Nunnally's Ready for His Big Shot

James Nunnally (Photo by Mike Janes)
James Nunnally (Photo by Mike Janes)

By MARK PATTON, Santa Barbara News-Press Senior Writer

James Nunnally wasn't about to take his big chance sitting down.

He'd sat enough already.

The former UCSB basketball star, used infrequently during the Miami Heat's first four NBA Summer League games, was tabbed to start Friday's finale in Orlando.

"They didn't let me know until we were out of the lockerroom, when we got out onto the court," Nunnally said. "But I was so ready."

The starter turned out to be quite a finisher, too, scoring 11 of his 17 points in the final 11 minutes to lead the NBA champions to a 90-85 victory over Detroit.

"It felt a lot better, for sure," said Nunnally, a 6-foot-7 shooting guard. "I got an opportunity and took advantage of it. That's all I wanted. An opportunity."

He worried that it might never come. He didn't play at all in Miami's first two Summer League games, prompting a visit to Chet Kammerer, the Heat's vice-president of player personnel and a former Westmont College coach.

"I asked him, 'Do you know what's going on, because I haven't played at all ... Am I doing something wrong?'" Nunnally said. "He told me, 'No, you're doing everything right ... You'll get your shot ... You'll be in there.'

"I played sparingly in the next game, but at least I played, so I was happy. Anybody who knows me knows how much I love this game, and how much I love to play."

And it seemed like anybody who knew Nunnally was making sure that his spirits stayed up.

"They were all calling to support me, they knew I was frustrated," he said. "They stuck with me, told me to keep my head up.

"That was everybody ... My mom, my brother, cousins, close friends. Everybody."

And that included Orlando Johnson, his former Gaucho teammate who just finished his rookie season with the Indiana Pacers.

Nunnally never wanted to take a back seat to Johnson, UCSB's all-time leading scorer, and wound up No. 4 on the school's charts with 1,685 points in the process.

But their inter-Gaucho rivalry turned into so much more.

"I was with Orlando every day here," he said. "We were staying at the same hotel. Either I'd be in his room or he'd be in mine.

"He was there the whole time, trying to keep my head up, just like everyone else. I consider him a family member, too. He was keeping me laughing and everything."

Nunnally, who graduated from UCSB with Johnson in 2012, came to Miami with high expectations after a strong first season in the NBA Development League for the Bakersfield Jam. He averaged 10.3 points while shooting 40.6 percent from the 3-point line, and showed a strong finishing touch by getting 33 points and seven assists in the Jam's regular-season finale.

"My role there was to bring a lot of energy off the bench," Nunnally said. "Every time I came in, I wanted to seize the moment."

He seized enough of them to receive an invitation to show his skills at the NBA D-League Elite Mini Camp in Chicago in mid-May. Miami liked Nunnally enough to sign him to its NBA Summer League roster.

He didn't see his first action until last Tuesday, scoring four points in 12 minutes against the Orlando Magic. He missed all three of his 3-point attempts but did make 2-of-3 inside the arc.

"That first game, I felt rusty, but I was playing hard, running up and down the court," Nunnally said.

He played 14 minutes in the next game on Thursday, going 2-for-4 from the 3-point line to score six points in a one-point loss to Detroit.

That result set up the two teams for a rematch on Friday, and this time the former Gaucho got 27 minutes.

The best ones came during a seven-minute stretch in which he scored 11 of the Heat's 13 points, beginning with a running bank shot to end the third quarter and trim Detroit's lead to 68-60.

"My foot was on the gas pedal," Nunnally said. "I was staying in the offense and running all the plays, but I was playing really aggressive, too."

He left his seat one last time with 2:49 to go, returning to the game with Miami still behind by five points. It took him just 18 seconds to rebound a missed 3-pointer by Detroit's Tyreke Evans and rush it downcourt for a runner that trimmed the deficit to three.

"I grabbed the ball, saw one guy cross over and weaved around another guy," Nunnally said. "I went straight to the basket, with just one defender in front of me. I went right up and over him."

The play helped launch the Heat past the Pistons for a five-point win.

He celebrated it with his former Gaucho teammate, who was arriving at Orlando's Amway Center with the rest of the Indiana Pacers for the Summer League's next game.

"Orlando said, 'I told you ... I knew you'd get a chance and I knew you'd take advantage of it,'" Nunnally said.

He heard much the same thing after a quick call to his mom.

"I'm playing for more than myself," he said. "I know what I want to do with my life, and I'd like the chance to make my family comfortable.

"I want to make this dream happen."

The next step was to board Friday's team flight to Las Vegas for the final 10-game segment of the NBA Summer League.

"I remember having a pretty good game the last time I was there," he said.

That week in December of 2010 had a difficult start for Nunnally, as well. A badly sprained ankle kept him out of practice all the way through the pre-game shoot-around at UNLV's Thomas & Mack Center.

And then he scored 23 points to upset the 22nd-ranked Rebels, putting them away with six clutch free throws at the end.

"I know there are a lot of great players out there in the NBA," Nunnally said on Friday. "I'm just trying to do the little things."

And have them all add up to a very big finish.