Outwork everybody: Two-way Heat rookie Jamal Cain catches you sleeping

Outwork everybody: Two-way Heat rookie Jamal Cain catches you sleeping

An undrafted training-camp invitee who earned a two-way contract stemming from a solid showing at NBA Summer League with the Miami Heat, Jamal Cain didn't even expect to play on this night.

After all, the Heat were only a couple of games into the preseason, and rotational players were tuning up for the fast-approaching regular season. In addition, they were on the road preparing to take on the Brooklyn Nets, a team with an entire circus surrounding its walls, and yet, one that featured loads of individual talent — including former MVP and perennial All-Star forward Kevin Durant.

Little did Cain realize he would not only suit up for the Heat in that game, but he'd also have the opportunity to defend Durant, his childhood hero, on national television in a legitimately competitive environment.

"It's definitely an eye-opener. The fact that I got to guard one of my idols in my first-ever, like, real, NBA game with real NBA minutes — it was definitely a surreal moment," Cain told Basketball News over the phone. "I was just telling him, 'Ay man, you're an inspiration to me,' and stuff like that. Like, 'I've been watching you since I was small.' That's like a moment right there that can change your life.

"He just treated me so well. He just had a good, positive energy about him. 'Cause he could be like, 'Ay man, I'm trying to focus on the game. Don't talk to me.' But the way he handled that moment with me was, like, so inspirational. And just a huge moment for me because that's like one of my favorite players ever."

Yet, while Cain was excited about what was transpiring in real time, there was no doubt in his mind that he belonged on the floor with KD and the Miami mainstays. Cain's production that night, and in other games, back his claim. He finished that game with 15 points and 12 rebounds, a double-double in the first extended minutes of his pro career.

“I mean, he has the work ethic, he has the character,” Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game. “He was all about potential when we brought him into summer league. He’s raw, but you can see his athleticism, you can see his competitiveness, his activity, his multiple efforts. He’s really been honing that and trying to really fast track the schematic in how we play.

"So I’m sure his head is spinning, but he makes plays and makes you watch him – the offensive rebounds, the extra efforts, all that stuff. And his coachability makes you think that he’s just going to continue to improve rapidly.”

When Oakland assistant coach Mychal Covington turned on his TV and saw Cain and Durant battling, he knew exactly what was going through his mind.

"A lot of people, they say, 'LeBron, LeBron, LeBron,' and Jamal is steadfast on KD. Kids get into heated arguments about basketball players and who's the best, so I've been in the gym with him on numerous times, even up until last year just arguing with some guys on our Oakland University team. I knew he wasn't starstruck, but it was a surreal moment. But I also knew he was gonna compete," Covington told Basketball News over the phone. "He wasn't gonna give a f*ck about 'being there' and not competing. That was his moment to say, 'I'm here.' Like, 'Okay, this is what I do. I'm on the floor with Kevin Durant. The first person I gotta guard is Kevin Durant and this is the dude that I've been watching.' So I knew he was gonna go out there and compete.

"The funny thing about it is Kevin Durant's mom came to one of Jamal's high school games. She was in Michigan and she was at a tournament, and she came to one of his high school games and came up to him and talked to him after the game. She didn't know him. Nobody brought her, she wasn't there for him. And she took a picture with him and the team. So fast-forward, it's like wow how does it go from there to now?"

Though a coach who has helped him along the way, Covington is much more than that to Cain. The two have been inseparable since Jamal was a middle-schooler in Pontiac, Michigan, and have developed a relationship to the point where they've become family.

"Man, that's my guy. He's been training me since Day 1," Cain said. "He's kinda been with me every step. He's trained me mentally, emotionally and physically, so he's definitely like a huge help into my success in basketball. I've done got a lot of lessons from him. Just working hard. Not wanting any handouts. Just knowing if you want something, you're gonna have to work hard for it and not make any excuses."

Their bond began when Jamal and his cousin, Davion Bradford, saw one of Covington’s AAU players at their school — Pontiac Academy for Excellence — with new shoes and fresh gear. One day, Covington's high school team (Melvindale Academy for Business and Technology) was playing against them. After the contest, the young man introduced Cain and Bradford to Covington; Jamal and Davion asked if they could play for Mychal in high school.

Curious about who their parents were, Covington asked and quickly learned that they attended Northern High School. Jamal and Davion's moms — Amanda and Kassandra Branner — are twins, and were quite the talented power-forward duo at Northern High School. (Covington graduated a year after them.) Once the connection was made, Jamal's mother insisted they worked together, and all three — especially Jamal and Mychal — would be by each other's side for life.

Covington stuck by their sides even when the parents of players on his middle school AAU team (The Family/Detroit Stars) didn't want Cain to join, concerned about him stepping on their kids' toes and taking playing time away from them. Ironically, Jamal and Davion were the only two to stay with Covington's AAU program from eighth grade all the way through high school.

(That only went for AAU ball; outside of their freshmen seasons at Melvindale, Covington was actually prohibited by the state of Michigan from coaching them on the school’s team itself. The state ruled Jamal and Davion improperly followed him there, so they played at Cornerstone. Mychal said it actually strengthened their bond. Davion now plays professionally overseas.)

Most importantly, Covington has been in their lives for the long haul, on and off the floor. When Cain was a high school freshman, his grandfather, Shellie Branner, unexpectedly died. Shellie was a father figure to Jamal, and prior to his passing, he spoke to Mychal about being there for Jamal and Davion for life.

“He was telling me basically, like, 'Man, Cov, a lot of people got stuff to say. But I see the work that you do with them and I just want you to be in their life forever. Just be in their life forever.' And it maybe was about three weeks after that, his grandfather passed away,” Covington said. “I'm a person who believes everything happens for a reason. So him pulling me to the side and having a personal conversation with me about them and their lives without them being present in the room, or in our vicinity, I think it happened for a reason.”

Tragically, three years later in the summer before his senior season, Cain’s father, Hasen Cain, was murdered. Covington was there again for Jamal in his time of need.

“Basketball is what brought us together, but after being brought together through basketball, it's kinda just been like... we're just family,” Covington said. “It's not a title to it, that's just my family. He's my family. His mom is my family. She's told me this plenty of times, like, 'Myke, you're family. This is what it is. It's nothing different.' And he treats my daughters like they're his little sisters. So it's just one big collaborative effort of family.

“And from where we come from in Pontiac, Michigan, it's like any other small, urban city. You have all these narratives about how bad it is and everywhere has its own tragedy and things like that and murders and drug abuse and poverty. You got all that type of stuff that goes on, and then you've got your stories of guys who should've made it. So my idea was always to not only impact guys through basketball, but I really, really wanted to have an impact on guys from Pontiac. That's embedded in me. I wanted to make sure that if I was to touch a basketball player from Pontiac that he was going to make it, and I was going to stick with him throughout the process.”

Cain’s decision to go to Marquette to play for the Golden Eagles meant he’d be away from Covington and his family for the first time in his life. Still, Mychal stayed in touch with him every day and would work him out in the summertime when he’d come home. 

Though there were ups and downs over his time in Milwaukee, Cain worked his way through four years with the program with sporadic playing time and finally earned starter status as a senior. He played with future pro talents like Sam Hauser and Markus Howard, and learned to adapt to playing a role versus being the go-to guy. 

After his fourth campaign with Marquette, Cain transferred to Oakland University to play his fifth collegiate season close to home, and he put together a magnificent year to the tune of 19.9 points and 10.2 rebounds per game on 58.7% True Shooting. Covington sensed his brighter spirits as soon as he came back, and Jamal candidly said it was because he wanted his mother and loved ones to be able to watch him play up close again.

“Oh, for sure," Cain replied when asked if he accomplished his goal. “And I knew that being with Cov, I was gonna get the proper work that I needed. 'Cause I knew that this opportunity was gonna come, and I wanted to make sure that I was ready.”

Five years of college experience served as its own teacher to Cain, who feels that he can use that to his advantage in the NBA as a 23-year-old rookie.

“I would say knowing how not to get in my feelings and stuff like that, and knowing this is gonna be a process,” Cain said. "When you're young, you want everything to come so fast, you want everything to be perfect. But after going through college and going through those ups and downs and realizing that my journey is gonna be tough... it's not gonna be all perfect.”

“It was just a plus playing for us, and [Oakland head coach Greg Kampe] did put him in situations to kinda showcase his multifaceted skill-set. But it was also a plus when he was at Marquette and he didn't get to do it,” Covington added. “That kinda gave him a little bit of both worlds being at Marquette and at Oakland, and now he's able to just walk into a position in Miami where now, you're back being the low man on the totem pole, but you know how to flourish at that.”

Similar to his gradual climb then, Cain understands it’ll take time to carve out a place within the Heat’s big club, and they’ve told him that.

“Just knowing that my role was gonna be a little bumpy. And just knowing that it wasn't gonna be all sweet and super comfortable,” Cain said. “They was just telling me to keep grinding. And when I come down to Sioux Falls, to make sure that I have that mentality of still trying to play at that level and just not taking it for granted.”

Whether it's in Sioux Falls or Miami, there’s nothing too complex that he wants to work on this season. It comes down to defending, rebounding and making open shots. Sometimes, it is as simple as he makes it sound. That doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting to watch.

The first aspect of Cain’s game that pops off the film is his bounce. When you watch him take flight, it’s as if he’s jumping off an invisible trampoline. Using that explosive vertical, he soars as he tracks down offensive rebounds and regularly executes putbacks.

Utilizing the corner as his ally without the ball in his hands, he’ll cut baseline for a quick deposit, or he’ll catch a sleepy opponent ball watching after a shot gets up. 

“It just comes with the mindset of just going,” Cain said. “Not every time it's coming directly to me, but I give myself a chance 'cause I'm always going. I'm always hungry, trying to get the rebound, so I feel like I have more positive results than negative… (My athleticism) is just natural to be honest with you. It's nothing that I think about on a daily regimen where it's like, 'I need to do that.' It just happened naturally. I just like to crash man, like to get those weak-side tipback dunks.”

He can spot up for threes as well, and is unafraid to bang with bigger bodies in the paint with his broad shoulders to create space to get a layup off, which shouldn’t be too surprising considering Covington's AAU teams often played up a grade or two.

It’s not often that Cain is a primary ball-handler, and that’s okay. Covington has told him time and time again that he might not have that kind of responsibility at the next level. With that said, it’s important to work on that part of his game so, if a team does need him to fulfill that challenge, he’ll be ready. 

“To me, his game is more like this era's Shawn Marion — livewire, live body, always around the rim, capable to knock down a shot, capable to slash, cutting, defend multiple positions — but very slight of build,” Covington said. “But yeah, a Swiss Army knife that can get a lot of stuff done. And you don't have to give him the ball.

“(You) always can become a better shooter. Strength-wise, because he's slight of build, he's gonna always have to continue to get stronger. And just ball-handling, being able to... not build his shot, but being able to be someone that people would trust with the ball to be able to make plays. He can. He just doesn't get to show it enough, so you've got to get better at it so people start trusting you to be able to do it.”

Covington is stern on more-run-more-production when it comes to Cain’s capabilities.

“If you play him over 25 minutes, you're gonna get a double-double,” Covington said. “Like, it's no question in my mind that's what he's gonna do 'cause he's always done that. And when he got to the NBA and in preseason, you’d seen it. The first time that he got some extended minutes, double-double. First time he got some extended minutes in summer league, double-double.”

In describing what niche likely fits him in the league, Covington believes that Cain will be a star in his role who doesn’t need sets or actions to contribute and make his mark. He’s going to have a “nose for the ball,” whether that’s via a rebound or a hustle play, he’ll make the intangible decisions and will find a way to get involved in possessions by any means possible.

“He creeps in them spots,” Covington said. “Antawn Jamison had all the little touch shots around the rim — the little reverses, the quick shots before shot-blockers could get to it, high glass, shooting layups without even jumping; 'Let me get it off.' Or catch an airball and the shot clock's running down and I can get it up and I can score it. 

“So he's always had that ability to do that, so that just comes from second-nature stuff. But you get those opportunities because you're playing hard and you're making yourself available; catching guys sleeping, cutting off ball when they're not paying attention. So that's just been his game.”

In motivating Cain throughout his development, Covington would try to take examples of complementary players who strongly impact the game as a model.

“You know, some guys got egos. Some guys don't know, somebody hasn't taught them that, 'Ay, you're not about to be the man for your whole life.' You have to be a piece of a puzzle,” Covington said. “So it's good that he understands his role in being a piece of a puzzle, and if you look at every NBA team right now, they have those guys. Everybody has that dude who does all the stuff that the superstars aren't gonna do.”

Dallas Mavericks forward Dorian Finney-Smith and Denver Nuggets swingman Bruce Brown were a couple of names he came up with. But Covington recalls a specific conversation with Cain when he was a high school freshman about Mikal Bridges, who wasn’t a high-usage player until his national championship run as a junior with Villanova.

“'Yo, how good is Mikal Bridges?’” Covington remembers asking Cain. “He's like, 'Man, he just does a lot of intangible stuff.' I said, 'Well, you know he's gonna get drafted. What does he do differently than you?' He was like, 'Nothing. I'm bigger than him, but he's just got longer arms.' I said, 'But he's gonna get drafted, so that's a blueprint for you.’

“I don't like trying to reinvent the wheel. If it's already something to be done and you can see it, and it's already worked for somebody successfully, well, just do that. Do it your way, but just do that. You can always add stuff to it, but don't lose sight of doing that because that's how they made it to their success... My main message to him always is, 'Look man, just work harder than everybody. If you work harder than everybody, you won't have to worry about anything. Trust me. Somebody's gonna take notice.’ It's enough people out here who still understand basketball and understand there's always a place for somebody who's coachable and will work his ass off without you telling 'em. Have an integrity about who you are.”

Covington sees Cain’s triumph as a ray of hope for Pontiac, along with rising Indiana Pacers big man Isaiah Jackson, who was the first player from Mychal’s AAU program to make it to the NBA.

“It’s an inspiration to the next group of young, talented not only athletes, but talented young people who just don't give up on what you believe you can be," Covington said. "As long as you put in enough hard work and consistency, you can do it. It ain't about where you're from, it's just about how much you believe in yourself.”

So, to him, Cain’s solid early start to his pro journey is nothing surprising. He is doing the same things now as he was as a 14-year-old, just with a bigger and longer frame — and with beaming conviction.

“Me and 'Mal were talking about it. He was like, 'The times that [you] used to not be in the gym or think I could take some times off, I didn't have the confidence when I stepped on the floor.' Now, the kid's oozing with confidence,” Covington said. 

“Like when I talk to him now, I can hear it. He's like, 'I'm supposed to be here.’”

On Friday evening in Washington, Cain was called upon by an ailing Miami team that dressed seven players. When he entered the game, he immediately snatched a defensive rebound, battled for an extra possession, pump-faked and drove for an easy left finish and made a nice read to a cutting Orlando Robinson. An overall stat line with 4 points, 6 rebounds and an assist in 18 minutes may be easy to brush off by the naked eye, but Cain answered the bell with his activity. 

Receiving praise from the Miami fan base and those in the organization, Cain is grateful for the preseason he put together to prepare him for moments like that.

“It was helpful man. Just to get some of that NBA experience. All in all, I was happy for the experience man. Just happy that I can play at that level,” said Cain, who’s briefly appeared in three NBA games and has gotten significant burn in three G League contests. “Something in me was like, 'Man, I belong here.' It wasn't like such a huge moment, but it was definitely something that I cherish.”

As Cain’s training-camp veteran mentor, Heat star Bam Adebayo invited the rookie over to hang out, play video games and watch basketball when they first got together.

Following the aforementioned breakout performance on ESPN against the Nets last month, Adebayo went out of his way to name-drop his talented teammate:

“Everybody’s starting to realize who Jamal Cain is, so that’s a plus for me.”

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