MIAMI -- For the first time of his NBA career, Norris Cole walked out of the Miami Heat locker room, greeted by a band of reporters.
Like all rookies drafted in July, Miami's first-round pick was held hostage by the lockout. No summer-league ball. No paychecks. No communication with his new NBA coach.
But Cole, who just turned 23 years old, didn't miss out on his big chance to play with LeBron James, his newest teammate and fellow Ohio native. LeBron invited the Cleveland State product to play at his gym in Akron over the summer. LeBron, who stayed back home in Ohio for much of the long lay-off, was in the rookie's ear during the offseason.
Ask around the league and most young players can recall their first "When I met LeBron" story. Cole was no different in that respect, but Cole had the unique opportunity to meet the two-time MVP for the first time at his own gym. LeBron personally opened up the gym for Cole's use.
Was the rookie nervous to meet him?
"Not nervous," Cole said with a laugh. "I was skeptical. I didn’t know how he’d take me or how his personality was. But the only thing I could do was be myself and let them see how I am. He's a cool guy."
Akron is only about a three-hour drive from Cole's hometown of Dayton so it was worth the trip to get some workouts with LeBron, who is widely considered the most talented player in the game.
"He’s a physical specimen, man," Cole said. "He’s the truth. It was just great to be around him. A lot of people ask me, 'How is he, how is he, how is he?' I was like, 'Well, he’s just LeBron. You know, a normal guy.'"
LeBron hasn't made the trip down to Miami yet for the team's workouts and isn't expected until Friday when training camp and free agency opens. But LeBron won't need to be in South Florida to give Cole some rookie advice. What were LeBron's words of wisdom?
"'As long as you work hard, you will be fine,'" Cole relayed before continuing in his own words. "Everybody respects hard work. At the end of the day, if you work hard, everybody respects that. That’s who I am and that’s how I have always been."
Sounds like the rookie is well-suited for the Miami organization. Above all else, Heat president Pat Riley has boasted about the point guard's worth ethic and motor. For a team long on talent but short on young legs, the burst of youthful energy will be a welcomed asset off the bench.
To prepare for the season, Cole has been working on maintaining his court speed and further developing his 3-point shot. Before the lockout, the Heat's coaching staff urged Cole to focus on those two areas of his game if he wants to be a rotation player.
Cole already demonstrated a knack for the long jumper, but he has been working to push his range even further in the NBA. Playing in the Horizon League conference, Cole nailed 34.2 percent of his 3-pointers during his senior year. Synergy Sports, a data-tracking service, tells us that Cole shot just 29.7 percent on spot-up jumpers, something he rarely got to do as the primary ball-handler.
As the Heat's point guards from last season can attest, the scoring opportunities will mostly come off the ball and knocking down kickouts from LeBron and Wade. Standing in his socks in front of the media on Monday, Cole stood just a shade above 6-feet tall, but is listed at 6-foot-2. He may be undersized at his position, but Cole has already shown a rare ability to grab boards in college. In fact, the rookie averaged 5.8 rebounds per game last season, even pulling down 20 boards in one game against Youngstown State -- a game in which he scored 41 points as well.
Needless to say, there's a lot to like about the kid if you're an NBA team. Cole said everything you wanted to hear from a rookie heading into his first training camp: the desire to work hard, improve his game and get to know his teammates. The Heat staff isn't allowed to talk to Norris quite yet, but it was obvious he's been doing his homework on the organization's values. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra's training camp has gained the reputation as one of the most grueling in the league.
"I'm ready to play," Cole said.
For now, he isn't stressing about the pressures of next season or the sky-high expectations of his new squad. He just landed in Miami on Sunday night with his mother, ready to find a place near AmericanAirlines Arena to minimize the travel time to get in and out of the gym.
After six months of waiting for his NBA debut, Christmas can't come soon enough. Cole understands the gravity of the game against the Dallas Mavericks, a rematch of last season's NBA Finals.
"That’s what you want," Cole said. "You come to the NBA to play against the best. And then, to actually have the best on your team and everybody giving you their best shot, it’s going to be great. I’ve just been thinking about putting on the uniform and playing with the Miami Heat over my chest, let alone playing Dallas on Christmas. That just makes it that much better."
Of course, living in Miami with 80-degree weather in December is nice, too.
"It's different from Dayton," Cole said with a smile.
"It's almost like paradise down here."