Caleb Martin hopes to re-sign with Miami Heat in free agency

As Caleb Martin prepares for free agency this summer that’s expected to net him the biggest contract of his young NBA career, he still wonders where he would be without the help of Grammy Award-winning and multi-platinum selling rapper J. Cole.

J. Cole, whose full name is Jermaine Cole, helped make the Miami Heat a real option for Martin last offseason. Both J. Cole and Martin grew up in North Carolina.

“He’s been my guy for a minute since when I was at NC State like around my sophomore year and I kind of got to know him around then through my trainer,” Martin said to the Miami Herald of his connection with J. Cole. “We’ve just always been cool and then we got to hooping and I figured out he hooped. So he would be around when we hooped. Then over the summers, we would be at the same gym and we would just be working out and we ended up getting really cool. I talk to him a lot.”

As the Charlotte Observer first reported, J. Cole helped find Martin a home in Miami by recommending him to longtime friend and Heat assistant coach Caron Butler.

Martin, who went undrafted in 2019 out of Nevada, was waived by the Charlotte Hornets last August after spending the previous two seasons with the Hornets. And even though he flashed the potential to become a quality rotation player during his first two NBA seasons, he didn’t receive much interest from teams after he was released.

Martin recalls that the only offer on the table before the Heat became a possibility was an Exhibit 10 contract from the Portland Trail Blazers with no guarantee to make the 15-man roster.

“J Cole ended up having a connection with Caron here, which I didn’t know about before,” Martin said. “That was after I got waived and he just saw how tough the process was on me trying to figure out my next move and he just wanted to see if he could help and use his connect.”

Butler listened and invited Martin to take part in an open scrimmage in Miami last summer. Martin impressed Heat brass enough to earn a two-way contract from the organization.

“He was huge, man,” Martin said of J. Cole. “Because I think here at the time, they already had a two-way in mind before I was even a thought. I think the fact that he reached out [to Butler] — they were boys, they were cool. I think it obviously helped that I played in the league for two years. But yeah, I just think that it would have been tough to come here and put myself in front of these guys if it wasn’t for [J. Cole]. So a good amount of it was due to him, for sure.”

Martin, who turns 27 in September, made the most of his Heat opportunity and quickly became the NBA’s best two-way contract player. As he turned into a fixture in the bench rotation with his blend of athleticism and size making him a versatile weapon on both ends of the court, the Heat converted Martin’s two-way deal into a standard contract in February and made him part of its 15th -man roster to make sure he was eligible for the playoffs.

Martin averaged career-highs in points (9.2) and rebounds (3.8) this regular season. He also shot a career-best 50.7 percent from the field and raised his three-point percentage from last season’s 24.8 percent to 41.3 percent in 60 regular-season games (12 starts) in his first season with the Heat.

Nagging injuries slowed Martin toward the end of the season, but he was still part of the rotation for most of the playoffs.

“I feel like I can be one of those guys that fluctuates where it’s kind of whatever a team needs from me,” Martin said. “If you need a guy to come off the bench and bring energy and do that stuff, I can do that. I feel like I can step in and start. It doesn’t matter what the role or what a team needs from me, I feel like I can fill that void.

“Obviously, I think my game expanded shooting wise, being more efficient and being more consistent and still learning how to do that year in and year out. I just think that I took big steps and I think I’m only going to take even larger steps after this going forward.”

In order for those future steps to be taken in a Heat uniform, Miami will have to find a way to re-sign Martin this offseason.

Martin will become a restricted free agent this summer, as long as the Heat extends a $2.1 million qualifying offer to him ahead of free agency. As a restricted free agent, Miami will have the right to match outside offers up to the $10.3 million mid-level exception to retain him.

The Heat does not hold Martin’s Bird rights and isn’t on track to have cap space, so it has limited resources to re-sign him. The Heat can bring him back using the non-bird exception with a starting salary of up to $2.2 million or the $4.1 million bi-annual exception, but more likely would need to turn to either the $6.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception or $10.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception to keep him based on the type of offers he’s expected to receive on the free agent market.

“I want to be here,” Martin said of his desire to return to the Heat after earning a total of about $2.9 million in salary over his three NBA seasons. “I got better here and I believe I will get better here. Obviously, I just want a great situation no matter what. But I just think with how close I’ve gotten with the guys and the people here, and how much better and more confident I’ve been here. I feel like my team and my staff believes in me and believes that I’m going to get better here.”

The Athletic’s John Hollinger developed a valuation system that Martin currently worth about $8.9 million, which would be close to the full $10.3 million non-taxpayer mid-level exception. If the Heat is forced to use the non-taxpayer mid-level exception, it will be hard capped at about $155 million this upcoming season.

“Obviously, being open minded during free agency. You have to be and it’s my first experience with that,” Martin continued. “But I want to be [with the Heat]. I love being here. I want to be here, so that’s all I got on my mind right now until I see what happens or whatever type of experience I’m going to get in free agency.”

But Martin knows his path could have been different without J. Cole’s help last offseason.

“I think about it all the time,” Martin said. “Things could have been different. I don’t know where I would have been at or what I would have been doing.”

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Anthony Chiang covers the Miami Heat for the Miami Herald. He attended the University of Florida and was born and raised in Miami.

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