DENVER — Bam Adebayo had been a teammate of Gabe Vincent in the bubble and through much of the 2020-21 season (all while Vincent was on a two-way contract with the Heat), but the first time he realized just how good his teammate could be was when Adebayo had to go against him.
“Man, when he torched us in the Olympics, in the exhibition game facing Nigeria,” said Adebayo, who would go on to win gold with the USA in Tokyo. “He came out with that type of energy, that type of voracity and that type of anger. I felt like, from there, he’s one of us.”
Gabe Nnamdi — who uses that name of his ancestry when he represents Nigeria — scored a team-high 21 points against the best the USA had to offer in an exhibition game where Nigeria upset Team USA and sent tremors through the basketball world. It was a breakout moment for Vincent.
That energy and veracity were back in Game 2 of the NBA Finals, when Vincent dropped a team-high 23 points on 8-of-12 shooting and 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, leading the Heat to a Game 2 victory. Vincent was the guy getting pulled onto the NBA TV set with Charles Barkley and Shaq.
Vincent’s personal arc to get to that moment may be the embodiment of a Heat player and their team culture.
“I would say that old saying that we use a lot: People severely overestimate what you can get accomplished in a day, and they grossly underestimate what you can get accomplished in a matter of months, years, when nobody is paying attention,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said to describe Vincent’s path. “And he’s the epitome of that.”
Vincent played four years of college basketball at idyllic UC Santa Barbara, where he was a standout for the Gauchos — Big West Freshman of the Year in 2015, and made an All-Big West team his senior year — but he went undrafted and found himself in the G-League with the Stockton Kings. There he played for two seasons, earned the Most Improved Player award, and caught the eye of the Heat front office, who, in January 2020 signed him to a two-way deal.
Vincent’s transformation as a player was just beginning. Vincent had played up to that point as more of an undersized scoring two-guard, but the Heat had other ideas.
“He was a gunslinger, two-guard. We wanted to develop him into a combo guard, somebody that could organize us, be an irritant defensively, tough, learn how to facilitate and run a team,” Spoelstra said. “I think that’s the toughest thing to do in this league, is turn a two into a one. He openly just embraced that. Then he struggled at times with that because you’re trying to reinvent yourself. Instead of saying, This is too tough, let me be me, he’s really grown the last three years.”
“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Vincent said of the transformation of his game. “The staff was great with me, whether it was film or getting in the gym, and my teammates have been phenomenal, coaching me up, telling me to be more aggressive when I’m questioning it or trying to think, should I pass first.
“And our stars, Jimmy, Kyle, Bam, they have just been in my ear and telling me just to play, play basketball. They trust my IQ of the game, and they want me just to go out there and play hard.”
As his game transformed, the Heat signed him in August of 2021 to a two-year minimum deal. He just kept getting better and outplaying that deal.
Vincent was coming off the bench for the Heat to start the season behind Kyle Lowry, but as Vincent’s game grew and Father Time seemed to be winning the race with Lowry, their roles switched. In February he moved into the starting lineup and hasn’t looked back.
“I know the level of confidence that we have in him and that he has in himself to go out there and run the offense at any point in time, first through fourth quarter, maybe even overtime,” Jimmy Butler said of Vincent. “And we live with the decisions and the shots that he makes and takes, and he’s our starting PG for a reason.”
Through the playoffs, Vincent has averaged 13.9 points a game shooting 41.3% from 3, plus dishing out 3.9 assists a game. On Sunday night he was the highest-scoring player on his team in an NBA Finals game.
It’s a long journey from Isla Vista in Santa Barbara to the NBA’s biggest stage.
And it will get him paid — Vincent is an unrestricted free agent this summer who will land an eight-figure-a-year contract. That’s likely with the Heat, who want to retain him, but his playoff performance will have teams looking for two-way ball-handling guards — Orlando, San Antonio, and plenty of others — calling. Vincent will have options.
“He’s just an incredible winning player,” Spoelstra said of him. “This year, he’s been a starter for us. He’s been great. He’s off the bench, he’s been great. He’s like a lot of our guys, the competitive spirit. You get challenged like we’re getting challenged in this series, you hope it brings out the best in you. And that’s what it’s doing with him.”
Adebayo saw that potential when Vincent was challenged in a Las Vegas exhibition game a couple of years ago. Now he’s happy Vincent is on his team and not the opposition.
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