The flowing locks, the rim-rocking dunks, the glorious mustache, the blocked shots into the second row and yes, the giant, arm sleeve tattoo – those are the obvious things Steven Adams brings to the table. The Thunder, and its fans, love him for all of those reasons, but also for the more subtle contributions he provides for his squad night-in and night-out as well.
Heading into his fifth NBA season, Adams has earned his position as one of the very best centers in the league. To be fair, the traditional back-to-the-basket center is less common now than it was even five years ago, but that makes Adams’ combination of height, weight, strength, length and athleticism all that much more impressive. He can battle with the goliaths down low, switch out onto the water bug point guards darting along the perimeter and deal with opponents of any ilk in between.
Watch: Adams Scores Career-High 24 Points
“(Adams) has been fantastic for us in terms of just blue-collar work ethic and doing a lot of the team defensive stuff that’s necessary for a team to win,” said Thunder General Manager and Executive Vice President Sam Presti.
The game is constantly changing, as are Adams’ teammates. In 2016-17 he no longer had two stalwart veterans lined up at the power forward and small forward positions alongside him in the frontcourt. In one offseason, he became the veteran presence and defensive anchor of the team.
There was plenty to learn. With the help of longtime assistant coach Mark Bryant, Adams stepped up for the team and helped them improve defensively throughout the year. He also recognized ways that he can be a better team defender due to the way the game is evolving, particularly with the way he defends pick-and-rolls.
“The main thing for me what learned is I have to be more aggressive and stop them earlier,” Adams said. “I like to just stop them outside before they get any sort of jump, and just kind of work from there.”
On the surface offensively, Adams had his best statistical season of his career. 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.1 steals and 1.0 blocks in a career-high 29.9 minutes per game. He shot 57.1 percent from the field, seventh-best in the league. A deeper dive will help to understand why Adams’ production came with a much higher degree of difficulty than any season prior.
In 2016-17, just 19.8 percent of Adams’ shot attempts were dunks, and 66.8 percent of his baskets came off of assists. In comparison, in 2015-16, 27.7 percent of his shot attempts were dunks and 76.2 percent of Adams’ field goals were assisted. What was the difference this past year?
All season long, opponents keyed in on Adams, packing the paint to prevent those patented Russell Westbrook lobs over the top for rim-rattling dunks. They clogged up any chance to roll towards the rim, at times even preventing Adams from getting in position to catch the ball.
Opponents converged so strongly in the lane because they wanted to prevent those high-percentage looks that Westbrook and Adams can create when they run parallel towards the rim together. A lot more had to go through Adams’ head with defenders crashing over and teammates spaced out around the perimeter.
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“Offensively it was just the rolls, just different reads,” Adams explained. “I had to be sure when I rolled because they’re selling out on the paint. It was just to make sure that different reads are there.”
This upcoming season, the Thunder’s foes will have a much more difficult choice, thanks to some added weaponry, to put it lightly, along the perimeter. It would make sense that Adams’ dunk and assisted basket percentages return closer to those 2015-16 numbers next season with the additional floor spacing and the gravitational pull created by All-Star small forward Paul George.
“Hopefully what it will do is allow our other players to be assisted and be better versions of themselves. That’s what makes great players great,” Presti noted, in reference to the impact George’s arrival could make. “Steven will be in a different role than he was in last season. We’ll see the improvements that Steven Adams has made during that year probably come into more clarity hopefully this season.”
Stretchy power forward Patrick Patterson and the quick, veteran floor general Raymond Felton will also impact the space Adams has on the floor to operate. The more of it, the better for the 23-year old New Zealander. Another year older plus more experience and with the understanding of what it means to be a top offensive option and the physical and mental last line of defense will pay major dividends for Adams as he attacks his summer work.
Same as he’s always done, Adams will diligently work to perfect his craft. Even if it doesn’t always show up in the stat sheet – like his pick-and-roll defense and his hard rolls to the rim, his teammates certainly notice.
“(Adams) does so many great things for our team,” Westbrook began. “At his size, he does a lot of amazing things that other guys can’t do, and I constantly keep drilling that into his head and make sure he understands that I have the utmost confidence in him and his abilities to do different things and that us as a team, we don’t take him for granted the things that he does.”
Adams’ End-of-Season Interview