How Heat's Max Strus paved his way from Division II to NBA playoffs starter
Max Strus beat the odds to go from Division II standout to playing meaningful minutes for the Heat during these playoffs.
Max Strus and Capel Henshaw were shooting around after practice during Strus’s freshman year at Lewis University when Henshaw, a sophomore guard, asked Strus between shots and swishes what he wanted to do after playing Division II basketball.
“I remember Max telling me, ‘I want to play basketball as long as I can’,” Henshaw said.
It was an aspirational goal, but attainable. After all, plenty of Division II hoopers have gone on to have rewarding careers overseas. Maybe one day, Henshaw thought, Strus could even play at one of the top international leagues in Europe. The two kept shooting, and Henshaw didn’t think much of it.
Then Strus kept shooting, and shooting, and shooting until, eight years after lighting up Division II scoreboards, he became a starting shooting guard in the NBA. Now the overlooked recruit from Southside Chicago who spent five years in college, was cut twice from NBA teams and tore his ACL before ever finding his footing in the league is playing a key role for the Miami Heat as they get set to face the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. It’s hard to see any of it happening without the springboard of Division II basketball.
“Great story,” said Scott Trost, his head coach at Lewis. “It’s not a common path.”
Trost and Henshaw, who was Strus’s roommate and is now part of the athletics staff at Lewis, a Division II program in Romeoville, Illinois, know as well as anyone how rare it is to make the jump from DII to the NBA. Strus is the only player from Lewis since the late 60s to have so much of a cup of coffee in the NBA.
Only 137 players have ever played Division II basketball and gone on to play in the NBA, according to data provided by the NCAA. And the days of George Gervin, Charles Oakley and Ben Wallace are long gone. As the pool of eligible players has expanded into other countries and amateur leagues, and the NBA draft has shrunken from 21 rounds (in 1960) to two (starting in 1989), the chance for a player from a DII college to get drafted has diminished.
Of the NBA’s 500-plus active players, just six spent time at a Division II program. Most are fringe players not long for the league. Boston’s Derrick White, who played three years in Division II for Colorado Springs before transferring to DI Colorado, is the only former-DII player to have played in more career NBA games than Strus.
All of this to say: What Strus has accomplished already was borderline impossible. But the slim odds never shook his confidence.
“Give Max all the credit in the world because he knew, more than anybody else did, how good he was,” Trost said. “Did I think he was going to be an NBA player when we saw him and recruited him? No. But Max did. And that's the most important thing. He believed in his abilities.”
Given that Strus received just one Division I offer (Chicago State) coming out of high school in Palos Hills, Illinois, that confidence could have easily been filed under the category of “irrational.” But Strus buoyed that confidence with his relentless work ethic.
To this day, former coaches and teammates wax poetic about Strus’s habits. Before one home game during Strus’s freshman year, Henshaw decided he was going to impress coaches by getting to the gym two hours early to warm up.
“I walk into the gym and think I’m the first one,” Henshaw said. “I look over and Max is working out with one of our assistants, and Max has already broken a sweat.
“His work ethic rubbed off on us.”
The Flyers’ record improved each of Strus’s two seasons, coalescing in a Division II NCAA Tournament Elite Eight appearance. Fans in the student section at Lewis games marveled at Strus’s scoring and cheered “STRUS IS LOOSE” during his more prolific shooting performances. As a sophomore, Strus started all 33 games and led Lewis in points (20.2 per game) and broke the school’s single-game scoring record with 52 points, including going 12-for-14 from 3-point range, in a win over Northwood.
But after two years, it became clear that Strus needed to seek out a higher level of competition.
A few days after his team was eliminated in the tournament, Strus went into Trost’s office and told him he intended to transfer to a Division I school — specifically in the Big East, Big Ten or ACC — and if that didn’t materialize that he’d be back at Lewis for a third year.
“Would he have gotten to where he is now if he stayed here? I don't know,” Trost said. “But I do think Max believed in himself and knew what he was capable of. And he handled it the right way.”
A family connection at DePaul put Strus on the radar of head coach Dave Leitao. Strus had just made 67 3-pointers in 33 games as a sophomore, and teams looking for shooting were interested. “He had no shortage of suitors,” Leitao said. So Leitao and his staff put together a pitch and convinced Strus to choose Chicago’s DePaul over offers from Butler, Louisville, Oregon and Xavier. The first bullet-point in that pitch: Playing time against Big East competition.
It’s not entirely true that Strus always knew he’d be an NBA player. It took a conversation with his head coach at DePaul to solidify that as a goal.
After only a few days of training camp, Leitao was so impressed with Strus that he called him into his office and told him he needed to set his sights higher than playing overseas.
“I've been around really good players,” Leitao, who had been an assistant at UConn before getting the DePaul job, and is now a coach for preps-to-pros league Overtime Elite, told Strus. “I know one when I see one, and you can play in the NBA.”
“I was a little surprised at first,” Strus said, “but that’s all I had my mind on after that.”
The same things that stood out at Lewis stood out at DePaul. Leitao marveled at the quiet confidence with which Strus carried himself and the hours he logged into getting better. Strus started all 66 games he played over two seasons at DePaul and averaged 20 points while shooting 36.3% from 3-point range as a senior. But by the time he entered his name into the 2019 NBA Draft, he was already 23 years old and had only two years of notable basketball on his resume. By the end of draft night in June, 60 names were announced, and none belonged to Strus.
But teams always need shooting, and shortly after the draft Strus signed with the Celtics Summer League roster, which led to a non-guaranteed deal in training camp. The Celtics waived him before the start of the season, but the Chicago Bulls quickly signed him to a two-way contract. He played only two months before he tore his ACL during a G League game and the Bulls let him go. It was at that point Strus most seriously questioned his NBA future, but his performance in the G League impressed the Heat and they invited him to training camp before the start of the 2020-21 season and he eventually landed one of the team’s two-way contracts. The way his teammates describe his approach would sound familiar to those at Lewis and DePaul.
“He puts in a lot of work and it pays off. It’s that simple,” said Gabe Vincent. “You see him here after practice and he’s still shooting, getting reps in. Plays hard. Makes shots. It’s as simple as that. There’s no easy way to do it. You put in the work and the results show.”
Strus didn’t play much but spent the season as Duncan Robinson’s understudy and improving his shot under the tutelage of assistant coach Rob Fodor. Then, during this past Summer League, he made his mark by averaging 20.8 points and made 40% of his 3s. He signed a two-year, $3.5 million deal before this season.
“He did everything last year and this summer to put himself in position to be able to take on a bigger role,” Spoelstra said.
Strus began this season on the fringe of Miami’s rotation. Coaches told him he needed to be better defensively to get on the floor. To improve his footwork, they ran him through multiple exercises a day such as sliding drills and zig-zags. He strengthened his lower body in the weight room. Through this regular-season crash-course, Strus went from getting regularly beat off the dribble to playing big playoff minutes against mismatch-hunting teams Atlanta and Philadelphia.
In March, Strus replaced Robinson as the Heat’s starting shooting guard. He started the final six meaningful games of the season and averaged 12.5 points on 52% shooting (51.3% from 3), 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists going into the playoffs. To close out the 76ers in the Eastern Conference semi-finals, Strus logged consecutive double-doubles, with his 20-point, 11-rebound performance helping the Heat eliminate the 76ers in Game 6.
Despite the recent success, Strus hasn’t forgotten how his career began. Last fall, he signed a Lewis Flyers jersey that now hangs in the coaches’ office.
“I always remember where I came from,” Strus said. “I just want to prove people wrong. That’s still something that keeps me going.”
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