It was tough enough landing a job in the NBA when 100 percent of roster spots were filled by American-born players a few generations ago. Now those 450 jobs – 480 if you throw in the two two-way players each team now can employ – are being sought by aspiring NBA stars pounding the pavement everywhere from Australia to Zambia.
Rodney McGruder doesn’t need any education on the obstacles strewn in the path to the NBA. His began in Hungary after a decorated four-year college career didn’t move the needle enough to get him drafted nine years ago. He’s toiled in the G League, was a casualty of the business end of the NBA and has been involved in a trade later undone.
Through it all, McGruder has built a reputation as a sterling teammate and a consummate professional – the attributes that serve to extend careers when it comes to settling ties for roster spots.
Here's a look at McGruder’s past, present and future:
PROFILE: 6-foot-4 wing, 30 years old, 6 NBA seasons
2021-22 STATS: 5.4 points, 2.2 rebounds and .397 3-point shooting in 15 minutes a game over 51 games
STATUS: McGruder is a free agent after signing a one-year contract with the Pistons last off-season
DID YOU KNOW?: McGruder’s father and Pistons general manager Troy Weaver grew up in the same Washington, D.C., neighborhood and have known each other since their youth. McGruder says Weaver is “like an uncle to me.”
A LOOK BACK: McGruder grew up in Landover, Md., where the Washington Wizards once played in their days as the Washington Bullets. McGruder played his final season of high school basketball in Jacksonville, Fla., and became a four-star recruit. An AAU teammate of Michael Beasley, McGruder followed Beasley’s path to Kansas State. He came off the bench as a freshman, playing 12 minutes a game, then started 100 games over his final three seasons for competitive teams and averaged in double figures his final two seasons. McGruder was voted to the All-Big 12 third team as a sophomore, second team as a junior and first team as a senior for teams that averaged 25 wins a season. Going undrafted in 2013, McGruder played in Hungary in 2013-14 before playing in the G League the next two seasons. He caught his break in 2016, landing with the Miami Heat, and started 65 games for a team that turned an 11-30 first half of the season into a 30-11 finish. After an injury-plagued 2017-18, McGruder started 45 games in 2018-19 for the Heat but was waived in the season’s final week to enable Miami to avoid luxury taxes. The Los Angeles Clippers claimed McGruder and he played 56 games for them in 2019-20 before being included in the trade that shipped Luke Kennard from the Pistons in exchange for the 19th pick used to draft Saddiq Bey in the 2020 draft. McGruder played 16 games for the Pistons in 2020-21. To create roster and cap space, the Pistons declined a team option for 2021-22 to make McGruder a free agent.
THE SEASON THAT WAS: McGruder came to training camp as one of three 30-year-old players, joining Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk, after re-signing with the Pistons in free agency. His job was to be ready to fill any role at any moment in a season dedicated to the development of the fleet of young players stocking the roster – and the overriding reason the Pistons brought McGruder back was because of their confidence in not only his ability to fill that role but the professionalism they knew he would exhibit in doing so to those many young players. In early January, McGruder was traded to Denver for 7-footer Bol Bol and a second-round pick, but the trade was rescinded days later when Bol failed a physical examination that revealed a lingering foot injury. With another player, that might have made for an awkward situation, but Pistons teammates were thrilled to have McGruder return and he responded as Weaver and Casey knew he would, continuing to work with utmost diligence. In his first three games upon returning, McGruder scored 49 points and hit 12 of 20 3-point shots.
A LOOK AHEAD: McGruder faces the same situation as he did a year ago with free agency looming and roster spots with the Pistons at a premium. The fact Denver was willing to trade an intriguing young player and add a draft pick establishes the interest likely from contending teams looking for a player with the versatility, reliability and rock-solid reputation of McGruder. The proven ability to hit 3-pointers on volume shooting despite sporadic use is a major selling point. Weaver and Dwane Casey have spoken of their intent to have a core of veterans present amid a rebuilding and nobody embodies the values they hold dear any more certainly than McGruder, so another reunion could well be in the cards. Because there are so few teams with cap space this off-season and many teams will have to fill out the back half of their rosters with players on veteran minimum exceptions, McGruder could have attractive options available to him.
MONEY QUOTE: “He is the ultimate professional. Just a classy guy, hard worker, a team-first person and a great individual. I can’t say enough good things about Rodney – just a great guy. I tell him all the time, ‘You’re going to make a great coach someday in your career.’ ” – Pistons assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who also coached McGruder with the Clippers, in January when McGruder was traded and then returned to the Pistons