Miami Heat guard Max Strus had an improbable journey to becoming a starter on the top team in the East.
Strus spent his first two seasons playing Division-II college basketball at Lewis University before transferring to DePaul University. After going undrafted, he eventually landed with the Chicago Bulls, his hometown team, but suffered a torn ACL. Then, when he thought his NBA career might be over before it got any traction, the Miami Heat called and allowed him to compete for a roster spot.
After earning a two-way contract with the Heat, Strus played well enough to sign a multi-year deal. Now, Miami is 13-2, with Strus as a starter heading into the playoffs.
Following a practice with the Heat, Strus spoke with HoopsHype over the phone and discussed his journey to the NBA, how a conversation with his coach at DePaul changed his outlook, behind the scenes with the Heat, Jimmy Butler as a teammate, his desire to remain in Miami long-term, and much more.
When you transferred from DII’s Lewis University to DePaul, did you see yourself as a guy that could make it to the NBA?
Strus: No, I never thought I’d be in the NBA. That was never really a thought of mine. You can even ask my college coach on my visit. I sat down with him, and when they asked me where I wanted my basketball career to go, I said, “I can see myself going to play overseas and trying to make a living off playing basketball.” Going from D-II and where I was at that point, I thought it was going to be Europe or overseas. But then, during my first couple of days on campus at DePaul, after the first couple of practices, coach Dave Leitao called me into his office. He said, “You need to change your goals here. You can play in the NBA. You’ve got what it takes.” That’s what changed my mindset and what drove me to want to get where I am today.
What went through your mind when you weren’t drafted?
Strus: Draft night was a long night. I thought there was a chance I could’ve gone in the late second round. I knew it would be that or undrafted. It was that night when the draft ended that I got a call the Celtics wanted to sign me to a two-way. Although I didn’t hear my name get called, it still was a success on draft night, getting a two-way and an opportunity.
What was the process like coming back from your ACL injury?
Strus: It was tough. I was pretty positive through it all. I knew that being negative and thinking, “Why me?” wasn’t going to be the answer and help me in any way. I tried to stay positive through it and attack rehab each day. As far as my basketball career, I didn’t know where it was going to go. I was kind of in limbo. I didn’t know if I’d get another chance or not because I didn’t have many opportunities before I got hurt. I kind of got lucky with the Heat giving me an opportunity. It was really all I had, so I had to jump on that and take advantage of it. There were a lot of unknowns during the rehab process, trying to come back and get back to normal.
What’s been your experience in Miami since you got that opportunity?
Strus: I think they do a good job of doing their research on guys beforehand, not just in terms of talent, but who the guys are as people and how they’re built. I think they do a good job of digging deep into that and knowing exactly who they’re going to get. Once you’re here, it’s pretty easy being who I am to dive into this culture of hard work and get out what you put in. That’s how my career has gone. That’s exactly what I’ve done to get to this point. It was a perfect fit. The way they do things here really fits my mold of who I am and how I’ve gotten better as a player.
Is there anything Miami has done to help you take the next step in your career?
Strus: It’s really the opportunity. The organization and coaching staff player development people really care. They want to be here and make guys better. I think the effort and time they put into it and always being there for you really helps. After that, Erik Spoelstra is one of the most opportunistic coaches in the league. He gives guys a chance. You can see with his story how he came up to be a coach through the video coordinator room. He values guys that put in the time and the work. At the end of the day, he’s going to give them a chance. It’s just up to you to take advantage of it. I couldn’t ask for anything better.
After getting Kyle Lowry and PJ Tucker to pair with Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, did you expect to be the No. 1 seed in the East?
Strus: I knew on the first day of training camp that we were going to have a chance. We added three guys (Kyle Lowry, PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris) that have won championships in the past three years. That was going to be a huge help for us. We had talent last year and just added more veterans who’ve been there before and done it. The energy and the leadership they’ve brought since the first day I knew would help us. I think we have a very good chance of making a long run in the playoffs. The East is tough, but if we play our game and do what we’ve been doing all year, I think we should have a good fighting chance at the end of it.
Have you thought of your future with Miami long term?
Strus: I try to take it year by year. I’d love to be here. I think it’s been great for my career, and I think I’m a good fit for the Heat and what we do here. I try not to get too caught up in that because you never know what’s going to happen. Whatever happens, I’m going to be ready for it and keep playing how I’ve played. Hopefully, everything works out.
Have you looked at Joe Harris as a similarity for your journey?
Strus: 100 percent. That’s been who I’ve kind of modeled everything after. It makes it easier that he’s with my agency (Priority Sports) as well. They’ve been saying Joe Harris to me since day one. His career path of struggling his first couple of years, getting waived in Cleveland, going to the G League, and then getting a chance in Brooklyn and taking advantage of it. His numbers kept increasing. That’s definitely something I’ve studied. I had a chance to talk to Joe a couple of times. He’s been a great help. Having Mark Bartelstein to filter all that and guide me through it has been a big help for sure.
What are your long-term goals?
Strus: It’s pretty crazy how fast things have gone. I’m starting on the No. 1 seed in the East. It’s been a crazy journey. I don’t know where my career is going to go. Obviously, with how I’m playing, hopefully, I can do this for a very long time. That’s the goal. Stay and play as long as I can and have a successful career. Everything I’ve set my mind to and tried to do basketball-wise, I’ve kind of accomplished. I keep resetting the bar and keep attaining those goals. What’s next? That’s been my mentality. Don’t settle where I’m at. Keep striving for what’s next.
What did you make of Jimmy Butler and Erik Spoelstra arguing on the sideline, and how would you describe Jimmy as a teammate?
Strus: It was completely normal. We do that very often. It’s just a brotherly argument that happened to be in a public setting where there were a lot of people watching. There’s really nothing to it. Jimmy is a character. At the end of the day, he’s a great person and a great teammate. He’s a good person to have in your corner. He really cares, wants to see you do great, and wants to help you be a great basketball player. He can get misconstrued the wrong way because he cares and wants to win. That’s all it is. He’s going to do what it takes and play extremely hard. He expects the same out of you. Anybody who’s built like that, Jimmy’s going to rock with. It’s been great for me. He knows exactly what he’s getting from me each time. I’ve wanted this opportunity and I’m not going to let it slide. I’m going to keep playing hard and give all I have each night.
Lastly, you’re part of the Weishar Foundation. What’s the goal for it?
Strus: One of my best friends growing up, Nic Weishar, played football at Notre Dame, and we grew up playing basketball together, and his older brother was Andrew Weishar, who died from colon cancer at the age of 21. Andrew was a fighter. When he was in his last days, he asked his two brothers to pay it forward. All the families that were there for him and helped their family through their tough times, he wanted to pay it back. They started the Andrew Weishar Foundation in his honor. They raise money and gift it to families that are battling cancer. Usually, it’s adolescents or kids who are going through cancer. They give them a check to the families. I’ve wanted to be involved since the day they did that because I think it’s amazing, and they’re amazing people. What they do is special. Now, I’m getting more involved. They do a music benefit every year. It’s something I’m honored to be a part of.
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