By Mark Patton, Santa Barbara News-Press
The COVID-19 pandemic may have canceled Gabe Vincent's trip to Tokyo for this summer's Olympic Games, but the former UCSB star is still taking a shot at some high-stakes basketball.
Vincent, a member of the Nigerian National Team, has been in Florida all summer preparing for the July 30 restart of the NBA season as a two-way player with the Miami Heat. Head coach Erik Spoelstra was allowed to resume working with Vincent and the rest of Miami's players — although just four at time — on Tuesday.
"He fits so many of the things that we like … High character, super-hard work ethic," Spoelstra said. "He's developed his game through a lot of sweat and hard work behind the scenes when no one was watching.
"We relate to guys like that. We're fans of his and we're excited to be able to develop him."
Two-way players normally split their time between the NBA and its feeder system, the G League. The coronavirus, however, has left next month's NBA restart in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., as the only game in town.
What will that mean for Vincent, who turned 24 just 10 days ago?
"Still unsure at the moment," he replied.
What was made certain this week is his status as the G League's Most Improved Player. A website, "Ridiculously Upside," declared him as such a few weeks ago, and the G League made it official this week in a vote of the league's coaches and general managers.
"The G League has served me well thus far and I think it's a great tool," Vincent said. "Moving forward, it gave me the opportunity to be in this position now."
He led the G League in three-pointers per game (4.2) while averaging 20.9 points this year during stints with both the Stockton Kings and, after his acquisition by Miami, the Sioux Falls SkyForce. Thumb and hamstring injuries had restricted him to just 24 games during his previous season as a G League rookie.
"Coming into this year, I just wanted to show that I had improved and was playing better," he said. "I was trying to focus on that, and not necessarily on being called up (to the NBA). But thankfully, I was."
Vincent's biggest NBA moment so far came on Feb. 5 at the Staples Center when he scored nine points while making a trio of three-pointers during 17.5 minutes of action against the Los Angeles Clippers.
"He definitely can fit," Spoelstra told reporters after that game. "He helps a lot of the actions that we run; they run them in Sioux Falls, obviously. He looks good on those actions on the run.
"He has range, but he can shoot on the move. He's a capable, detailed defender."
Vincent had a successful career at UCSB, ranking ninth on its all-time scoring list with 1,441 points despite missing much of his junior year with a major knee injury.
He bounced back during his senior season of 2017-18 to lead the Gauchos to a school-record 23 victories. He earned second-team All-Big West Conference honors while breaking the school record for career three-pointers with 243.
Vincent admits, however, that he's had to adapt to the pro game.
"I think I'm definitely a different player than in college," he said. "The professional game is a lot different — it has different rules and is played at a different pace, with different spacing."
Adam Simon, the Heat's vice president of basketball operations, believes Vincent's game is NBA-ready.
"I think he's shown an ability to have NBA three-point range," Simon said. "His game is going to go to another level.
"How it'll translate and how he'll be able to make it on the Heat, that's to be determined. But I think everything that we had hoped for when we two-wayed him during the season … I think we're very pleased."
His game evolved last summer at the FIBA World Cup in China when he helped Nigeria qualify for the Olympics, which will now be played in 2021. Vincent, who was eligible to play for Nigeria since his father was born there, finished as its second-leading scorer with an average of 11.4 points per game.
"It was an amazing experience and a long summer — a lot longer than the typical summer for most players," he said. "It was good for me to compete against different guys who play different styles, and representing a nation put a lot more meaning into it.
"It elevated my game in many ways."
Vincent has trained religiously at Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena ever since the NBA began allowing individual workouts on May 13. He's remained healthy even though the number of coronavirus cases in Florida topped 100,000 this week.
He began daily, NBA-mandated testing for COVID-19 on Tuesday.
The Heat plans to bus to Lake Buena Vista on July 9, with play beginning three weeks later without spectators at the Disney Wide World of Sports Complex. Eight games will be played to determine seeding, with the playoffs set to start on Aug. 17.
Vincent won't be allowed to leave the sports complex until Miami's postseason is complete. He's excited to be there, however, whether he plays or not.
"Experience," he said, "is the best teacher."
Especially after such a long recess.