Heat’s Martin returns to Charlotte, appreciates Heat vision for him

When the Heat plays in Charlotte on Saturday night, Caleb Martin’s former team – and Hornets fans – will see a vastly different player than the one who suited up for them the previous two seasons.

They’ll see a young veteran who has morphed from a middling backup desperately clinging to a spot in the rotation of a 33-39 team to a defensive dynamo and important piece of a championship contender.

And the Hornets will see a player they very likely should never have released, a transaction that separated him from his twin brother Cody for the first time in their basketball lives.

“You always are going to remember that,” Caleb Martin said Saturday of the Hornets releasing him last summer. “[Saturday] doesn’t decide if they made the wrong decision or not. I don’t have anything to prove to them. I want to be the best player I can be every night. I wish nothing but the best for them.”

The seeds for Martin’s evolution began around the time Martin signed his two-way contract on Sept. 14, a transaction that went largely overlooked by even the most ardent of NBA followers.

Martin – who said he plans to play Saturday after missing a game with a sore Achilles’ – was at the Heat’s practice court one day in September when he could feel the penetrating glare of Erik Spoelstra.

“Spo is one of those people that’s a big time observer,” Martin said. “I can tell when people are observing and looking at you a certain way where they notice something and I kind of got that feel from him. He said something in the summer to me that ‘you’ve got one of the quickest twitches I’ve seen, which is either jumping to the ball or springing off the floor, twitch stuff.’

“He looked at me like, ‘This could be a [worthy] project. We mold and smooth him out and get him into the system, there is a place for him. We’ve just got to figure out where.’”

And those words were uplifting for a player coming off a season when his three-point shooting and playing time both dropped.

“For me, that’s all I need; that was awesome to hear,” he said. “I already knew getting here, and getting player development, and [to be able to] play freely, I could tell that my shot was going to come, my defense was going to get better and my mental [aspect] would get better. I knew talking to him and the coaches here that this was going to be great for me.”

Martin’s performance – in both measurable and intangible areas – has risen appreciably. He’s allowing the player he’s guarding to shoot 41.2 percent (third best on the Heat), compared with the 45.2 percent those players shoot overall.

He’s shooting 37.3 percent on threes, compared with 24.8 last season. His overall shooting percentage has jumped from 37.5 to 50.7.

His points per game are up, from 5.0 to 9.4 So are his rebounds, from 2.7 to 3.9.

Where has the most growth come?

“Besides confidence, my defense has taken a big jump,” he said. “Being able to rely on my instincts here and they allow me to be me on both ends. Take certain gambles… but in a way that still abides by the game plan. Just the freedom, I love it.

“Like Jimmy, if you have a knack for that type of stuff, you know the time and place when to do that. You don’t do it every time trying to get a steal every possession. If you mix it here and there where you can be aggressive defensively and make something happen, coaches are cool with it.”

For that defensive leap, he credits the entire staff, particularly Eric Glass and Caron Butler.

“Having Caron in my ear, just guiding me through stuff, has been crazy helpful,” he said. “Those have been the main two guys for me.”

His three-point shooting has become more reliable, similar to his rookie season, when he shot 54.1 percent (20 for 37).

“I adjusted the mechanics, being a little bit tighter and letting it go, just not thinking about it and not trying to shot put it. A lot of it has been a mental thing. Some tweaks we’ve made with EG [Glass] that has made it more fluid.”

People around the league have taken notice.

“A lot of guys come up to me and say, ‘You still on a two way?’ I’m like ‘Yeah, I don’t even worry about it.’”

Among those who approached him offering praise: Portland guard Damian Lillard. “Dame said, ‘Keep [it] going.’”

Heat president Pat Riley also has expressed his appreciation for a player who has wildly exceeded expectations.

“I talk to [coach Riley] every time I come to practice. He reached out to me and said ‘great job, keep bringing what you’re bringing.’ Obviously, I can tell he likes the energy, the effort. He appreciates that and I know that’s his type of style. You’ve got to bring that if you’re going to be here.”

The Heat hasn’t told him when his two-way contract will be converted into a standard deal – a move that’s inevitable in order to make him playoff eligible – but Martin, 26, said he’s not worried about that.

Nor is he concerned about impending free agency, when he could command part or all of the Heat’s $10.3 million mid-level exception, or perhaps the $4 million bi-annual exception or an offer elsewhere.

He and Cody – who played together at Nevada and their first two years in the league with Charlotte – dined at a Japanese restaurant on Friday night. After living together as teammates, the separation has been an adjustment.

“You go from seeing someone every day, living together and all of a sudden [you’re apart],” Caleb said. “We haveFaceTime. We talk every day, critique each other after every single game.”

After Saturday morning’s shootaround at Spectrum Center, Caleb recalled he and his brother pushing carts at a Walmart as high school students in tiny Mocksville, North Carolina – 61 miles from Charlotte.

“I was begging to get back in the box room to get in the back,” Martin said. “We were out in the rain [pushing carts]. The Walmart was like the mall. Everyone would watch us play on a Friday night and then watch us push a cart on Saturday.”

This story was originally published February 5, 2022 12:05 PM.

Barry Jackson has written for the Miami Herald since 1986 and has written the Florida Sports Buzz column since 2002.

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