The 'back-against-the-wall' moments that turned Caleb Martin into a Miami Heat hero (2024)

Arkansas coach Eric Musselman is posted up at this week’s SEC spring meetings in Destin, Fla. It’s a busy time for Musselman. He’s still recruiting, but he’s mobile. He was at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. A few weeks later, he’s down in Florida while the SEC discusses league-changing decisions. That's the important stuff, but Musselman is constantly sneaking off to watch the NBA Playoffs.

Musselman noted that he doesn’t watch a ton of other high-major conferences throughout the long college basketball season. The SEC or the NBA dominate Musselman’s screens. The former Sacramento and Golden State coach might be a heavy hitter in the SEC right now, but at his core, he’s an NBA junkie.

So when a beloved former player of his, Caleb Martin, is having the moment of his life in the NBA Playoffs, Musselman isn't missing a second.

The 6-foot-5, 27-year-old has always been Musselman's dude dating back to the days when they teamed up to dominate at Nevada. Musselman always believed that Martin had a place in the league. But this? Not even Musselman could have predicted this.

“He and his brother are two of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around,” Musselman told 247Sports on Tuesday. “They’re two of the best people I’ve ever coached. They’re all about the right things. They play hard. They compete. They don’t care what position they play. The coolest thing is to watch him bring the ball up as a point guard and knowing at the beginning of the year when PJ Tucker left, he was inserted as a power forward. That shows a great example in the course of the Heat season, his willingness to play all over. We played him at the 1, 2, 3 and 4. I thought he could guard 5s at the collegiate level. It’s been a wild ride for him being the MVP of the Mountain West and not getting drafted to then fighting his way to here has been really cool to see.”

Martin had embraced being a role player all throughout his four-year NBA career. He scored 20 or more points in just four of the 71 regular-season games he played for the Heat. But at his core, Martin was bred to get buckets. It’s just how he’s wired.

The 'back-against-the-wall' moments that turned Caleb Martin into a Miami Heat hero (1)

***

Caleb Martin was born one minute after Cody, but he has always been the better brother. Caleb was the higher-rated recruit in the Class of 2014. Caleb averaged 11.5 points per game as a sophom*ore at NC State. Cody averaged 6.0 points per game in that same 2015-16 season. But when the Martin twins entered the transfer portal, Musselman had an idea of what everyone else was going to do, so he chose to do something different.

“We knew everybody in the country was recruiting Caleb, so we went really hard after Cody,” Musselman said. “I think Caleb and his mom, Jenny, really appreciated the fact that we were really going hard after Cody. When we recruited them, we had as big a celebration as we’ve ever had because it was a two-for-one.

“We felt like we could win a National Championship or have a Final Four-caliber team the day those two guys committed, even though we were at Nevada. We weren’t make-believing it. We weren’t over-hyping it. Even through my pessimistic sense, we felt that we could make a Final Four with those two guys.”

That celebration proved to be well-warranted. Musselman and the Martins put Nevada basketball on the map, winning 58 combined games in two seasons. The Wolf Pack made the Sweet 16 in 2018, and Caleb was named the Mountain West Player of the Year. Cody was the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, not once, but twice. Caleb was the first Nevada player to earn preseason All-American honors, and the Wolf Pack earned a program-best No. 5 ranking in the AP Top 25 early in the 2018-19 season.

Musselman’s decision to heavily pursue Cody, not Caleb, paid major dividends. It also wouldn’t be the last time a program prioritized his brother over him.

***

Charlotte Hornets general manager Mitch Kupchak watched a lot of Nevada tape and talked to Musselman often ahead of the 2019 NBA Draft. Kupchak fell in love with Cody Martin, according to Musselman. The two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year had never been the featured scorer. That was Caleb’s job. But Cody was fresh off a season where he averaged 12.1 points per game and his offensive efficiency numbers had spiked across the board. Kupchak believed Cody’s defense could get him in the league and a much-improved 3-point jumper could keep him on the floor.

Charlotte loved Cody so much that it used the No. 36 pick to take him. Caleb went undrafted.

It was a jolt to Caleb’s system and, objectively, a failure. Caleb had a strong chance to get drafted after the 2017-18 season when he won Player of the Year and shot 40% from 3-point range on ridiculous volume (203 attempts). He made a hard choice to return for a senior season, and his stock sank after he shot 33.8% from downtown.

“The hardest thing that he had was when his brother was drafted and he wasn’t,” Musselman said. “Caleb had always been the scorer, Caleb had been the quarterback, Caleb had been the headliner, and Caleb, quite frankly, probably would have been drafted if he had come out as a junior. He wasn’t drafted the next year, but his game was more ready for the NBA after that year.”

After the 2019 NBA Draft, Musselman’s phone rang again.

It was Kupchak. Again.

This time, he was asking about Caleb.

“I told him, ‘They’re both equally great in their own way,’” Musselman said.

Caleb admitted in an interview with NSN Daily that he “didn’t really want to go to Charlotte” because he didn’t want to infringe on Cody’s budding career. But Kupchak was persistent. He loved Cody and believed Caleb could help, too. After peeking at the roster and seeing the potential opportunity, Caleb signed with Charlotte on a multi-year contract.

Charlotte’s infatuation with Cody did not change. Cody and Caleb both freelanced together in the G League, but Cody was the more-featured rookie. Cody played in 48 games for the Hornets as a rookie. Caleb played just 18 games. In Year 2, Cody and Caleb both played at least 50 games and earned at least 15 minutes of playing time. But it was redundant, and Caleb shot just 24.8% from 3-point range in 2020-21. Partially in an effort to unlock Cody, Charlotte waived Caleb ahead of the 2021-22 season.

"I think he knew in his heart that he could play and it was just an opportunity," Musselman said. "I never sensed any down-ness at all when he was waived by them. It was, 'Hey you’re still young, you’re going to get another opportunity, you just have to be ready when the next one comes because when you get cut twice, then it becomes a little more problematic.'"

***

While Martin was a free agent, he worked out daily in a secluded, North Carolina gym owned by none other than J. Cole (yes,that J. Cole).

The superstar rapper and Martin have a close relationship. When J. Cole found out Martin was not signed, he dialed up Miami assistant coach Caron Butler in hopes to help Martin get back into the league. Butler relayed to Cole that Miami was going to scrimmage the following day and Martin was invited to lace it up.

“I was nervous,” Martin said. “I felt like that was my last opportunity. I was on the way out, I felt like they had some spots filled. I wanted to leave the gym with them knowing who I was. And making it feel like they couldn’t let me walk out the door without me being on the roster. Definitely a back-against-the-wall feeling, but that’s how I feel like I operate best.”

***

An undrafted free agent who makes his NBA debut at 24 and later turns into the second-best offensive creator for a team in the NBA Finals just does not happen.

A team that trailed the Chicago Bulls with less than four minutes left in the play-in game, owned a negative point differential in the regular season, earned a No. 8 seed and then goes on to make the NBA Finals is also unconscionable.

In more ways than one, Martin and Miami are perfect for each other.

"He has so much respect in that locker room just because of how hard he competes," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It’s like his last breath on every single possession. I love the guy for that.”

That never-quit attitude was on display during game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Boston Celtics in TD Garden. With Miami’s backs against the wall, Caleb erupted for a playoff career-high of 26 points, 10 rebounds and three assists.

Not only did Martin help send his team to the NBA Finals, but he also scored the most points in a Conference or NBA Finals by an undrafted player in the Modern Draft Era (1966-67), per ESPN Stats & Information.

“You reflect on where I started and the journey it has taken to get here," Martin said. "Even the two-way last year. But I think more than anything, it’s a weird feeling because I also understand how happy and grateful I am to be here, I know we have four more. We didn’t go through all we went through in the regular season and my personal journey to stop here. We’re trying to get what we came here to get, so we have four more.”

Caleb Martin literally didn’t miss from the midrange all series. ?? pic.twitter.com/KEzvhluCIZ

— Dom Samangy (@DSamangy) May 30, 2023

A wise transfer to Nevada. Staying one extra year when many were in his ear saying he was too old. Not getting drafted when your brother watches his life-long dream come true. Getting waived by Charlotte. Needing J. Cole to hit up a buddy to get a scrimmage with the Heat. A two-way contract. Playing power forward at 6’5. Injuries to Tyler Herro and Gabe Vincent forcing him to move to point guard for multiple possessions. Outplaying Jaylen Brown who earned $20 million more than Martin this year. Sending the 57-win Celtics to Cancun.

Can you keep up? If it seems like too much, you're not alone.

"If he ain’t showed y’all now, he’s going to be in this league for a really long time," Heat star Jimmy Butler said.

The 'back-against-the-wall' moments that turned Caleb Martin into a Miami Heat hero (2024)
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