How J. Cole helped Caleb Martin land with the Miami Heat

ByColey Harvey ESPN logo
Thursday, October 12, 2023

MIAMI -- Even during this, the best and most important stretch of basketball he's played in his life, Caleb Martin's thoughts regularly revert back to the workout that forever changed the trajectory of his career.

"I think about that day all the time," the Miami Heat forward said.

It was late summer 2021. With a collective eye on the upcoming season, and the need for developing a role-playing forward to help stretch the floor offensively while giving tough, physical minutes defensively, the Heat hastily put together a workout for Martin.

Although they had been eyeing the undrafted then-free agent for some time, Miami's decision-makers were spurred to finally bring Martin in, thanks to a suggestion from an unlikely source -- Grammy Award-winning rapper J. Cole.

"We have a lot of relationships across the board," Heat assistant coach Caron Butler, who has known J. Cole since 2010, told ESPN. "As a former player, I used to always pride myself on building relationships before it was a thing."

While Butler and J. Cole are represented by the same agency now, their friendship originally formed when the rapper dropped his song "The Autograph" on his critically-acclaimed 2010 mixtape "Friday Night Lights."

At that time, Butler was near the end of a five-year run with the Washington Wizards, one of nine teams the former first-round pick played for in his 14-year career.

During one verse on "The Autograph," J. Cole says in his rhythmic, staccato style delivery: "Caron Butler, I'm a Wizard if ya doesn't know / It's Young Simba, yeah, I'm ballin' till the buzzer blow."

The shout-out humbled Butler then.

More humbling now? Seeing the way the rapper looked out for someone whose grind he had long been paying attention to.

"There are certain people that when they call you about particular people, the message and the favor is a little louder than others," Butler said.

Known more for the wit and nuanced life experience he deftly showcases in his music, J. Cole has been well-respected in his industry for more than a dozen years. But he's also more than just a man behind a microphone. "Basketball scout" is a title that probably should soon appear on his résumé, too.

"It was just one of those things where I was like, 'Damn, he actually called me about this kid,'" Butler said, "and he's like, 'Yo, seriously, he needs that [opportunity].'"

Without J. Cole's phone call, there's a chance Martin's workout would have never happened. And if it didn't, then maybe Miami's run through this postseason would have gone far differently. Maybe it would have been much shorter.

Without Martin's presence this postseason, the Heat may not be in the enviable spot of sitting on the precipice of the NBA Finals.

After averaging just 9.6 points -- a career-high no less -- in a split starter and reserve role this past regular season, the 27-year-old Martin has been comparatively otherworldly in the playoffs.

While guard Jimmy Butler's string of iconic performances throughout these playoffs has him living up to his All-Star and All-NBA billing, Martin, a Miami staple the past two seasons, has been a major spark plug, too.

Entering Saturday's Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Celtics, Martin has averaged 12.9 points in this year's playoffs. In the current series alone, he's come off the bench in all five games and scored in double figures. That includes a 25-point effort in Game 3 that was bested only by fellow undrafted teammate, veteran starter Gabe Vincent, who had 29.

"He's taken on a lot of different roles," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said of Martin before Game 4. "And he's taken on roles that you typically don't want to take on if you're coming into this league, doing all the little things, the dirty work, defending.

"Then starting for the majority of the season, and then not having any kind of issue coming off the bench, and finding a way to be really impactful in both those roles. Those kind of guys are hard to find."

Credit, then, to J. Cole for assisting on the find. Credit also to the artist for having his eyes wide open as far back as 2014, when he came across a 19-year-old Martin at North Carolina State. Martin said back then, during his first two years of college, the rapper, whose own career was beginning to take off, would often play pick-up games in the same gym as him.

Before long, a mutual respect and admiration began.

"That's my homie," Martin said last week, smiling. "That's my guy."

Even after Martin's college career took him far from his native Tar Heel State, the two stayed in touch.

During Martin's two seasons at Nevada, he grew a reputation for being a prolific 3-point shooter and effective scorer, en route to being named Mountain West Conference Player of the Year in 2017-18.

But despite the accolades, Martin went undrafted, ultimately signing an Exhibit 10 contract with the Charlotte Hornets in July 2019.

That October, he inked a multi-year deal with his home state team, and eventually grew into a more regular role on the roster. It would be short-lived. By August 2021, the Hornets waived him, and Martin was scratching his head, trying to think of how he could get back into the league.

"It was a wild couple of weeks," Martin said.

While Martin wracked his brain over how to prove he belonged on an NBA roster, J. Cole pulled out his phone and scrolled to Butler's name.

"It's not the first time he called me about a guy," Butler said. "He had asked me about Dennis Smith Jr. before, too."

Butler didn't need much convincing in Martin's case. The Heat already had him on their board of available players to explore. But J. Cole's nudge was just the push Butler needed to stir the rest of the team. After he got off the phone, Butler texted Martin: "Can you be here tomorrow?"

"I'll be there," Martin responded.

That next day, at the Heat's facilities, Butler and fellow assistant Anthony Carter set up a scrimmage specifically for Martin to see what he could do.

As confident as he was that he'd at least make it to South Florida for the scrimmage, Martin still felt some uncertainty as he began the trip.

"I was nervous. You know what I mean?" Martin said. "Just because I feel like that was my last opportunity to kind of -- I was on the way out, I felt like. And they had already had some spots filled, so I just wanted to make sure I left the gym with them knowing what I was, and making them feel like I couldn't walk out the door without being on the roster."

Apparently, there was no reason for the nerves. The Heat were blown away by what they saw.

"He took a charge in a pick-up game. I mean, he took a charge," Butler said. "That's unheard of. His voice, his communication. He hit a couple game-winners. He just looked like he fit the part perfectly. It was just like organically, it happened."

Maybe that's because Martin felt something familiar that day, a feeling that seems all too common on this team filled with undrafted underdogs who seem to operate best when little is expected of them. In all, seven undrafted Heat players have appeared in a game this postseason. If they advance to the NBA Finals, that would be the most for a single Finals-contending team in the modern draft era (since 1966).

"Definitely a back-against-the-wall type of feeling," Martin said of his tryout. "But I feel like that's when I operate best."

On Sept. 14, 2021, Martin was officially back in the league, signing a two-way deal with the Heat. He hasn't looked back since.

The following February, Miami converted him to a regular contract. Then last summer, after aiding the team's run into a seven-game Eastern Conference finals thriller with Boston, the Heat signed him to a three-year deal that pays Martin nearly $7 million a season.

"It's everything, man. He's got a million things going on. He could be doing a million things," Martin said of J. Cole's phone call. "But that also just shows you that it's bigger than basketball. That's my guy. He keeps up with every game. He's hitting me up just like my family's hitting me up."

After Martin's electrifying Game 3 performance, he heard from his giddy old pick-up game buddy.

"He was jumping up and down, man. He was hyped just like everybody else," Martin said of J. Cole. "And he don't want no type of attention for it. Not saying that he doesn't like it or whatever like that, but he's a guy that's so out of the way."

In addition to staying in regular communication with J. Cole even now, Martin and his twin brother Cody, a former second-round pick who plays for Charlotte, occasionally train at the musician's gym in the offseason.

"This story only is amazing because of the work that Caleb put in," Butler said. "We gave him a platform and an opportunity, but he's been beyond what he's supposed to have been like. He's amazing.

"It just goes to show you, for all the kids that's reading this story or visually seeing the conference finals, just stay true to who you are and what you're about. Who knows who's watching. Who knows who you know, who is connected to an opportunity that can present itself for you."

Count Martin among those who now fully understand that.

"I don't even look at him as J. Cole," Martin said. "That's just the homie. It's all love."