The Signal In The Feet

Tests come in all shapes and sizes for a rookie. There’s Summer League, there’s training camp, practices and a practical onslaught of games compared to the collegiate schedule. Always, as they’re adjusting to both the mental and physical nature of the league, one test comes along that, pass or fail, leaves a lasting impression for all watching.

For Justise Winslow, that test came in the form of LeBron James in the second game of the season back in 2015. Winslow would lose that battle as James scored on him in the post, but it was the manner in which he fell short that left such an vivid memory. James didn’t walk all over Winslow as he’s done to so many rookies before. Winslow made one of the best ever earn it. As far as hints go, that was more of a spoiler.

In his fourth game, Bam Adebayo had a similar moment against an All-Star wing. Only Adebayo at 6-foot-10 is, ostensibly, a center. And he won.

“I feel like we take pride in defense,” Adebayo says. “Just because we take pride in it, everybody has to take a one-on-one personally.”

Play that sequence again and watch only Adebayo’s fluorescent feet. Jimmy Butler doesn’t make it easy. There’s the shake to get free, a backdoor move, jab steps and a spin to contend with. Adebayo is there the entire way, sliding and shifting and sprinting and necessary. Whether the shot fell or not is beside the point, though it makes for a nice defensive highlight. Players of Adebayo’s size are not supposed to move their feet like that, not with that speed, not with that dexterity, not with that coordination.

“I see it in practice,” Goran Dragic said. “He can stay in front of guys, points guards, two guards, three guards. He’s athletic enough and he’s great at contesting those shots.”

Strength hasn’t been sacrificed for speed, as you can probably tell just by looking at the No. 14 pick in this year’s draft. Just as James encountered a stronger wall than is usually expected from someone who isn’t even of drinking age, Adebayo has had his moments as a stout defender in the post.

The list of rookies who can come into the league and iron curtain on the blocks is much longer than those who can simultaneously cover ground in both short and sustained stretches of stoppage. Especially when you weren’t even expecting to play that night, a notion that tripped Adebayo up during the preseason but had him hitting the ground running on Wednesday.

“Bam gave us some tremendous minutes,” Erik Spoelstra said following Miami’s win over Chicago. “That’s not an easy situation to go into, where you’re up, give up a lead, all the sudden foul trouble [puts you in the game].”

“He came in today, you see what he did, changed the game for us,” Dion Waiters said, with Adebayo a plus-8 after entering the game with Miami down two. “I think that was huge what Coach did for him, throwing him in that fire. That’s the only way you’re going to get better.”

Lest we make this all about the physical gifts, there’s game sense at work here. Just as we’ve seen with some of Adebayo’s patient rolls to the rim where he’s neither ahead nor behind the action, he appears to have a spatial awareness of both ball and man. On a night when Chicago had burned Miami repeatedly by getting smaller players switched onto Lauri Markkanen and working high-low, Adebayo sniffed out the action late in the fourth quarter – possibly aided by Spoelstra’s direction from the sideline – and pressured the ball right as Markkanen and Robin Lopez were about to synchronize.

There are mistakes. There have to be mistakes. No rookie makes a seamless transition to professional, ludicrous speed. Adebayo admits that Spoelstra’s practices move so quickly and throw so many situations at you that he’ll get mixed up and call out of the wrong defensive coverage – with the veterans encouraging him to stick with the mistake, even if its wrong, since even the wrong coverage run well is better than two run halfway. Offenses have gotten the better of him, more than once. Against Karl-Anthony Towns the other night, a play to get Minnesota’s center a corner three led to Adebayo accidentally trucking Butler to the hardwood.

“We went over the play in practice, but it just happened so fast I was like, ‘Damn, I missed it’.”

There comes a point, years down the line, where the mistakes become more important if they don’t gradually become more infrequent. That’s not now. Now we get to focus on what could be, trying to find the signs as tests come and go. We’re not going to throw any defensive statistics at you now, seven games into the season and five into Adebayo’s career, because they won’t mean much for good or bad.

All we know is what we knew over the summer, that Adebayo has a blend of traits that could someday combine into one of the league’s most unique and versatile defenders. We just have a little more to go on, because those feet sure have translated.

For now, Adebayo is 20-years old with a galaxy of new basketball experiences ahead of him, and veterans like Waiters aren’t ready to give him too much credit. Asked if Adebayo has spent much time defending him in practice, Waiters only smiled and replied, “If he does, its barbecue chicken.”

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