After the Clippers claimed Rodney McGruder off waivers April 9, the second-to-last day of the regular season, coach Doc Rivers presented some of the team’s leaders with a choice.
The 27-year-old guard had been added to the roster yet could be kept away from an already tight-knit group as it began its first-round playoff series against Golden State. Or McGruder, ineligible to play in the postseason because he was waived after March 1, could join the team in San Francisco and be incorporated into the Clippers’ day-to-day flow.
“Bring his ass in,” guard Patrick Beverley said. “He part of the team.”
Beverley didn’t know McGruder that well. With the exception of Sindarius Thornwell, who’d met McGruder at a summer camp hosted by Kevin Durant while in high school and played for the same college coach, no one did.
Nonetheless, Beverley came to the same conclusion as the executives who had claimed McGruder. The 6-foot-4 guard, who’d played in Hungary and the NBA’s developmental league before sticking with Miami in 2016, fit the team’s scrapping, blue-collar identity.
“You play against people, they leave an impression,” Beverley said. “The impression he left on us is he plays extremely hard.”
That fit has turned what could have been an awkward introduction so soon before the playoffs — an uncommon, if not unprecedented, roster addition, Clippers executives say — into an easy transition.
Though McGruder enters free agency this summer unsure where he will play next season, he has found in the interim a temporary home on Los Angeles’ bench, kinship in its locker room and, as an outsider-turned-insider, one of the most unique vantage points of anyone connected to the playoffs.
“What it took for me to get to the NBA, not being given anything and just working for everything I had, you feel a connection,” McGruder said. “Doc did a great job of welcoming me. I fit right in with the guys.”
The Clippers can extend a qualifying offer by June 29 to make him a restricted free agent, which would allow the team to match offers made by other clubs. With the Clippers in the mix to sign a maximum-salary free agent, perhaps two, this summer, filling out the rotation with low-cost options is imperative to build a financially flexible contender.
“They welcomed me like no other,” McGruder said. “They made me feel welcome, and it’s been a great experience just getting to meet the guys and see how everything works around here. It’s basically like a recruiting visit.”
McGruder’s appeal lies not only in his 112 career starts or $3-million qualifying offer but also in his style of play. Casey Hill, a Clippers assistant, coached McGruder on Golden State’s summer league team in 2014 and remembers him as tough-nosed. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra praised the grit of the undrafted McGruder in Miami, where he was called “The Scavenger” because of his hustle for any tidbit of opportunity.
“Where I’m from in Maryland, that’s how we play the game of basketball,” McGruder said. “Tough.”
The defining memory of McGruder for Frank Martin, his college coach at Kansas State, is his transformation from an outmatched freshman defender into one of the Wildcats’ best perimeter stoppers during an all-Big 12 senior season in 2012-13.
Another transformation was necessary to stick in the NBA. McGruder overhauled his fitness to meet the rigors of guarding three positions, and the versatility led to his breakthrough 2016-17 season with Miami in which he played 78 games.
McGruder sustained a stress fracture in his left tibia in October 2017 and didn’t return until the following February. During Miami’s training camp last September, with a rod inserted in his leg to aid his recovery, McGruder returned to win the Heat’s grueling preseason conditioning test in a record time, said his agent, Joel Bell.
“He doesn’t get discouraged,” said Martin, who now is South Carolina’s coach. “In an era where too many people live and die with daily success and failure, he just keeps working, keeps improving.”
Instead of building upon his breakthrough this season, McGruder had an irritated knee joint that contributed to a decline in his shooting percentages. Treatment, once addressed this summer, could hold him out of basketball activity for more than a month, but it is not expected to last through training camp.
Much as Rivers enlisted the help of former Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue this season, the Clippers have used McGruder as a de facto scout during the playoffs.
“I like having another set of eyes from a different program that can kind of tell us what they would have done,” Rivers said.
In the meantime, his new team has made a point of showing McGruder how it operates. Claimed in large part because of the impression he’d left as an opponent, McGruder is now feeling out the Clippers from his up-close view inside the locker room.
“All the way down to the chef,” McGruder said, “everyone here has been great.”