It is the road less traveled, one likely never to be traveled again, from Coconut Creek to Sioux Falls, S.D., to the cusp of the NBA with the Miami Heat’s G League affiliate.
For all the longshot success stories the Miami Heat have created over the years, including the ones crafted with their developmental-league affiliate, Landon Kirkwood’s is like no other.
The goal at the moment is to make it back to South Florida, to where a basketball career was rekindled at a former community college that no longer has an athletics department.
“I mean,” Kirkwood said amid the South Dakota chill, “it’s a crazy experience. It’s surreal.”
And real. As real as a 20-point performance by the 6-foot-5 guard for the Heat’s G League affiliate in the franchise’s second victory of the season last weekend, a game that included opponents with NBA pedigree such as Justin Anderson, Norvel Pelle and Trevelin Queen.
So where do you start? You start in Brooklyn. No, not Barclays Center Brooklyn where the Nets play, but Brooklyn Center, Minn., at a small high school, as a player with big-time NCAA visions and a scholarship to Cal State-Fullerton.
And then you pause, after a misstep pauses the process, and begin a search for a different path.
Enter Anthony Anderson, a long-time college recruiter and coach who dared to dream big about building big at Broward College.
Already booked to attend the NCAA Finals Four in Minneapolis in 2019, a side trip was made to Brooklyn Center.
“And it all worked,” said Anderson, now in his third season as coach at the University of Fort Lauderdale. “And it kind of all came together. And the following year, Landon Kirkwood wound up at Broward College.”
It proved to be a one-way flight to a South Florida basketball whirlwind for Kirkwood. Through his play in his lone season at Broward he not only was able to move on to Barry University in Miami Shores, but also able to get himself featured in the summer Miami Pro League, as well as in area NBA workouts.
So there was drill work alongside John Wall and Michael Beasley at one training center, court time with Derrick Jones Jr. and Heat center Bam Adebayo at the summer pro-am.
“He got his opportunity,” Adebayo said this week, smiling when asked about Kirkwood. “He’s embraced his opportunity.”
The ultimate embrace came in September, at an open tryout for the Sioux Falls Skyforce, an event that had Heat staff and coaches for the team’s G League affiliate in attendance.
Such tryouts typically are courtesy events in the affiliate’s NBA and G League markets, rarely producing G League contributors.
Kirkwood’s session caught the eye of Skyforce coach Kasib Powell, the former Heat forward.
“He didn’t have the best tryout,” Powell said, “but I could tell he was competitive and he knew how to play the game. So I knew in the Heat culture, those are the things we look for. So I was interested to see what he could bring to the table. And we’ve seen he can make shots. And when you mix all of that in, we were happy to see that.
“We are going in trying to find that diamond in the rough. In the G League there’s a lot of turnover, so finding that guy can step up is something we really value.”
Kirkwood has done just that, with a revolving door in Sioux Falls that has seen Jamal Cain come and go on his two-way Heat contract, Orlando Robinson being called up to a Heat two-way contact, and players with Heat experience, such as Mychal Mulder, Jamaree Bouya and Dru Smith sharing time in Sioux Falls alongside Kirkwood.
“Everything I’ve done, I have to earn on my own,” Kirkwood said. “Just being able to step on that floor with the Heat’s G League team, Miami has taken me in since I got there at Broward. So it’s still surreal.”
So surreal that the season after Kirkwood played at Broward, the school disbanded its athletics department, with the announcement of, “We are proud of our student-athletes, our coaches and staff, and thank them for their commitment to our institution and the community. The discontinuation of the athletics program is part of the 2020-21 budget approved by the Broward College District Board of Trustees . . . to reallocate the use of the College’s resources to impact all 63,000 students we serve.”
Still, there was enough time to reignite the dream, with Anderson sensing during that lone season coaching Kirkwood that there would be more to come.
“Broward College had a name and we’d been putting players in situations where we would win and put them in position to further their career,” said Anderson, whose collegiate coaching career included work with future NBA players such as James Jones and Robert Hite at the University of Miami.
“Landon Kirkwood is a kid who just needed a stage to show people he could play, and that’s what he did,” Anderson said. “And I look forward to hearing about him for years to come. And I honestly think if he continues to put the work in, you’ll watch him in a real Heat uniform.”
That, of course, is the toughest of all steps, even tougher than a longshot emerging from a former community college to playing time in the G League.
But there also remains a confidence of something bigger.
“I was told from my first agent, before I met the agent I have now, he told me, ‘You’re never going to go to the NBA. You can go to Iraq, you can go to Iceland.’ I’m like, ‘What? We’re not going to take a chance?’ “
So from a tryout at LaSalle High School in Miami to time alongside NBA prospects in South Dakota.
“I think it means a little bit more to him, and it shows on the court,” Powell said of Kirkwood. “He plays like every minute, every second is his last.
“We are in the business of trying to find that diamond in the rough. In the G League there’s a lot of turnover, so finding that guy can step up is something we really value.
“He’s an extreme athlete. He’s a guy who can work on both ends of the floor. His athletic ability, ability to play on both sides of the ball, and being able to make shots, the NBA is always looking for athletic guys who can do those things. He has those qualities and tools.”
IN THE LANE
BAG O’ TRICKS: While the competition between the Heat’s Kyle Lowry and the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet was spirited Wednesday night at Scotiabank Arena, the friendship between the for Toronto teammates endures . . . even if that means some difficult viewing for VanVleet. “I watch as many games of them as I can stomach,” VanVleet quipped. “I’m a Kyle fan, I’m not really a Heat fan.” VanVleet said he still gets a kick out of Lowry, 36, attempting to manipulate games. “It’s annoying when he tricks the refs, but other than that, it’s just fun watching him do what he does,” Van Vleet said.
MADE SENSE: In the wake of Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and Suns coach Monty Williams talking prior to Monday night’s game about their respect for each other and their teams’ commitment to doing things the right way, Nets forward Kevin Durant, in his interview with Bleacher Report, shed light on what had made the two teams part of his trade wish list over the summer. “It wasn’t difficult at all to request a trade because it was about ball,” Durant said. “I went to them and was like, ‘Yo, I don’t like how we are preparing. I don’t like shootarounds. I like practices. I need more. … Hold me accountable.” Yup, sounds like Heat, and what Williams has put in place. “I would say, ‘Yo, I need more closeout drills. We need to practice more.’ That’s what I was on.” Durant eventually rescinded his request.
TAKING TIME: With his 76ers also having been unsteady and injury hampered, forward P.J. Tucker, like his former Heat teammates, is preaching patience. “Nobody’s ready for the playoffs right now,” Tucker told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s impossible. You haven’t played enough games. The team hasn’t figured everything out. Even teams that have been together, it’s still a progression of the season to be able to get ready and get to that point. And it’s the build-up. It really is. It’s a build-up.”
ALSO MOVING ON: Like the Heat with the name of their arena, the Washington Wizards have moved on from their marketing agreement with FTX, in the wake of the cryptocurrency exchange’s collapse amid reported questionable business practices. During the Heat’s visit to D.C., the Wizards issued a statement that read, “While their logo will still appear on certain pre-produced giveaway items that we will continue to distribute out of fairness to our fans, they will not have a presence with our teams in light of the recent news surrounding the company.” FTX was featured on 10,000 caps distributed during the Heat’s Friday visit to Capital One Arena.
4. Heat 19-year-olds to start a game with the team over the franchise’s 35 seasons, with Nikola Jović, 19 years, 160 days on Wednesday night in Toronto joining Tyler Herro, 19 years, 276 days, in 2019; Justise Winslow, 19 years, 291 days, in 2016; and Michael Beasley, 19 years, 294 days, in 2008. Bam Adebayo missed out, with his first start, in 2017, coming at 20 years, 99 days.