How Heat pick Kel'el Ware can reach his potential, and unlock Bam Adebayo's

After picking Kel'el Ware in the first round, the Miami Heat envision a player who can play with Bam Adebayo in a two-big lineup.
2024 NBA Draft - Round One
2024 NBA Draft - Round One / Sarah Stier/GettyImages

MIAMI -- As the Miami Heat brass gathered in the team’s war room at Kaseya Center on Wednesday night, they watched as the draft board unspooled in front of them.

The Heat have generally taken a c'est la vie approach to the NBA draft. This is not an organization that targets players in a trade-up. Rather, they let the draft play out and take the best player left on their board. If the Heat have traded a pick, it’s typically been to move out of the draft for a veteran contributor. The Heat don’t move up and down, they are in or out.

But sources told Yahoo Sports that wasn’t the case on Wednesday night. The Heat were interested in Duke guard Rob Dillingham – the pure scorer with a dazzling dribble and immense upside. The Heat contacted the Memphis Grizzlies at no. 9 about a possible trade-up, but that scenario was dashed when the Minnesota Timberwolves leap-frogged the ninth pick and traded distant draft capital to the San Antonio Spurs for no. 8. They took Dillingham to pair with Anthony Edwards and establish the backcourt of their future. 

With Dillingham off the board, the Heat appeared willing to sit tight. Supersized Purdue center Zach Edey went with the next pick. Then Colorado forward Cody Williams.

Providence guard Devin Carter was still available. Carter, a lockdown defender who oozes Heat culture values, was also believed to be high on Miami’s board. How high, exactly? We may never know, because he was plucked by the Sacramento Kings two picks ahead of Miami’s pick. When the Wizards selected Carlton Carrington at 14, that left the Heat with only a few options. 

Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht, considered a sure top-10 pick, was slipping. Colorado forward Tristan Da Silva was available as expected. The Heat liked him. Duke guard Jared McCain was available, and insiders considered him among Miami’s top guys.

Back in the war room, the Heat knew who they wanted. 

The Heat drafted Indiana center Kel’el Ware with the 15th pick in the draft. The selection was slightly out of character but signaled a clear direction. The front office wanted to get coach Erik Spoelstra more tools and unlock double-big lineups that could benefit Bam Adebayo in different lineups.

“We weren’t sure if Kel’el would get to us,” assistant GM Adam Simon said. “So we were looking at different options, potentially to move up. But when he was there, there were a couple of picks left and we felt it was a good chance for him to get to us. And certainly we were excited by that.”

Where did the Heat have Ware on their board?

“Definitely higher than 15,” Simon said.

The Heat worked out Ware during the predraft process and came away from that session encouraged by his athleticism, 3-point stroke and motor. That last bit – Ware’s motor – was the biggest question facing the 20-year-old after his freshman season at Oregon and didn’t go away despite a stronger season as a transfer at Indiana.

Ware, a five-star recruit out of Little Rock, Arkansas, was benched and called out by his coach during his freshman season for a lack of effort.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations. They haven’t gone as well and haven’t been as constructive as we want them to be,” Oregon coach Dana Altman told reporters then. “I was disappointed in his effort.”

Ware transferred to Indiana, where he was coached by longtime NBA coach Mike Woodson. Woodson admitted that the effort wasn’t there when he first brought Ware into the program, but that changed by the end of his sophomore season.

“He just hadn’t been taught and pushed to do it,” Woodson told Hoosiers Now at the end of the season. “It’s like night and day from the time we got him to where he is today in terms of going hard and understanding that you just can’t take possessions off.”

The Heat did their homework. They reached out to Ware’s previous coaches. They watched the film. They met him and worked him out. By 9:42 pm ET on Wednesday, Miami’s decision-makers were comfortable with Ware’s approach.

“I think that’s a low-hanging fruit description of him,” Simon said. “He played with a motor, he played with intensity. We’re talking about a young player that has an edge to him.”

That edge will be needed in the Heat’s locker room, where Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo won’t let Ware off the hook. Ware, for his part, is looking forward to being part of the organization.

“That’s the best place for me,” Ware told reporters after being picked by Miami. “I know they are going to push me past my limits, push me past that wall to be the best player that I can be.”

At 7-foot with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Ware is now the biggest player on the Heat’s roster and gives them functional size in the front court and potential to space the floor with his 3-point shot. Simon called Ware a “3-and-D center.”

“It is not easy to find 7-footers who can play out on the perimeter offensively and also be able to defend with his ability to shot block and defend the post,” Simon said. “For us, that was very appealing.”

Ware, who averaged nearly 2 blocks per game at Indiana, is a prototypical drop defender who deters shots at the rim with his length. The Heat can feel comfortable with Ware dropping back on pick-and-rolls and enveloping smaller players with his length. 

Even at 230 pounds, Ware still needs to add strength. He can get pushed off his spots and bigger post players will be able to shove him under the basket. But there will be matchups in the NBA when that is less of an issue.

Ware also has potential as a weakside shot blocker when he’s not directly involved in the action. If the Heat use Adebayo or a stronger center to guard bruising centers like Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, Ware can impact the possession by flying in for blocks. 

Speaking of blocks, Ware is too jumpy and needs to stay down instead of chasing swats. Savier opponents will trick him with pump fakes. But that’s to be expected for a rookie. He can get caught out of position and beat off the dribble, but has the length and athleticism to make up ground. Those fundamentals will be up to the Heat coaching staff – which includes one of the league’s best big-man coaches in Malik Allen – to iron out.

“We’ll be able to have his defensive skill set evolve,” Simon said. “Those are the things that are appealing to us. The ability for him to slide, his lateral movement. But also that length, the ability to contest.”

Ware’s 9-foot-4 standing reach measured third in his class. He also had the third-longest hand length and posted the third-highest standing vertical leap.

Offensively, he’s a mismatch in the post with length to put the ball in the basket while barely jumping. In a conference featuring Kristaps Porzingis and the Celtics at the top, the Heat now have a size matchup.

He’ll be a lob threat on day one and will add vertical spacing to a Heat team that needs it. As athletic as Adebayo is, he can get lost amongst taller trees. Ware is a big target – the biggest the Heat have had since Hassan Whiteside. He’ll make it easy for Miami's ball-handlers to throw lobs and entry passes. 

Despite his size, Ware needs to get stronger to finish through contact so he can truly tap into this part of his game. But there will be opportunities, especially when going up-tempo or in the open floor, for some highlight-reel dunks.

Ware shot 73.6% at the rim, according to Nearly three quarters of those makes were assisted. He’ll rely on others to set him up.

Ware did show off a face-up game at Indiana and was relatively efficient (44.6% on 2-point jumpers) but it’s unclear how much the Heat will want him to tap into that with Adebayo and Butler taking up most of the mid-range oxygen.  

Ware’s face-up game mostly came off slow-developing post-ups and didn’t feature much variety – dribble, dribble, spin to the right shoulder and rise up. He falls away from the basket, making the shot more difficult than it needs to be for a guy with a 9-foot-4.5 standing reach. NBA teams will scout that and be ready.

The Heat will want to nudge Ware beyond the 3-point arc. He shot 42.5% but on a low sample size – 40 attempts in 30 games – but the Heat are comfortable with the shooting stroke and believe it will translate to the NBA. 

During pre-draft workouts, the Heat tested prospects with Noah Basketball technology that uses computer-vision technology to measure a player’s shooting stroke. Ware’s checked out.

“You look at this stroke, it’s very fluid and very easy,” Simon said. “We’re going to work on it with him to get it even better. But just being comfortable shooting threes at this point, it’s definitely a plus.”

Ware’s 3-point shot is faster than his post-up game. He catches the ball and shoots in rhythm and has a high release point that makes it difficult to block.

“There aren’t really that many people who can do what I do at 7-foot,” Ware said.

Make no mistake, the Heat envision lineups featuring Ware at center and Adebayo at power forward. If Ware can reach his potential, the two can form one of the league’s most fearsome defensive frontcourts. 

On offense, Ware’s ability to space the floor will be tested early. The Heat have been searching for a floor-spacing center to play alongside Bam for years. They had Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard during the 2020 bubble run. They attempted to mold undrafted finds like Omer Yurtseven and Orlando Robinson into floor-spacing 5s, but to no avail. Kevin Love, acquired on the buyout market in 2023, is the closest thing the Heat have had, but lineups featuring Love and Adebayo were still too small to be viable. 

This week, the Heat used a first-round pick to take a player at the position who offered what those other players couldn’t – 99th-percentile size and athleticism. If Ware hits, the Heat will have the ability to play two centers at a time or toggle between Adebayo and Ware to fill 48 minutes of quality center play.

“To be able to block shots, defend the rim, shoot threes, he’s got a great touch in the post,” Simon said. “I think his skill set will be great to play with Bam.”

Added Ware: “I’ll be able to fit well with the Heat, just being at that five position to help Bam out with Bam potentially going to the four and just being able to space the floor.”

The NBA comparisons for Ware were all over the place. Is he Jaren Jackson Jr. or Myles Turner? Or will he end up as the next Mo Bamba? Ware is far from a finished product and needs to get stronger in body and fundamentals before he can make a consistent winning impact, but the Heat’s best-in-class player development program has already helped turn Nikola Jovic and Jaime Jaquez Jr. into slam-dunk rotation players in the NBA.

“I think this is the perfect place for him,” Simon said. “I think it’s a great match for Kel’el to maximize his skill set.”