Taken with one of the few lottery picks the Thunder have had in the last decade, Steven Adams was supposed to be a project. He showed promise very early, though, and quickly rose to the starting lineup within a few seasons. In the summer of 2016, with a lot of uncertainty surrounding the team, Adams signed his rookie extension at 4 years, $100 million after what had been at the time a career year. People knew it may have been a slight overpay, but with a rising cap and expected improvements the Thunder hoped he could live up to the money.
Fast forward to the spring of 2019. Adams had seemed to plateau a bit with nagging injury issues and a poor postseason performance where – to be blunt – he was outperformed by his former backup against Portland (Enes Kanter). Nerlens Noel never really played many minutes and Adams wore down. With back and knee problems, Adams ended up starting this season somewhat poorly. He sat a few early games to rest and see if his health (and play) would improve.
We’re now a few months into Adams return, and if you’ve followed the Thunder this year1 you’ve seen that he’s greatly improved. 2019-2020 could end up being a career year for Adams.
Adams is averaging a career high in rebounds (10.2, up from 9.5 a year ago) and his defensive rebound percentage has ballooned nearly ten percentage points, though his Real Adjusted Rebound Rate has dropped per nbashotcharts.com (essentially the APM version of rebound measurement). His strength and newfound health, along with some extra spacing on the roster, seem to have helped his scoring as well: he’s at nearly a career high in efficiency at the time of this writing, with a 61.8% true shooting mark for the season (and 65.1% since his return in early November). He’s over 10% better at the rim, converting at a rate within three feet of the basket that ranks third in the NBA among players with over 150 attempts behind only Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis:
Billy Donovan recently gave him props for his strong play this season (@0:27 in the video):
But the most impressive thing Adams has shown may be his increased playmaking. His assists per 100 possessions have approximately doubled, while his turnovers remained nearly the same. He’s shown a variety of ways he can read the defense and make very impressive plays that help OKC find new ways to score. From the simple read out of the post finding his man on the perimeter wandering free:
And making quick reads from the perimeter:
To showing patience, fitting in some pretty nifty bounce passes that a lot of big men struggle with not only reading, but actually passing accurately:
He does still have some work to do on these, as he at times tries to squeeze a pass in where it doesn’t quite fit:
But one critique of playmakers with low turnover totals is an unwillingness to take risks with their passes. Steven’s willingness to try things and see if he can fit a pass in is a risk/reward situation and, even if it doesn’t always pay off (resulting in a turnover), shows the opportunity for even more offensive growth. If you’ve got the ball in your hands you need to be willing to take risks at times.
Adams has been a huge part of why the Thunder season has turned around from a sluggish2 start. Admittedly, I once thought he wasn’t a likely part of the team’s future. But if this version of Adams is for real, he could definitely occupy a long term spot next to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in the mind of Sam Presti. He’s someone who by all accounts continuously works on improving and wants nothing more than team success, as he put it so well in early January after a dominating performance where he flat outplayed Joel Embiid in Philadelphia. I don’t know of many players who have a better way with words, so maybe it’s best if end this by letting Steven himself summarize his play of late:
“I thought I did some things okay, but a lot of things I could’ve done a lot better. It depends on how you want to look at it, if you’re a stats guy you’ll be like, “Oh, cool, bro.” But if you’re a system guy, you’d understand it a bit more.“