It was August 11, 2021, and what seemed to be a routine NBA summer league match between the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies at the Cox Pavilion in Las Vegas was anything but.
After the NBA revised the regulations for summer league games that went into double OT seven years before, this was sudden death.
Wins the next basket.
When the score was tied at 94, Heat big man Omar Yurtseven got the ball to Max Strus by winning the first jump. The second-year guard calmly took seven dribbles from the Heat’s opposing 3-point line and launched, having played a total of 513 NBA minutes in his first two seasons.
Strus pounded his chest and let out a jubilant cry as his teammates, people with hopes and desires just like his, stormed off the bench to celebrate.
During a four-game span where Strus averaged 20.8 points and shot 40% from beyond the arc, it was a high point.
Strus knows that one of the most significant moves in his basketball career came with a bet in Las Vegas when he thinks back on the past year.
Strus decided to return to summer league despite having a contract in place for the following season after finding it difficult to find a consistent role during his first full season with the Heat in 2020–21.
Last season, summer league was everything for Strus. “Honestly, that gave me the utmost confidence to perform what I did last season.”
And that’s precisely what the Heat wanted—a chance for the promising young player to stand out as the team’s captain.
When I was on a two-way, “I didn’t really play that much,” adds Strus. They had faith in me and said, “All right, we think you can take a further step in your career.”
Strus notes the identical ascension of Heat colleague Duncan Robinson and Boston Celtics guard Derrick White as another summer league success story. Strus also acknowledged that he is merely the most recent illustration of a guy whose fruitful few weeks in the desert resulted in a bright NBA career.
And indeed, according to Strus, “He was in his third year in the NBA, he probably shouldn’t have played summer league, but he went and did it.” And for him, that was the finest option. Look where he is right now.
Strus was signed by the Celtics for training camp after going undrafted in 2019 but was ultimately released, in part so they could maintain 7-foot-6 centre Tacko Fall. Strus tore his ACL at the G League Showcase later that year, just after being signed by his hometown Chicago Bulls. He missed the season. Strus underwent knee rehabilitation after the Bulls released him, and in 2020, he agreed to a deal with the Heat.
I have a lot of grudges against me, Strus admits. “I have so many more options if one isn’t working for me that day. Underrecruited, going D-II, getting hurt, and being waived are all problems. I keep being pushed by all these things in my thoughts.
Strus’ transition from a G League player to an NBA starter solidifies the Heat’s reputation for player development throughout Pat Riley’s more than two-decade tenure as head coach.
Strus claims, “I knew this is exactly what is meant for me from the first week I was here. They really value that here. It starts with practising and putting in extra time.
Robinson was really removed from the rotation due to Strus’ performance throughout the season. But Strus’ shown mental tenacity is what most impressed Heat coach Erik Spoelstra about him.
Being able to do that consistently over the course of a lengthy NBA season requires “grit, perseverance, and mental stability,” Spoelstra said. Everyone can do it for a week, but after three months into the season, I believe everyone’s makeup is revealed. That can occasionally throw guys off a bit, but it didn’t in this case.
The rise of Max Strus, a summer league reject, to the NBA is one of the more improbable ones in recent memory. He played at Division II Lewis University for two years after graduating from Stagg High School in Hickory Hills, Illinois, before transferring to DePaul. Once there, former Blue Demons head coach Dave Leitao had a thought.
When I attended DePaul, I naively believed that I would play abroad or in Europe, claims Strus. But all I could think about after that was when coach Leitao called me into his office and told me, “No, you can play in the NBA. That was my objective.
The Strus family has been nurturing this dream for as long as he can remember. Strus acknowledges that his immediate family’s top athlete isn’t even him. That honour belongs to his mother Debra, who played basketball and volleyball and earned the DePaul University Hall of Fame. John, his father, threw at Eastern Illinois for a year. Maggie, his sister, was a volleyball player at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Marty, his brother, was a basketball player at Lewis.
Strus explains, “We’re like a big athletic family. What sport are we playing today when we come together? So that’s how I was brought up.
And so, after two erratic years, he eventually found himself back in Las Vegas, still attempting to make a name for himself in basketball. He averaged 10.6 points in 68 games after joining the Heat, and during the 2021–22 season, he shot 41 percent from outside the arc.
In this year’s Eastern Conference finals matchup between the Heat and the Celtics, Spoelstra commented, “I understand why folks… outside of Florida have no idea who he is.” “He was exceptional in our summer league programme. Last year, he experienced a lot of ups and downs as well as learning opportunities.
According to Spoelstra, “the minutes were not usual for a rookie player; they were minutes with significant context, pressure, and expectations.” Vets were going to swarm over him if it wasn’t done properly. In this league, I believe that’s the quickest way to pick things up. We’re currently talking about that for 24 months. He has extensive experience, which is great.
STAR HEAT To put it mildly, JIMMY BUTLER doesn’t take respect well. He also doesn’t mince words.
But the 11-year NBA veteran praises Strus without holding back.
Butler previously remarked of Strus and Heat teammate Gabe Vincent, “In the locker room, we always say they don’t got no B-word in ’em. I don’t want to get fined, so I’m not going to speak the term. For they don’t. At any time during the game, they are not afraid of anyone or any assignment. Having those individuals on your side is always advantageous, and they epitomise what the Miami Heat organisation stands for.
They work hard, are not in the least bit selfish, and most of all, they just want to win.
Strus has made friends with Butler, a former Bulls player whom he once supported in the Chicago suburbs, and gained Butler’s respect as an equal while playing for a team that was only one victory away from reaching the NBA Finals.
“One of the first times I met him, I told him that. I was like, “Dude, I watched you grow up,” says Strus. “I was a high school student when you guys were in the playoffs. So it’s strange how everything kept going in circles.
Strus recalls the challenges he overcame to get here as he continues to write his tale with Butler.
I’ve established myself now, Strus claims. “I consider myself to be a seasoned NBA player. I think I’m here to stay now because I started every game of the playoffs and the Eastern Conference finals. The first day I walked into summer league last year, I don’t think anyone recognised me or knew my name. I believe that by the time I left summer league, everybody knew who I was, and they do today.
They are also aware of Strus because, during Game 7 of those East Finals versus Boston, he was a part of one of the most bizarre events in NBA history.
With 11:04 remaining in the third quarter, Strus made a deep corner 3-pointer to cut the Celtics’ lead, which had reached as much as 17 points in the first half, to 56-54. After a few minutes of play, during which the Celtics put together another run, the NBA Replay Center in Secaucus, New Jersey reversed Strus’ three-point shot because he had stepped out of bounds. The Heat’s season was over after they lost that game 100–96.
Strus is aware that the call will be a part of his history no matter how far he advances in his career.
At least you’ll have a rule named after you now, my brother said after the game, says Strus.
Strus won’t be participating in the Heat’s summer league team this week, but he thinks the foundation and confidence he gained there will help him have an even stronger season next year. Strus claims that his performance during the conference finals was inconsistent, and Spoelstra and the Heat coaching staff want him to concentrate on the good aspects of his season rather than those.
Strus admits, “I might have been much better, and I accept that, and they understand it. The season’s end talks were really encouraging, and I took the necessary action this year, according to them.
Sometimes players only need one shot to establish their legitimacy, just like Strus’ audacious 3-pointer in double overtime of the summer league the year prior. Returning to Las Vegas gave Strus the boost he required.