It is a case where the term “baby steps” fits, considering that Nikola Jovic on Wednesday night became the youngest player in the Miami Heat’s 35 seasons to start, at 19 1/2, younger even than when Tyler Herro made his first start in 2019-20.
But it also was a case where arguably Jovic learned to run before he learned to walk.
Playing with an accompanying jolt of adrenaline with the first unit, the affable first-round pick out of Serbia scored 11 points on 5-of-6 shooting in his initial stint the 112-104 loss to the Toronto Raptors at the outset of the Heat’s four-game trip. From there, though, there were just two more points.
No matter, considering the last-minute notice, with Bam Adebayo missing the game due to a knee bruise, not ruled out until midday. It was an encouraging breakthrough from the lithe 6-foot-11, 225-pound No. 27 selection.
“I was encouraged by his play. That’s not easy to do that,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Jovic hitting the starting ground running. “We felt putting him with the starters would give him the best chance to be able to complement that group, and he was terrific, particularly in that first half.
“He played with a lot of energy, gave us some relief baskets. His skill level, his passing, all those things are good.”
Jovic closed with 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting, three rebounds, one assist, a steal, two turnovers and a foul in his 23:49, the Heat outscored by three when he was on the court.
“He’s just going to continue to get a lot better with minutes, more time, more development, all of that,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat moving on to Friday night’s game against the Washington Wizards. “I was encouraged by him stepping in there and playing as well as he did on the road.”
Jovic had played 24 total minutes over four previous appearances.
“I was just waiting for them to call my name,” he said. “I was ready for whatever.”
With his thin frame, Jovic had been cast mostly as a perimeter player prior to joining the Heat. But with Adebayo out and veteran reserve Dewayne Dedmon dealing with foot pain, Jovic’s first start came at center.
“I don’t think I need to change anything,” he said, “I just need to adapt. I think I can play multiple positions. It doesn’t bother me that I’m playing center. As long as I can help my team win, I’m going to do whatever I can.”
The veteran presence of the surrounding starters proved settling, as seen with Jovic’s early scoring run.
“I mean, that’s all my teammates,” he said. “I think every basket I scored, I didn’t take a single dribble or maybe one. But they were really setting me up, they helped me. I did what I did in the first quarter, but I stopped a little bit.”
It almost was as if he was added to the Raptors’ scouting report after his initial stint, with that likely to be the case going forward, with the Heat also to be without second-year center Omer Yurtseven for an extended period following this week’s ankle surgery.
“He played extremely well,” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “I’ve said it before, the kid has a high ceiling.”
Most significantly, Jovic did not put the Heat at an initial deficit, the Heat never tailing until Wednesday’s third quarter.
“He’s got a bright future,” guard Max Strus said. “It was good to get him out there with us. He played well and took advantage of his opportunity.”