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The last time Omer Yurtseven entered Golden1 Center, he was a relative unknown 7-footer seeking a foothold on a professional basketball career.
Sunday, when the Miami Heat play the Sacramento Kings, Yurtseven will return with guaranteed contract in hand and emerging reputation as an NBA-level contributor.
It all came to be because of two sparsely attended games on the Kings’ home floor in early August, when the 7-foot member of the Turkish national team turned summer league into his NBA arrival statement.
On Aug. 3, while playing alongside the unknown likes of Heat summer-leaguers Justin Smith, Tyson Carter and AJ Lawson, Yurtseven had 27 points and 19 rebounds against a similar group of rookies, free agents and neophytes from the Los Angeles Lakers.
The following night, against the Golden State Warriors’ summer roster, there were 25 points and eight rebounds, as the Heat made it 2-0 in their brief Sacramento summer sojourn.
A contract offer followed, as did heightened expectations, with Yurtseven now playing as emergency starter, since Bam Adebayo and Dewayne Dedmon are sidelined.
Who could have seen that coming?
Well, Yurtseven, for one, as he reflected this past week on those two nights to the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
“I didn’t know how they would change my life,” the affable 23-year-old said, “but I did know I was a capable of big numbers and leading the team and getting those wins, and that’s exactly what happened.
“I literally busted my a– all summer getting ready for that opportunity. I just prepared, and that set me up for that, so that I was expecting great things. But I didn’t know how it would turn out. You never know until it happens.”
As with so many cases of the NBA unexpected, a simple twist of — at the time seemingly cruel — fate afforded Yurtseven the opportunity for those breakout games.
Weeks earlier, Yurtseven competed in an Olympic qualifying tournament with the Turkish national team in Canada. As that event played out, the door seemingly swung open for Turkey to secure a berth to the Tokyo Games. And then it slammed shut.
Disappointed, Yurtseven returned to Miami for three weeks of grueling drill work in advance of summer league.
“Did it give me an extra boost of fire for the summer league? Absolutely!” Yurtseven said of coming up short of an Olympic berth. “Losing always has that extra fire to it.
“I mean part of it was closing one chapter and just knowing I did all I could do. And that’s kind of what I had to do, move on from it.”
Then came Sacramento, a preamble to the bigger Las Vegas NBA Summer League days later.
With only four teams, compared to all 30 in Las Vegas, it typically is overlooked. It also ran concurrently with Heat President Pat Riley back in South Florida hashing out free-agent contracts for Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker, Markieff Morris, among others.
And then something remarkable happened. A 7-footer who barely drew notice while playing with the Oklahoma City Thunder’s G League affiliate months earlier, a player added the final week of the 2020-21 season by the Heat on basically a flyer, took flight.
Suddenly, other teams were calling his agent. The Heat were scrambling to sort out their contract situation, left to wonder whether a two-way deal would be good enough to secure a signature (it wasn’t). A relatively obscure summer event in a relatively obscure NBA market was delivering Turkish delight in the form of “SportsCenter” highlights. The legend of Turk Nowitzki was born.
Now, five months later, Yurtseven returns for real, for a game that matters, as a leading man.
“The best part of that experience,” Yurtseven now says, “was that I didn’t know at all about the numbers I was putting up. I was caught in the moment. And as soon as the games were over, you see all the work you put in and the W, of course, being able to have to along with a win.”
Five months later, don’t dare try to convince him those games didn’t count.
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“It worked out,” he said in reflection, “quite well.”
ALL OR NOTHING: The frustration from NBA players is not as much about postponements, but rather the seeming randomness. First it was Atlanta Hawks guard Trae Young venting about the Heat seemingly drawing a pass with their postponement Wednesday against the San Antonio Spurs. Then it was Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green questioning his team’s Thursday game canceled due to a lack of players for the Denver Nuggets. “How do you continue to cancel games when you’ve implemented rules to prevent this from happening?” Green posted on Twitter. “Is that not a competitive advantage for other teams? The guys we didn’t have due to the protocol list played no role in Tuesday’s loss? Pick a side but don’t straddle the fence.” He concluded his social-media post with, “Let’s make it make some sense here.”
BRIEF TRYOUT: While the pandemic opened the door for former Heat guard Tyler Johnson to regain an NBA foothold with his emergency 10-day contract with the Philadelphia 76ers, it also robbed him of the ability to sustain his comeback when he then was placed in health-and-safety protocols. Before entering quarantine, Johnson played at least 11 minutes in three games for Doc Rivers’ team, with the 76ers 2-1 in those three. Philadelphia forward Tobias Harris was impressed with the initial tryout. “I remember coming to the bench like, ‘Tyler just knows how to play basketball.’ He’s a hooper,” Harris said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Johnson had been working out in Miami with his trainer prior to the call-up. “Obviously, I would like to continue to play basketball, and I like this team,” Johnson, 29, said. “I’m gonna try to put myself in a position to continue to play and earn another contract.”
GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY: His NBA career sidetracked after a brief tryout with the Heat in 2019 training camp, going on to play in Taiwan the following season, former University of Miami guard Davon Reed has gained a significant foothold with the Denver Nuggets during his emergency callup. Before this season, Reed’s NBA experience had been limited to 21 games with the Phoenix Suns in 2017-18, the season after he left the Hurricanes, and 10 games with the Indiana Pacers in 2018-19. Entering the weekend, there already have been 17 games with the Nuggets for Reed, 26. “For a young man who is on his second 10-day contract with us, he looks like he belongs,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said, according to MileHighSports. “I’ve said it since Summer League; Davon Reed is a NBA player.” Added Malone, “He looks very, very comfortable and confident out there and I think that is key. You have to believe you belong and he certainly does.”
TURNAROUND TIME: For as ugly as it got for Chicago Bulls’ center Nikola Vucevic in his team’s Dec. 11 loss to the Heat at FTX Arena —and it got pretty ugly on that 3-of-15 night from the field — he said it provided the impetus for his significantly upgraded recent play. Vucevic said he allowed the poor shooting that night to impact the rest of his game. “When I looked at that game,” he said, according to the Chicago Sun-Times, “I really felt that was the biggest thing. Obviously I didn’t shoot the ball well, but I wasn’t doing whatever else I had to do as a player on the court. I let that affect the rest of my game, and I’m too good of a player to do that.” From that low point, Vucevic said, “I think I was able to regroup and come back and focus on playing well, doing the things that I could control.”
4. The number of times the Heat started four undrafted players during the 4-0 homestand they completed on Tuesday. First it was two games of a lineup of undrafted Max Strus, Dewayne Dedmon, Duncan Robinson, Gabe Vincent, as well as Kyle Lowry (first round 2004). Then it was Strus, Robinson, Vincent and undrafted Omer Yurtseven alongside Jimmy Butler (first round 2011). And then Robinson, Vincent, Yurtseven, undrafted Caleb Martin and Butler.