The Oklahoma City Thunder took a flyer on a big man in the first round of the 2013 NBA Draft, selecting Steven Adams from Pittsburgh. The 7’0″ New Zealander has all the physical traits of a productive NBA center, but is seen by scouts as a long-term project. But a strong summer league and two inspiring preseason games may prove that he could become an immediate contributor.
Could he help remedy some of OKC’s issues with depth in the frontcourt this season?
Let’s first look at Steven Adams’ journey to the NBA. The youngest of 18 siblings, Adams suffered adversity all throughout his youth, chronicled beautifully in this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His father passed away when he was 13, but his brother Warren stepped up and kept Steven on the right path.
He moved to Wellington and enrolled in Scotts College, where he succeeded with flying colors. As buzz began to grow, he moved to the U.S. and enrolled at Notre Dame Prep in Massachusetts, a basketball program that has produced players like Kim English and Michael Beasley. He became a 5-star recruit and committed to the University of Pittsburgh. At Pitt, he never took the Big East by storm.
Although he made the Big East All-Freshman team, he rarely translated his astronomical potential to on-the-court success. He averaged 7.2 points per game on 57.1 percent shooting, with 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. To be fair, Pitt doesn’t play the most up-tempo style of offense, but most people were underwhelmed with his statistical output in his freshman year. He was a conundrum last year.
Because of every fan’s strong confirmation bias in Adams’ talent, his highlights were often overstated. Don’t get me wrong, his highlight tape looks great:
But his biggest problems came with his limited offensive game and mental inconsistency. Coach Jamie Dixon knew Adams’ shooting weakness and made sure that Adams mostly touched the ball around the rim. He played that role well and used his physical gifts to score from offensive rebounds. But defenses did not and will not respect his midrange game in the slightest.
He also shot 44 percent from the charity stripe, which is not an uncommon problem for most young big men, but he’s got some work to do. In other aspects of his game, he often looked lost. He would have a sequence like this at least once a game: on one end of the floor, he’d make a huge play (a block, a thunderous dunk), but on the other end, he’d have a mental lapse (an illegal screen, a defensive three seconds). That part of the game is tough for freshmen, especially those who had only played one semester of U.S. high school basketball.
Watching him last season, you knew he had potential — he would demonstrate flashes of it each game. But he never had a signature moment where you knew that he was going to be a for-sure contributor in the pros. Luckily for his draft stock, his best collegiate performance came in his final game, a loss to Wichita State in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He contributed 13 points and 11 boards and as you can see below, he made some smart offensive plays, kicking it out to open shooters.
But Adams has shown major promise in the summer league and preseason. He helped the Thunder win the Orlando Summer League championship, putting up a consistent 9.0 points and 6.5 rebounds per game in 27 minutes of play. Although he occasionally got into foul trouble, he ran the floor well in transition, which opened up some easy buckets down low.
Adams also put up solid numbers against Ferenbahce and the Philadelphia 76ers. In 16 minutes of play per game, he averaged 6.5 points and 5.0 rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting and everyone has noticed his soft hands around the rim and ability to run in transition. The Thunder’s offensive success this year will come on the fast break and having an athletic center like Adams to run with them will really stretch defenses. Coach Scott Brooks certainly seems inspired by Adams’ performance so far:
“I like what Steven has done,” Brooks said. “… There’s still so many things he has to learn, and it’s gonna take him some time, but I love his effort. The guy gives you everything he has. He seems to be a quick learner, but it takes some time. He has to understand what we do on both ends of the floor.”
Current starting center Kendrick Perkins simply can’t run the floor like Adams can anymore. There’s been talk forever about the possibility of the Thunder amnestying Perkins, but general manager Sam Presti has come out declaring they won’t. He still has one more year left on his deal, where he will make $9.6 million (!!!).
But this means that Adams won’t be in an immediate position to start, which is the best case scenario for the still very raw Adams. But with the recent cutting of center Daniel Orton, Adams is now the de facto backup center. If Perkins can’t rebound from his ugly campaign last year, Adams could see a lot of playing time. I think an ambitious yet potentially effective comparison for Steven Adams is Andre Drummond of the Detroit Pistons. Both were highly touted recruits out of high school who went to Big East schools and didn’t dominate the way that some thought they should have.
Because of this, they fell in the draft and wound up in situations where they could succeed. They both had enormous potential because of their athleticism and Drummond was able to turn that potential in reality, as he will be huge for Detroit this season. Adams still has a lot of work to do, but Thunder fans should feel confident in the future of their frontcourt.