about.”

McGruder’s work is far from done, however, as the Heat open training camp Tuesday with a barrage of guards fighting for a spot on the 15-man roster. For McGruder, it’s a challenge he’s prepared years for. 

“I need to be who I am and stay positive, stay ready and be hungry. That’s my mindset,” he said. “Stay focused.”