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The Perfect Fit: Norris Cole

Norris Cole is the type of player that is easy to talk about. When his college coach, Gary Waters, speaks about how much the 6-foot-2 point guard meant to his Cleveland State team, there is nothing labored about his cadence. Praise for Cole is effusive.

“He’s a great kid,” Waters said. “I’m not talking about average. He’s the best type of kid I’ve ever had in my program.”

The type he’s talking about is complete. Not just offense and defense, in the gym or on his own time, but of both body and mind. He gave everything he could physically because everything was asked of him in 34 and 36 minutes per game his final two seasons as a Viking, yet this is a country full of players capable of physical performance. Not every college player keeps his teammates on campus for two summer sessions before his senior year and guarantees his coach that he’ll have everyone up at 7 a.m. each day.

It’s not every player that holds Butler University’s Shelvin Mack, 34th pick in this year’s draft, to 11-of-34 shooting in three games this season, takes his heart out as Waters says, and schedules his summer workouts with that same player.

Nor is it just any player that plays 140 out of 140 games in his collegiate career, through ankle, hand and back injuries, who waved his coach back to the bench in the first half of his final game – a loss to the College of Charlestown in the NIT – after he crumpled to the floor with a twisted ankle, and then played 39 minutes.

“He’s just tough,” Waters said. “He’s tougher than nails. You don’t realize that until you put him in there and let him do that.”

Cole gets that from football. He comes from a football family, and it was football that he spent playing the summer before a 2,000 yard passing season at Dunbar High School in Dayton, Ohio. Because of that, there was no AAU circuit for Cole that summer, no trips to Las Vegas for sponsored tournaments, no grand stage in front of scouts and agents.

“If youre good enough, people will see youre good enough to play, and when you get the chance against the guys who are supposed to be at a higher level, you’ll be able to show what you can do.”

Waters eventually saw what Cole could do, but when he went down to see Cole during his senior season at Dunbar, he was only looking for a backup point guard to future pro Cedric Jackson. That’s what he found. A backup who once thought he was headed to NAIA Division II level play. Cole didn’t start a game during his freshman season at Cleveland State, playing less than 15 minutes a game.

It wasn’t until a trip to Spain a summer later – where Cole played well against Ricky Rubio – when Waters decided to experiment with Cole and start him at shooting guard, that the player drafted one week ago starting coming into his own. Cole averaged 18 points per game on that trip, and had his coach saying, “Uh, oh, we got a player here.”

And here’s where we get to the question of fit with the Miami HEAT. It’s perfect.

Though drafted as a point guard, Cole started at the two for all of his sophomore season. He ran off screens to get into scoring position, set screens to free his teammates and spotted-up from the perimeter. Everything guards have to do without the ball on a team that runs offense through LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Before Cole was even playing the point, he was developing the skills any guard needs when coming to the HEAT.

But when they get the ball in their hands, Miami point guards have to be able to run the pick-and-roll.

With Cole as a starter, Cleveland State ran the pick-and-roll about 75 percent of the time in order to maximize the opportunities Cole had to make plays, whether pulling up for a mid-range jumper, driving and kicking – he had the 17th-best assist rate in college, assisting on 37 percent of all baskets while on the floor – or driving and scoring. Cole knows how to use a screen and, as Waters says, be under control the entire time.

You won’t be using any screens for Erik Spoelstra, however, if you can’t play defense, and that’s where descriptions of Cole make it incredibly clear why Miami traded up to a guaranteed contract for him.

The Vikings played a full-court, 94-foot style of defense, the idea being to force the opponent to initiate its offense at the half-court line rather than at the arc, and Cole was the foundation. Not only was he using 32 percent of Cleveland State’s offensive possessions, he was guarding the other team’s best guard, chest-to-chest, while committing less than three fouls per 40 minutes.

“He learned to put constant pressure on the ball,” Waters said. “It’s not like you got a gap between them. He’s in that guy’s tail. I try to [have Cole] take the guy out of the play.”

Sometimes, Cole just tried to take any guy out of the play. When a big man stepped up to stop a penetrating wing player, it was Cole’s responsibility to box-out the weakside of the lane and grab the rebound. He grabbed 16.5 percent of all available defensive boards and 5.8 rebounds per game overall.

As for the cherry on top of the scouting report? Waters says Cole closes out on shooters as well as anyone out there.

What’s left to improve? As with any rookie, the answer is everything. Though Cole will need to improve his shooting after hitting 34 percent of his threes, though many of them were off the dribble, his senior year, the pro game means an adjustment in all aspects of the game. But when the starting point is a speedy point guard who has experience both running the pick-and-roll and playing off the ball, pressures the ball at all times, rebounds, passes and does every little thing asked of him to the point where Waters said he killed Cole playing him so many minutes, well, for Miami, that’s perfect.

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