By Dylan Barmmer
He brings an instant infusion of speed, toughness and aggression every time he hits the floor.
His football background translates into a physical, intriguing and exciting style of play.
His youth and enthusiasm seem to often inspire his veteran HEAT teammates.
And 24-year-old reserve point guard Norris Cole not only understands his role in his second year in the HEAT system -- he relishes it.
"I bring a lot of energy," said Cole when asked to define his role. "I’m the young guy out there. I’m the speed demon out there so I bring a lot of energy."
The energy, speed and youth the 6-foot-2, 175-pound Cole injects into the game when he takes the floor can't be quantified statistically, but many of his other contributions can.
After playing in 17 of the HEAT's first 19 games, Cole currently ranks fourth on the HEAT with 2.3 assists per game and fifth on the club with 0.7 steals per game.
Cole also ranks eighth on the HEAT in scoring, with 5.1 points per game, and seventh in 3-point field goals made, with 6.
But maybe most importantly for the second-year (and HEAT's second-youngest) player, Cole ranks seventh on the HEAT with 19.9 minutes per game over the 17 games he's appeared in this season. That's already half a minute more than the 19.4 minutes he averaged over 65 games as a rookie last season.
HEAT coach Erik Spoelstra seems to be entrusting Cole with more and more playing time and responsibilities in his second season. Cole has logged 20 minutes or more eight times this season, and 23 minutes or more in three of his past four games.
It's easy to see why. Cole has been especially efficient and productive over his past five games, a stretch that has also seen the HEAT go 4-1. He's averaged 7.2 points, 2.0 assists, 1.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals over 22.4 minutes, hitting 16 of 33 shots (48.5%), including 3 of 6 3-pointers.
Cole has scored 8 or more points in three of those five games, including a season-high 12 in a 102-89 win over Brooklyn on Dec. 1 and 10 in a 101-92 win over Atlanta on Dec. 10. Cole also grabbed 2 rebounds and a season-high 3 steals in the win over Brooklyn, and he drilled all four of his field goal attempts, including a pair of 3-pointers, in the Atlanta game. His second 3-pointer came with 4:44 left to play and gave the HEAT their largest lead of the game at 95-82.
There's also the less-easily quantifiable or measurable contributions brought by the smart, tenacious, physical Cole, who was ready to head to Walsh University on a football scholarship before Gary Waters and Cleveland State persuaded him to dedicate his talents and passion to the hardwood. His cousin, Trent Cole, is a decorated NFL veteran defensive end, and Cole himself flexed his muscle on the gridiron as the star quarterback at Dayton, Ohio's Dunbar High when he wasn't starring on the court or in the classroom (Cole was a member of the National Honor Society and served as his class' salutatorian).
Cole became known for his tireless work ethic and willingness to sacrifice statistics for team success at Cleveland State, moving from shooting guard to point guard during his final two college seasons. That same drive and intelligence impressed Spoelstra and the HEAT staff during his first (albeit abbreviated) training camp and preseason, which saw Cole average 9.5 points and 4.5 assists and earn a serious, valuable role with a HEAT team that would go on to win the NBA title.
Cole said he put in a lot of time and hard work during his first full NBA offseason this past summer, and his familiarity with the HEAT system, coaches and teammates increased exponentially as a result.
"A lot of things are different," said Cole. "I’ve had a full training camp, which is more repetition with the coaching staff, more practices. So I’m a little more comfortable out there on the court. My first 11 games last year were actually pretty good for being a rookie. But, I think I’m more comfortable out there. I’m more poised as a point guard."
When asked to pinpoint just what area of his game has improved the most, Cole's answer was as quick as his first step.
"My decision making as a playmaker," said Cole. "I know what I’m looking for out there now. There’s no guessing. I know what the other team is doing. I know what we’re supposed to be doing. I think that’s the biggest key, being comfortable with that."
Cole may not have always known what he was doing or looking for during his rookie season, but as he said, he certainly made a quick impression after joining the HEAT as a late first-round pick from Cleveland State, where he became the first man in Horizon League history to earn both Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors -- and was a finalist for the Wooden Award.
In just his second NBA game, Cole exploded for 20 points in 29 minutes against the gritty, veteran Boston Celtics (including 14 in pivotal fourth quarter), helping key a 115-107 win in the HEAT's home opener. That total remains a career high (he matched it in a 105-90 win at Indiana on Feb. 14, 2012), but Cole did manage to score 10 points or more in 20 more games, and finished his rookie season averaging 6.8 points per game. Cole also dished 4 assists or more 14 times, including a career-high 9 (to go along with 16 points) in a 129-90 win over Charlotte in just his fifth NBA game. Cole finished the season averaging an even 2.0 assists per game.
Like any rookie, Cole's scoring, along with his overall play, tended to fluctuate from game to game, opponent to opponent. That hasn't been as much of an issue this season, which has seen veteran Ray Allen take over much of the second-unit scoring load, but Cole still sees room for improvement.
"Being consistent," said Cole when asked where he needs to improve his game the most. "Not just playing one or two or three good games. Putting consecutive games together where you’re playing solid. Where you’re playing productive."
Cole has certainly been playing solid and productive lately. And HEAT fans hope to see more of the same from this exciting, aggressive, athletic and energetic young player.