OKBET allsports Jamal Cain, a non-drafted player invited to training camp after impressing in the NBA Summer League with the Miami Heat, was not expecting to play tonight.
After all, it was just a few games into the preseason and the Heat were still using their rotation players to get ready for the soon-to-begin regular season. They were also going to be facing the Brooklyn Nets, a club that had a lot of distractions around them but still had a lot of quality on the court thanks to players like Kevin Durant, a former MVP and perennial All-Star forward.
Cain had no idea that he would be starting for the Heat and getting the chance to defend his boyhood idol Kevin Durant on national television in a real game.
The experience was indeed eye-opening. Cain told Basketball News, “It was absolutely strange to get to defend one of my heroes in my first ever, like, actual, NBA game with real NBA minutes.” Basically, I was telling him, “Ay guy, you’re an inspiration to me” and such things. I’ve been keeping tabs on you ever since I was a little kid. That’s the kind of thing that can alter the course of your life forever.
He was simply so kind to me. Simply said, he radiated wonderful vibes. Since he may say anything along the lines of, “Ay dude, I’m trying to concentrate on the game. Stay away from me and don’t bother talking to me. However, the manner in which he dealt with that particular situation with me was very motivating. That’s one of my all-time favorite players, so it’s a very special occasion for me.
And yet, despite Cain’s enthusiasm for the unfolding events in real time, he had no question in his mind that he belonged on the court with KD and the Miami stalwarts. The results Cain achieved that night and in later games lend credence to his statement. In his first prolonged professional minutes, he concluded the game with 15 points and 12 rebounds for a double-double.
Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of his player after the game, “I mean, he has the work ethic, he has the character.” When we took him into the summer league, he had nothing but promise. Even with his inexperience, his athleticism, competitive spirit, activity, and many attempts shine through. He’s been perfecting it and attempting to streamline our playing strategy.
I’m sure he’s racking his brain, but he keeps making plays and drawing attention to himself with offensive boards and additional initiatives. His responsiveness to instruction suggests he will continue to develop quickly.
Mychal Covington, an assistant coach for the Oakland A’s, understood precisely what Cain and Durant were thinking as they squared off.
“Most people are all about ‘LeBron, LeBron, LeBron,’ but Jamal is dead set on KD. I’ve spent a lot of time at the gym with him, since we both enjoy heated debates with other young people about the relative merits of various basketball players. Even though I knew he wasn’t star-struck, the encounter was still out of this world. And I knew he was going to compete,” Covington told Basketball News over the phone. To put it bluntly, “He didn’t give a f*ck about just “being there” and not competing. That was his opportunity to declare his presence. As in, “All right, I’m going to do this.” Together with Kevin Durant, I’m out here on the court. Kevin Durant is the first guy I have to protect, and he’s the one I’ve been keeping an eye on. I had no doubt that he would really compete.
The amusing part is that Kevin Durant’s mother attended one of Jamal’s high school games. In Michigan for a competition, she attended one of his high school games and struck up a conversation with him afterward. That was because she had never met him before. She wasn’t there for him since nobody had brought her. She even posed for a photo with him and the squad. From then to today, time has sped up so much, it’s mind-boggling.
Covington has been more than just a coach who has assisted Cain along the road. Since Jamal was a middle schooler in Pontiac, Michigan, the two had shared almost every moment together, becoming close to the point of being considered family by both parties.
That’s my kind of dude, man. ”Cain stated, “He’s been my trainer from the very beginning. You might say he’s been there for me every step of the way. He has prepared me for basketball on all fronts, both emotionally and physically. He has been a great source of knowledge for me. Nothing fancy, just putting in a lot of hours. refusal to accept charity. The simple realization that nothing worthwhile comes easily or without effort.
Jamal and his cousin Davion Bradford first met one of Covington’s AAU players when he showed up to play for Pontiac Academy for Excellence in brand new shoes and uniform. The high school team from Melvindale Academy of Business and Technology in Covington once faced them in a game. When the competition was over, the young guy introduced Cain and Bradford to Covington, and the next day, Jamal and Davion approached Mychal about playing for him during their senior year of high school.
Covington inquired about their parents and found that both of them had graduated from Northern High. Amanda and Kassandra Branner, the mothers of Jamal and Davion, are twins and were a formidable force in the paint for Northern High School. Covington, however, graduated a year later. Jamal’s mother demanded that they all work together after the first meeting, and that they would be lifelong friends, particularly Jamal and Mychal.
Covington stood by their side even though Cain wasn’t welcome on Covington’s middle school AAU team (The Family/Detroit Stars) due to parental concerns about Cain’s potential to steal playing time. Only Jamal and Davion stuck with the Covington AAU team from eighth grade through their senior year of high school.
(That only applied to extracurricular activities; during their first year at Melvindale, the state of Michigan forbade Covington from coaching them on the school’s squad. While Jamal and Davion followed him there in bad faith, the state ruled, forcing them to play at Cornerstone instead. To hear Mychal tell it, it served to further cement their relationship. Davion just signed with a foreign club.
Covington has been a consistent presence in their lives, both on and off the court. Shellie Branner, Cain’s grandpa, passed away suddenly while Cain was a freshman in high school. Jamal looked up to Shellie as a father figure, and before he passed away, he told Mychal that he would always be there for Jamal and Davion.
I quote: “He was essentially telling me, like, ‘Man, Cov, a lot of folks had things to say. However, I have seen your efforts with kids and I hope that you remain a constant part of their lives. If you want to make a difference in someone’s life, just stick around. He lost his granddad a few weeks afterwards,” Covington said. I’m the kind of person that thinks there’s a purpose to everything that takes place in the world. There must have been a purpose for him to draw me aside and talk about them in such detail when they weren’t even in the same room or nearby.
Hasen Cain Sr. was brutally killed the summer before Cain’s final year of high school. For the second time, Jamal could count on the support of Covington.
The sport of basketball “sort of just been like… we’re like family,” Covington remarked. That’s merely my family name; it has nothing to do with a title. This guy is related to me. I’m related to his mum. Myke, you’re family, she’s told me many times. Exactly like this is what it is. It’s the same old stuff. And he talks to them like they’re his little sisters. It’s really a huge group effort from everyone in the family.
Pontiac, Michigan, where we’re from, is much like any other little city. You hear these stories about how terrible everything is and how each place has its own unique tragedy, murders, drug addiction, and poverty. All that, plus the tales of those who were so close to success yet fell short. Consequently, my goal was never to just have an effect on males via basketball; I also hoped to have a particularly profound effect on males in my hometown of Pontiac. It’s ingrained in me to think that way. I was determined that if I ever had anything to do with a Pontiac, Michigan, basketball player, he would succeed and that I would be at his side every step of the way.
Cain’s choice to leave Covington and his family behind and join the Marquette Golden Eagles basketball team would be the first time in his life that he would be apart from them. Nevertheless, Mychal kept in constant contact with him, and when he returned home for the summer, they would exercise together.
Cain’s four years with the Milwaukee program were not without their ups and downs, but he persevered through it all and eventually became a starting player in his senior year. He honed his skills among future pros like Sam Hauser and Markus Howard, and he eventually came to terms with the fact that he was not going to be the team’s primary contributor.
Cain played his first four years of college basketball at Marquette, but after his fourth year he decided to play closer to home at Oakland University, where he had a phenomenal year, averaging 19.9 points and 10.2 rebounds on 58.7% True Shooting. As soon as he returned, Covington could feel a lift in his mood, and Jamal said that it was because he was looking forward to seeing his mother and other loved ones witness his games again from close quarters.
Cain said, “Oh, for sure,” when asked whether he had been successful. And I knew that by working for Cov, I would be able to find the kind of steady employment that would help me support my family. “Because I was anticipating this chance and wanted to be prepared for it when it arrived.”
Cain, now 23 and a rookie in the NBA, thinks he can utilize the knowledge he gained during his five years at college to his benefit.
Learning that “this is going to be a journey” and “knowing how not to get in my emotions and stuff like that” are two of the most important things Cain has learned thus far. When you’re young, you want everything to happen quickly and perfectly. However, I’ve learned through the trials of college life that “my road is going to be challenging… it’s not going to be all wonderful.”
It was a boon having him on the team, and [Oakland’s head coach] Greg Kampe did use him in ways that showed off his versatility. Covington said, “It was also a positive when he was at Marquette and he didn’t get to do it. It experience “gave him a little bit of both worlds” (Marquette and Oakland), and “now, you’re back being the low guy on the totem pole, but you know how to thrive at that” (a lower-ranking role in Miami).
As with his previous rise, Cain is aware that his path to the Heat’s big club will be slow and requires patience.
I knew my part was going to be rocky, and that was enough to prepare me. And knowing it wasn’t going to be all cuddly and cozy,” Cain remarked. They just encouraged me to keep at it. And when I go to Sioux Falls, I need to keep in mind that I can still compete at a high level if I don’t let complacency set in.
Nothing too complicated is on his agenda for this season, whether in Sioux Falls or Miami. Winning is all about defending, getting offensive rebounds, and scoring easy baskets. It’s not always as complicated as he makes it seem. However, it doesn’t make it any less thrilling to see.
Cain’s bounce is the first noticeable part of his game on video. Watching him take off is like seeing someone leap off an unseen trampoline. He jumps to the rafters to get offensive rebounds and often converts putbacks, making use of his tremendous vertical.
Without the ball, he uses the corner as an advantage either cutting to the basket, or by catching an opponent napping while watching a shot go up.
In his words, “it simply comes with the attitude of just going,” Cain said. “Not every time it’s coming right to me, but I give myself a chance ’cause I’m constantly going. I’m constantly hungry, striving to get the rebound, so I feel like I have more good outcomes than negative… For me, athletics comes quite easily. It’s not something I often consider in the context of “I should do that.” The process was entirely organic. To get those weak-side tipback dunks, I simply want to crash, dude.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Covington can spot up for threes and isn’t hesitant to bang with larger men in the paint to create room to get a layup off, given that his AAU teams typically played up a grade or two.
Cain doesn’t get the ball a lot, and that’s OK. Covington has repeatedly warned him that his future role may not have as much responsibility. However, he should still practice such skills so that he can rise to the occasion if and when his team need them.
Covington compared him to a modern-day Shawn Marion, saying, “To me, his game is more like this era’s Shawn Marion—livewire, live body, constantly around the rim, capable to knock down a shot, capable to slash, cutting, defend numerous spots,” despite his diminutive frame. But sure, a multifunctional Swiss Army knife. And you need not pass the ball to him.
There is always room for improvement as a marksman. He will always need to work on his strength, since his frame is quite frail. And basic ball handling, the kind of player who can be trusted with the ball and make plays while not necessarily improving his shooting. He can. He doesn’t have enough opportunities to demonstrate his abilities, so “you have to grow better at it so people start trusting that you can do it.”
When it comes to Cain’s talents, Covington is quite firm on the more-run-more-production principle.
Covington predicted that a double-double would result from playing the player for more over 25 minutes. No doubt in my mind that’s what he’ll do, since that’s what he always does. And you saw it in preseason when he made it to the NBA. When given significant playing time for the first time, he recorded a double-double. When he finally received some serious playing time in the summer league, he recorded a double-double.
Covington predicts that Cain will be a standout at his position without the aid of elaborate set pieces or flashy maneuvers, and he describes the kind of player this description conjures up. He’ll make the intangible judgments and find creative ways to contribute to possessions thanks to his “nose for the ball,” which may manifest itself in the form of a rebound or a hustle play.
Covington said, “He sneaks in those areas.” To paraphrase, “Antawn Jamison had all the tiny touch shots around the rim—the little reverses, the rapid shoots before shot-blockers could get to it, the high glass, and the ability to score layups without even leaping; “Let me get it off.” Or, if I catch an air ball with time running out on the shot clock, I can still get it up and score.
So, “He’s always had that skill; it’s like second nature to him. But you only get such chances if you play hard and make yourself accessible, by, for example, cutting off the ball when no one is looking or catching a player napping. I see, so that’s just his game.
Covington would use auxiliary players with a significant effect on the game as role models for Cain to emulate as he encouraged Cain’s growth.
There are some men out there with big heads. For some reason, not all men have been taught the lesson that “Ay, you’re not going to be the man for the rest of your life.” “You have to fit into the jigsaw,” Covington said. As a result, it’s encouraging to hear that he recognizes the value of his part in the team’s success; such players are indispensable on today’s NBA rosters. Everyone has that one friend who “does everything the big stars won’t do.”
Forward Dorian Finney-Smith of the Dallas Mavericks and swingman Bruce Brown of the Denver Nuggets were two of the names he suggested. Covington, though, remembers having a talk with Cain as a freshman in high school about Mikal Bridges, who wasn’t a high-usage player until his junior year in college when Villanova won the national title.
To paraphrase, “‘Yo, how awesome is Mikal Bridges?'” That’s a question that Covington says he asked Cain. As he puts it, “Man, he just does a lot of intangible things.” So I told her, “Well, you know he’s going to be drafted. Just what is it that he does that you don’t? Nothing,’ he scoffed. I’m a little taller and wider than he is; his advantage is in his longer arms. “But he’s going to be picked, so that’s a pattern for you,” I told him.
I hate it when people attempt to develop something new. If there is something that needs to be done and you can see it, and if it has worked for someone else, then go ahead and do it. Just do it the way you want to. Adding to it is easy, so don’t lose sight of that; that’s how they got where they are now. Every time I talk to him, I tell him to “man up” and work harder than everyone else. If you put forth more effort than everyone else, you can achieve anything. Reckon on my word. In other words, “This time, someone is going to notice.” There are still enough basketball fans in our world to know that everyone who is coachable and willing to put in the effort deserves a shot. Embrace your true self.
Cain’s success, combined with that of emerging Indiana Pacers big man Isaiah Jackson, the first player from Mychal’s AAU program to make it to the NBA, gives Covington hope for Pontiac.
“It’s an encouragement to the future generation of young, brilliant not just athletes, but bright young individuals who just don’t give up on what you feel you can be,” Covington added. If you put in the time and effort, you will succeed. It’s not where you come from, it’s how much faith in yourself you have that matters.
Therefore, Cain’s promising beginning to his professional career comes as no surprise to him. He’s still doing the same things he did when he was 14; the only difference is that now he’s taller and longer and full of confident assurance.
To paraphrase, “Me and ‘Mal were discussing it. His exact words were, “When [you] weren’t in the gym or thought I could take some time off, I didn’t have the confidence when I went on the court.” He’s a different child now,” Covington said.
“Like, right now, when I’m talking to him, I can hear it. And he says, “I’m intended to be here.”
Cain was needed by a struggling Miami squad that only dressed seven players on Friday night in Washington. Soon after entering the game, he grabbed a defensive rebound, fought for an extra possession, pump-faked and drove for a layup to the left, then made a terrific read to a cutting Orlando Robinson. To the untrained eye, Cain’s 4 points, 6 rebounds, and 1 assist in 18 minutes may not seem like much, but his effort was sufficient to get credit.
Cain is thankful for the preseason he put together for preparing him for occasions like that, in which he received appreciation from the Miami fan base and others in the organization.
Man, it really helped out. To sample the NBA lifestyle, if only for a little while. In the end, I’m glad I went through it. Cain, who has played a total of three minutes between three NBA games and three G League games, said, “Just glad that I can play at that level. “I felt like, ‘Man, I belong here.'” It wasn’t a tremendous deal, but it will always have a special place in my heart.
When Heat player Bam Adebayo heard that Cain was at training camp, he invited the rookie over to play video games, watch basketball, and otherwise bond over their shared experience.
Adebayo was quick to praise his skilled teammate after his recent breakthrough performance against the Nets, which was broadcast on ESPN.
“It’s good that people are now beginning to recognize Jamal Cain,” he said.