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Breakaway: Wayne Ellington's Journey From Indistinguishable to Indispensable

A former first-round pick, Wayne Ellington has played on seven teams in nine years. Now a mainstay in Miami, we charted his journey from indistinguishable to indispensable in the latest Breakaway podcast.

How does a player suddenly become indispensable after years of bouncing around the league? In the latest episode of the Breakaway podcast, Miami's Wayne Ellington walks us through his well-traveled career and the break that changed everything.

Subscribe to the Breakaway podcast on Apple PodcastsArt 19 or Stitcher to get every new episode as it's released—along with the rest of Seasons 1 and 2.​

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Rob Mahoney: The NBA is brimming with anxiety. It’s a lucrative and glamorous industry, but that’s the root of the problem. People can always find reason for worry when they have something to lose, and that something starts—in this case—with a place in the best, most exclusive basketball league there is.

And then come the amplifiers. Playoff pressure can keep a player up at night. Tension between teammates creates all kinds of discomfort. There are expectations to live up to, on-court problems to solve, and a persistent need to keep getting better. In between there are finances to manage and a public image to maintain, all just for starters. 

These aren’t distractions—they’re signs of life. And the thread that connects them all is security. It’s the invisible hand that shapes careers. When a player has a sense of where he’ll be from year to year and what his role will look like, a good deal of that anxiety is lifted. When he doesn’t, well … 

Wayne Ellington: It makes it very hard, to say the least. 

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Mahoney: This is Wayne Ellington of the Miami Heat, who in his nine NBA seasons has played for seven different teams and seven different coaches. There is no sense of normalcy for a player who moves around that much; just when Ellington would start to get his bearings with a franchise, he’d be shipped off in a trade or his contract would expire. Continuity was a luxury he could never afford. There was always next season to consider—that uncertain world beyond his one-year deals. 

Ellington: It kinda starts to take the joy away from the game. It starts to take that mentality that winning is first when every year you don't know what's next for you, individually. It's—it was a challenge, no question. It was a challenge for me. But I had to learn really fast the business side of the game and how to be able to survive just because I was one of those guys that there's no telling. Honestly, I'm not even sure if I'm supposed to be in the NBA right now.

Mahoney: That might seem like a crazy thought to anyone who has watched Ellington play with the Heat this season. His NBA bonafides seem beyond question. But this is where drifting from team to team takes people like Ellington. It shows them the edge of the league and the steep fall out of it. Nothing will make a player rethink his relationship to the game like being repeatedly told he’s not wanted. Ellington endured that. He internalized some of the feedback he heard from teams, but not all of it. After all: there were things he knew about his game that those teams clearly didn’t. But Ellington survived in the league long enough to reflect and to change. This is the journey—not only around the NBA itself, but also through tests and challenges toward a real and lasting purpose. I’m Rob Mahoney and you’re listening to Breakaway.

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Mahoney: The original trial for every NBA player is learning to lose. Those who make it to the league are typically winners by default; they were prep phenoms turned college standouts. If the team that drafts them is bad enough, a rookie could lose more games in a single season than they had in their entire basketball lives. Their introduction to the way the league operates is through a complete sense of culture shock. 

Ellington: I had come off winning a national championship in college and my first year in the NBA we won 15 games out of 82. So you can imagine how—how much of a toll that kinda took on me mentally. And then my second year we won 17. My third year, I think we won maybe 20-something. So it was tough, you know, kinda understanding that there's some tough situations at this level and there's some parts of the business that you kinda have to understand and get used to—which is really, really hard for a young player.

Mahoney: Those three years playing for the David Kahn Timberwolves were pretty miserable, basketball-wise. They also made for Ellington’s longest stay with any one team—a fact made all the more unfortunate because Kurt Rambis and his staff, shockingly, didn’t really know what to do with him.

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Ellington: There was a point, I think maybe my rookie year and my second year in Minnesota, I played point guard a little bit. I was asked to be in a lot of different pick-and-roll situations, handling the ball, instead of put in situations coming off screens and being able to catch and shoot, and get out in transition and run the floor—which are my strengths. As I look back, man, you know it's all just kinda like a learning experience. Those type of teams didn't exactly have any direction themselves so it was hard for them to point any player in a direction as well.  

Mahoney: To be fair, some of that is just player development in action. The only way to find out what a young player is capable of is to try them in different roles and different functions. It’s not as if Ellington was pushing Raymond Felton off the ball at North Carolina so he could run the offense. The idea of him creating was new, and plausible, and so it was worth exploring. Where the Wolves fell short was in their imagination; there are ways to dynamic play beyond running high pick-and-roll. There is a whole spectrum of utility in between working as a ball-dominant creator and a shooter waiting in the corner. Minnesota never fully realized how Ellington’s shooting could be put to use, and because of that, they never understood why he would be worth keeping.

So they traded him to the Grizzlies, who dealt him to the Cavaliers in a salary dump a few months later—all before the end of his rookie contract. In his first round of free agency, Ellington signed a two-year deal with the Mavericks, who barely played him. After a year, Dallas traded him to New York who traded him to Sacramento, making him technically a Knick and technically a King though he never played a game for either. Sacramento actually waived and stretched Ellington’s contract rather than keep him around—they cut him in 2014 but he was still on their books as recently as last season. With the freedom to choose his team, Ellington spent a year with the Lakers playing for the minimum, then a year with the Nets for a cut of the taxpayer mid-level exception. 

Teams told Ellington every way they could that they weren’t interested in making him a part of their plans. They traded him. They waived him. They saw what he could do and chose not to play him. You would think there would always be a place in the league for a capable three-point shooter, but Ellington could feel the brink. A player only gets so many chances before teams just stop calling. 

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Ellington: I wasn't sure. I knew that I was gonna put the work in to leave no doubt. But at the same time, that's not always enough. You can work your butt off and still find yourself on the outside looking in.  

Mahoney: When you’re in Ellington’s position, you never really know what it is that teams actually want from you. Every team says they value winning habits, but many signal otherwise with the players they choose to sign. Besides: It’s hard to make smart, winning plays on crummy teams that can’t really support them. The Lakers and the Nets and the Cavs didn’t have the infrastructure to really make sense of what Ellington does best, making it that much harder for other teams to take notice.

The problem isn’t that the incentive structures are backwards—it’s that they’re convoluted. Playing with restraint risks blending into the background of a losing team. Putting up numbers might get you noticed, but with that comes a certain skepticism as to your motives. And there’s a lot at stake when you’re playing for your future every season. Every possession can feel monumental, which makes it that much more challenging to play your best basketball. The only way that Ellington could keep loose was to remember.

Ellington: Just remembering why I started playing basketball and how I started playing basketball. Remembering—​y'know, at-at college, kinda remembering those habits that we were taught and winning principles. And just having good conversation—having good people in my corner, first and foremost. People that encourage me and motivated me and kinda reminded me that I am good enough, to continue to play the right way and continue to play team basketball even though the situation is not exactly what it calls for.

Mahoney: It was all Ellington could do to keep showing up, keep doing the work, and hope that if he could just hang around the NBA long enough, he might find the right team at the right time. After seven years of wandering from team to team, he did. 

Wayne: Welcome to Miami.

And the Heat didn’t just sign Ellington—they needed him. The perfect coincidence of Ellington’s career was that he landed on a team desperate for his skill set at the exact time when three-point shooting was of its peak importance. Teams around the league were scoring at incredible rates because long-range shooting was no longer some passive threat. It was the first option. It was the trigger that forced a defense to respond, rather than the counter to that response.

Ellington: I always like to say, man, I thank guys like Steph and Klay and shooters like Ray because they made that style popular. They won championships by shooting a lot, by shooting a lot of threes. And obviously it starts something. It starts opening people's eyes to saying wow, in order to keep up, we've gotta take and shoot and make some threes. 

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Mahoney: Miami, without Ellington, would have some trouble with the making. The Heat had lost their four most prolific three-point shooters from the season prior, leaving streak shooters like Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson responsible for the spacing and health of the offense. Ellington was their safety net. He would have to play and he would have to shoot. 

That in itself was a shift considering where Ellington had been. Lionel Hollins, who coached Ellington in Brooklyn the season before, had scoffed at the three-point shooting revolution. His Grizzlies and Nets teams played like dinosaurs. Byron Scott, at the start of his season coaching Ellington in L.A., claimed that three-point shooting didn’t win championships. Eight months later, the Golden State Warriors’ three-point shooting won the championship.

Those kinds of Jurassic perspectives help explain why Ellington never caught on with a team sooner. Ellington managed to get some steady minutes in both L.A. and Brooklyn, but coaches who don’t value three-point shooting were never going to see him as anything beyond replaceable. And even some of the more enlightened coaches seemed to think of Ellington as a relatively static element: the kind of shooter who should just spot up on the weak side and keep a defense honest.

Ellington can do that. But from the moment he came into the league, he wanted to be known as a—

Ellington:—shooter, a pure shooter, a knockdown shooter. I looked up to guys like Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton, Reggie Miller—those are all NBA players I looked up to and wanted to kinda model my game after.

Mahoney: What those three players have in common is that they lived in motion. 

Ellington: To me, it was kinda like an art to it, the way they came off screens and got open. Set their feet, their footwork. Being able to get shots off quick. Those are all things that really caught my attention coming out of UNC as our shooter on our team, those are all the things that I really watched and paid attention to and worked on. 

Mahoney: It’s still a bit of a mystery that Ellington got away from SO many coaches and executives and scouts with so many different franchises. One working theory: Maybe teams understood that Ellington was a shooter, but they didn’t quite see the shades of Ray. They didn’t think he had the same star quality that Reggie did, and so it never really occurred to them that he could be used in some of the same ways. If you only see Ellington as a short-term, low-maintenance shooter who can convert open looks, there’s never much reason to think any bigger.

The bottom line is that Ellington was never really important enough to any of his previous teams for them to make an effort beyond his station…until he came to the Heat. It all started—as these things often do—with a need.

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Mahoney: Miami’s reliance on Ellington runs deep. His shooting is obviously valuable in itself, for the simple reason that no other member of the Heat can replicate it. Ellington has almost as many made threes this season as the Heat’s next two top shooters combined. In fact, only seven players in the entire league have made as many total threes as Ellington this year—an astounding feat for a reserve playing 27 minutes a game. Shoot like that and the surrounding offense cannot help but be better for it.

Ellington’s shooting stretches even further. The Heat don’t have anything resembling a superstar on their roster. But what they do have is a cast of functional shot creators and Ellington—the shooter they run all around the floor as a way of testing the defense. Wherever Ellington goes, defenders are forced into tough decisions. They could try to deny him, but at the risk of leaving one of his screeners open. They could try to jump the gap to stay with him, but leave themselves vulnerable to a change in direction. The Heat know just how to bust Ellington loose and even more important: when to misdirect the defense instead. That combination exposes all but the most vigilant opponents.

The Heat offense, as a result, is five points better per 100 possessions when Ellington is in the game. And Ellington, individually, is scoring more than he ever has before. The idea of getting a star-level impact from a career cast-off is so totally, unmistakably Heat. This is an organization that turns unwanted and undrafted players into valuable contributors. They value stars, to be sure, but the bedrock is the work. That’s how you get a glamour franchise that somehow doubles as a blue-collar outfit. There’s a prestige there, but the kind that’s hand-polished and maintained with militaristic rigor.

Ellington: Man. The culture.

Mahoney: It’s really something else. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is on record as saying that the Heat way of life isn’t for everyone, which might be understating it.

Ellington: It's about working. You're gonna work hard. They're gonna demand things out of you that other teams don't demand. You're gonna be asked to be in top shape. You're gonna be asked to give everything you have on the defensive end of the floor first. You're gonna be asked to put the extra, extra work in, individual work. You're gonna be asked to put the team first. Winning first. It’s a winning culture.

Mahoney: Most players think they understand what that means, but the standards in Miami are … particular. The Heat revel in their discipline. It’s what binds them together.

Ellington: We like to say we from the mud. We like to say we got it from the mud. We like to say we from the jungle. Nothing was handed to any of us. We all seen out share of hard times and adversity, and we feel like that builds character. Some guys were out the league looking in from the outside and had to work our way back into the league and grind it out. Y’know, a lot of us have that, y'know, that common background where nothing was handed to us and we had to grind to get everything through work, through hard work and dedication.

Mahoney: That dedication starts, as any Heat player will tell you, with conditioning. Every player begins their tenure in Miami with a weight and body fat check, which is sort of a weekly ritual. Then comes a shirtless photo. It’s a strange ask, but the photo serves as the “before” in what will become a “before and after” body transformation. Players can swipe through an iPad to see what the team’s regimen has done for others. There’s James Johnson, down almost 40 pounds. There’s Dion Waiters at six percent body fat. The whole thing is pretty maniacal, but damn if it isn’t effective. To play for the Heat is to be put through the ringer. But it’s also a straight line to the best shape of your life, age be damned, and a promise to be surrounded by other players who have done the same. In the end, it creates avenues for improvement that most players didn’t even realize was there.

Ellington: I thought, y'know, that I was playing in shape, y'know, every other year that I played. I've never been a guy that you look at and thought: 'Oh, he's out of shape.' That's never been the knock on me. But I thought I was in pretty good shape and then we did weight and body fat, they measured me up and weighed me, and I think I was at like 12 percent. They wanted me to be, I think, seven, seven and a half. And I wasn't sure 'cause other teams don't really measure you like that. They don't really do weight and body fat. So I wasn't sure what it was gonna take to get there, but I know I was willing to do it. And as I got to work and we were there probably in August getting ready for training camp. We're in there, we're working, we're in the weight room heavy, we're doing on-court stuff and we're doing conditioning. I'm like, 'Man, I haven't seen this. I haven't seen this this early from other teams.' Usually, guys show up for camp and use camp to get in shape. Y’know what I mean? I gotta keep saying, man: it's part of the culture. When you come in, we have a conditioning test. You're expected to pass it. You're expected to be in shape for camp. We're not gonna use camp to get in shape. You're supposed to be in shape and ready to go when camp starts. 

Mahoney: One of the few benefits of bouncing around the league as much as Ellington has is the perspective he’s gained in contrast. Ellington has seen a fourth of the league’s teams from the inside. He’s lived in enough organizational structures to know what works for him and what doesn’t. The Heat stood out—in part because something about their code and attitude just made intuitive sense to him.

Ellington: It's kinda like night and day, just in terms of how we operate here. Just the camaraderie standpoint. It's expected for us to enjoy each other's success and play the right way. In this league, you tend to see a lot of selfishness. You tend to see a lot of guys about the individual accolades and things from that standpoint but here, obviously that happens but at the same time, it's team-oriented. That's what I really enjoy. That's something that I really value and that I really, really can gravitate towards.

Ellington: It just kinda mended. As soon as I got here, it just felt like it was right.

Mahoney: Ellington saw that decision validated when last year’s Heat made one of the most amazing in-season turnarounds in NBA history. A team that starts its season 11-30 is as good as done, but Miami thought otherwise—it clawed for every possession and every game to finish their season with a .500 record. The finish was extraordinary but excruciating; after all the Heat had been through—and after winning the last three games of their season – they finished the year tied for the last playoff spot and edged out by technicality.

This was Spoelstra, a two-time NBA champion as a head coach and once more as an assistant, immediately following the Heat’s playoff disqualification:

Spoelstra: I don't know if I've ever felt this way about a team before. I don't know if I've ever wanted something more for a team. When any one of us wanted to get into team sports, it was to be around a team like this. We went through so much together in just a few months and really got to know each other. And through everything, we've made each other better. It was such an honor to be around a group like this. It really was. I wish I had something for this team just to keep this thing going. I think the hardest thing for any of us to wrap our minds around is that we don't have practice tomorrow at 12.

Mahoney: As it turns out, the players didn’t need practice or even games to keep their run going. The season came to its official end. Yet one by one, Heat players began trickling back into the facility to pick up where they had left off.

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Ellington: I think I took one week off, y'know, and then I got right back in the gym. And I was surprised to see other guys in there already as well. I think first it was James and I. James and then they just started trickling. More and more guys were coming back in and they were in there. That's part of the culture.

Ellington: Usually, with the teams that I've been on, what that I've seen before, guys are splitting, going their own way. You might not see guys again until training camp. It's very different. It's very different. I saw everybody during the summer. I saw guys, guys were coming in and out, showing face, come and get some work in, whatever it may be. Guys are working out outside of the gym. We really have relationships. We're friends. And I expect these guys—these guys are like brothers to me. Whatever happens, we have that bond. We have that connection.

Mahoney: It was those bonds—and the grind behind them—that gave Ellington the first real home of his NBA career. Ellington has been a better player for it. Living the Heat way has helped him run harder longer; defenders not only have to reckon with the dangers of Ellington running off screens, but the exhausting reality that he’ll never stop. 

Ellington: Especially for what I do: running, coming off screens, being able to run around and tire defenders out. It's, it's definitely a testament to the success that I've been having.

Mahoney: Ellington covers about as much ground per minute as any player in the league, according to, giving every possession around him a dynamic lift. Spoelstra tends to favor sets that are loaded with optionality. The goal isn’t to get the ball to Dwyane Wade, but to trigger a progression: a dribble hand-off into a pick-and-roll with a backdoor read and another hand-off to counter. The actions never stop. There are always interesting things happening on the weak side of the floor, which is often where Ellington’s routes begin. 

On some possessions, it looks as if he’s in a game of his own. Ellington and a teammate might screen for one another in succession out on the wing, forcing the defense into a scramble as they also watch Goran Dragic drive from the other side of the floor. If Ellington can force any defender other than his own to pay attention to him, that’s a win. If he can move in a way that makes it difficult for the defense to keep up with him, that’s a win. If Ellington can move with enough speed and purpose to make you believe he’s the primary option on a given play when he’s not, that’s a win. There are just so many ways that Ellington can beat you, and many of them don’t require ever touching the ball. 

This was a revelation—even to Ellington. 

Ellington: Just because I was put in a lot more actions in our offense. And it wasn't always about me catching the ball and scoring. Sometimes it's about me coming off a screen and drawing two guys and one of my teammates gets a wide-open shot or a wide-open layup. So I started to understand that more this season more than ever just because of the actions that I'm in. Sometimes I'll come off and I'll get a shot, and then the next four or five times I'll come off the same route and I'll run just as hard. And I won't get the ball, but it'll open up something completely different in the offense. It takes some maturing and evolving to understand that part of the game and seeing that part of the game. 

Mahoney: What Ellington is describing … is gravity.

In basketball, shooting is a fundamental force. It pulls defenders out of the lane, changing the shape of the defense. And, when it’s strong enough, it can actually compromise the principles of an entire system; no one wants to leave Steph Curry alone at the three-point line, which in some cases allows Kevin Durant to waltz into a wide open dunk. All the mechanisms of help defense that players use to cover for one another are challenged by the ever-present threat of perimeter shooting.

The way the Heat use Ellington in their offense takes that same pull on the move, applying it to as many defenders as possible. An NBA-high 35% of Ellington’s offense this season has come from hand-offs—an action that pits a defender between two competing forces. Let’s say that Kelly Olynyk has the ball at the three-point line with Ellington sprinting toward him. Both of their defenders, in concert, have to make a choice as to how much to respect Ellington, how much to respect Olynyk, and how much they trust their teammates to rotate, as they should. 

Every team decides for itself how it should cover these kinds of actions. But it’s telling that in moments of panic, both defenders usually flock toward Ellington.

Ellington: I love it. I love it. When I fly off a screen and two guys jump to me and one of 'em—Bam gets a dunk or K.O. keeps it on the hand-off and he goes down the paint wide open for a dunk. That's gratifying to me. I love that just as much as hitting the three myself. Feels good. 

Mahoney: The Heat understand Ellington’s power in those situations, which is why he’s become a structural component to their offense. Even on a team with incredible wing depth, certain actions are conceived with Ellington, specifically, in mind. In endgame scenarios when Miami desperately needs a score, they put in Ellington—sometimes to work as a decoy, but often just to shoot. 

There’s always validation in having the trust of your coaches and your teammates. But for Ellington, there’s some extra sweetness in the fact that a team would build some portion of its offense around him—the guy that eight other teams thought better than to keep.

Ellington: Ah, man. Sweetness is an understatement. Just because, like I said, man, I'm one of those guys that if you look back at what I've been through and situations, I'm not sure that I'm supposed to be here in this league right now. But that adversity built a lot of character in me. I'm just grateful, to say the least, man. I'm grateful because I know what it feels like to be on the other side. Now that I'm here and I'm part of a great organization that believes in me and has put me in a position to be successful and I'm having success this late—usually you don't see guys this late in their career having their best season. So it's gratifying. I’m grateful and I’m appreciative.

Mahoney: And it’s probably even more gratifying to know that the Heat bent over backwards to keep him. There was a moment over the summer when it looked like Miami would have to cut Ellington out of financial necessity. They had big plans in free agency, starting with a pitch to Gordon Hayward. And Ellington’s contract had a role to play. The Heat had initially signed Ellington for two years, but the second season of his deal was unguaranteed with a late decision date. That meant Miami could survey the free agent landscape and decide whether they needed the $6.3 million in cap space his contract would fill.

The sum total of the Heat’s free agent spending suggested that might be the case. Agreements were made with Johnson, Waiters, and Olynyk, and the figures initially reported for those deals exceeded the budget necessary to keep Ellington. 

What those reports missed was the Heat’s ingenuity. Miami managed to make attractive offers to all three of those free agents that counted for less against the salary cap than they seemed. The loophole that made it all possible was the performance bonus.

Bonuses are a common inclusion in NBA contracts, and they’re tied to any number of possible criteria: games played, awards won, postseason success – all sorts of things. And the NBA has a formulaic approach to deciding whether these bonuses are likely or unlikely to be fulfilled, based in part on whether the player met that requirement the season before. Any bonus deemed unlikely to be achieved doesn’t count against a team’s cap figure. So the Heat built performance bonuses into these new contracts that would technically be unlikely but wouldn’t actually be that improbable. Suddenly, the idea of keeping Ellington became much more viable.

So Miami also worked out a deal to move Josh McRoberts to the Mavericks, and there it was: the Heat, somehow, had made the math work for them. Ellington was relieved, but so was Spoelstra.

Spoelstra: When we executed his contract, he was the first guy I texted…and I don't think he was – I don't think he slept the night before. He really wanted to be here and we wanted him back. And we made it happen.

Mahoney: For Ellington, this was new. There were teams he had enjoyed playing on and coaches he had enjoyed working with. But in Miami he had played the best basketball of his career, surrounded by people who understood his value. The front office had brainstormed ways to keep him around, and etched their desire to keep him into the legalese of three different contracts. The Heat wanted him back. And even more meaningful to Ellington: they were the first NBA team that ever did. 

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Mahoney: Of all Miami’s organizational rules, there is one that applies only to Ellington: No pump fakes.

It was put into effect during his first training camp with the team. Spoelstra came to Ellington and told him, … 

Ellington: 'I want you to shoot it. I want you to let it fly.' … I felt like I knew what he meant. But then I guess I kinda passed up on a shot that I thought was questionable, maybe in the past, I didn't know how a coach would've looked at it. He was like, 'No-no-no-no-no. Don't pump fake. Just shoot it. Any time you feel like you should shoot it or you're open, shoot it.

Mahoney: Ellington heard that message, but he didn’t fully process it. So when there was another borderline situation a few plays later, Ellington pump faked. Maybe it was habit, but he was overly conscious of only taking “good shots”—probably from his years spent trying to win over new coaches and new teammates. There was a security in hesitation.

Spoelstra wasn’t having it. He stopped play and singled out Ellington to run a sprint, down and back.

Ellington: I was like, 'Man, he don't gotta worry about me pump faking any more.' It just kinda took off from there.

Mahoney: What Spoelstra was doing was giving Ellington permission by way of refusal. All the shots over the years that Ellington wanted to take but thought he shouldn’t, those were fair game. And not only that: they were a necessity. Teams would guard the Heat differently if they got the impression that Miami’s shooters might flinch, Ellington most of all. So if he were to pump fake, all Ellington would be doing is selling out Dragic or Waiters, who would see the defense loaded up on their next drive. He would be undercutting Johnson or Hassan Whiteside, who wouldn’t have any room to roll to the rim. That he would balk with the best of intentions didn’t change the fact that he was only valuable to the Heat if he was willing to shoot.

Ellington: I understood what he was saying. He told me to let it fly. And even when I thought I was lettin' it fly, he told me he wanted me to let it fly some more. So that kinda showed the confidence he had in me and the confidence in my ability.

Mahoney: This is what Spoelstra does. Some players, like Ellington, need to be let loose. Others need to be reined in. There’s a talent in understanding which is which, and beyond that, in knowing exactly what a player needs to hear. That message can be frustrating, but it can be liberating, too. It’s not an accident that so many players have transformed their careers in Miami. Spoelstra asks a lot of you, but he gives a lot back, too.

Ellington: He's—he's definitely the best coach that I've played for, in my eyes, since I've been in this league. Just in terms of the way he leads us. I feel like he's a great leader. He's a great motivator. And then, obviously, what he can do for us on the—in terms of coaching us is—I don't have to speak about that. That's understood already. But I think he–he really cares about all of his players. That's what I got from him. I feel like he really cares about me as a person. And vice versa. I really care about him as well. It's just the kind of connection and the bond that was formed. And again: I think that's just part of the culture. I think that's what he knows and I think that's how he is and I think that was instilled in him. Same thing with me. He knows how to get the best out of his guys. He knows how to put guys in a position to play to their strengths and be successful.

Mahoney: There’s a trust there. And because of it, Spoelstra’s lesson stuck. Before he came to Miami, Ellington took about 40% of his shots from beyond the arc. This season, it’s 83% of his shots. There is no moment of pause. Ellington has made six or more three-pointers in a game 11 times this season, second only to James Harden. You don’t make at that volume by pump faking on shots you should take.

Ellington: I'm enjoying it. I'm having fun, I’m having fun. My coaches and my teammates are encouraging me to take 'em.

Ellington: I'm a sniper, man. That's what I like to say. I'm a long-range sniper. I like shooting those outside three-pointers.

Mahoney: And with that encouragement, Ellington doesn’t just take the shots to presented to him—he hunts for more. It’s curl after curl and cut after cut, many leading to some truly ridiculous makes. If you want living proof of Ellington’s green light, watch his form. You’ll get the textbook shots with perfect lift, extension, and release. But you’ll find even more that are twisted and gnarled by the needs of the moment. Ellington doesn’t always have time to line everything up just so. He doesn’t have the luxury of jumping straight up and down all the time. He takes shots that, in a vacuum, you can’t imagine that any basketball coach would actually want.

Ellington: [Laughs]. Well, Spo loves 'em. Spo loves 'em, man.

Spoelstra: On the run, full speed, with defenders draped all over him. But he practices that way. And it's, it's beauty in motion.

Mahoney: It really is. The way Ellington shoots is so dynamic. Every attempt is unique, in part because the degree of difficulty is so high. That’s why his 39% shooting from beyond the arc this season is so misleading. Ellington technically hits at that percentage, but his shot profile is a world apart from the rest of the league’s three-point specialists. And it’s through his tougher, off-balance shots that Ellington provides an entirely different kind of utility. 

Ellington: You have to start with those basic fundamentals, obviously, and I've worked my way up into not have my feet set, not have my shoulders square and being able to still make shots from different angles. But it starts there, though. That's what I like to tell young kids. They're like, 'Man, I wanna shoot the fadeaway. I wanna shoot this shot like that. I'm always like, 'Nah, man. Start like this. Start with the fundamentals.' I'm a big fan of the fundamentals and, y'know, the basics of the game. Because I think that's how you really develop. But yeah, I started there. Now that I've done it so many times, I've done it so many times, it's like, okay, I can do different things and still be able to get the same result—just because it might seem like I took this crazy, off-balance, wild shot. But at the same time, the base of those shots start with the fundamentals. 

Mahoney: Ellington saw the art in the way that Ray Allen and Rip Hamilton worked, but he’s something of a cubist himself. His shooting has a fluidity that breaks form; if you isolated his feet and his body and his release, you might think you were looking at three entirely different shots. He breaks the rules, but as a matter of technical proficiency. Ellington is the Picasso of jump shooters.

And it’s the Heat that brought that out of him. 

Ellington: They're always—they're always giving me a pat on the back and confidence, even when they don't go in. That's why, that's what I really love the most about these guys, man. It's not always about, 'He's making shoots, cool, I love what you're doing.' And then when you miss some, it's like, 'Alright, I don't know.' It's always the same. It's consistency. And when you get that type of consistency and support from your teammates and your coaches, it makes my job as a shooter so, so much easier, and it gives me consistency on the floor.

Mahoney: The Ellington the NBA knew played the buttoned-up game he thought teams wanted. Miami was different. They were in a place, as a franchise, where they needed more. And the way to it was arduous in the way that things with the Heat always are. Ellington slimmed down and ran more and worked his ass off. Nothing about this arrangement just fell into place. You know a player’s regimen is on another level when they get Spoelstra saying things like this:

Spoelstra: Y'know, I really enjoy watching Wayne. I enjoy watching his routine. It's one of the best shooting workout routines I've ever seen, that I've ever been around in 23 years. 

Mahoney: With that routine, Ellington gave the Heat a weapon that could change their offense. And in return, Miami gave Ellington something precious: the respect of a league that had long overlooked him.

Ellington: This is the most attention that I've got just in terms of teams game planning to make sure they stop me. I've seen teams double-team me and blitz me and try to make sure they take me away. … That respect, that's what you work for as an NBA player.