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The Happy Accidents of Steven Adams

He’s got a new shot and a lot more responsibility. Is the Thunder center ready for his closeup?

AP Images/Ringer illustration
AP Images/Ringer illustration

For Steven Adams, everything is incidental. “It’s all the same stuff, bro,” Adams said about his growing role on the Oklahoma City Thunder at media day last month. “I’m just going to show up and play, regardless. … Whatever [coach Billy Donovan] says, bro, I just give a good crack at it. Hopefully it goes well.”

Perhaps that’s just a bit of New Zealand humility, but Adams generally isn’t keen on connecting the dots. He has emerged as the Thunder’s ascendant star (and will face all the pressure that comes with that designation), but he’s no more sanctimonious about his craft than he was when he was a rookie, briefly filling in for Kendrick Perkins. He is nothing if not consistent.

From the start of his career, Adams has firmly established a style of play that defenders can’t treat lightly, lest they want their blocks knocked off. Confrontations are inevitable with Adams, and they are akin to punching through your wall — logically bankrupt, but emotionally satisfying. After getting hit in the groin area by Draymond Green in Games 2 and 3 of the Western Conference finals, Adams didn’t have much to say about Green’s character; he was much more concerned about the integrity of his nether regions. He told reporters he’d consider wearing a cup for the rest of the series, but otherwise didn’t engage in the drama. He invites elbows, he invites kicks, he invites overcompensation. But he’s never cared about any of it. Competition doesn’t seem to be the force that drives his staggering season-by-season improvements. It seems to be something much more personal, more solitary. “I just got addicted to getting better,” Adams told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst back in May about his first experience playing organized basketball as a teenager. “From there, I got addicted to that success, that accomplishment.”

Adams is on the path to becoming one of the league’s elite big men, but he’d sooner let loose a quip about how his success stems from all the fortune cookies he’s eaten in his lifetime than tell a soul that he is chasing greatness. With every self-deprecating joke, he shatters the veneer of self-serious stardom anew. He has willfully isolated himself from the mythmaking factory of the modern athlete. It’s what makes him unique; it’s what makes his growth all the more astonishing.

Steven Adams has a new shot, and you’ll be seeing it quite often.

It’s essentially a one-armed toss, though executed with infinitely more finesse than his sister Valerie’s world-class shot put. The shot loosely follows the mechanics of a regular quick-release jumper, except it cuts out the time it takes to draw the guide hand up along with the rest of the body. He can execute it from a standstill or on the move in the pick-and-roll. Big men like Brook Lopez have adapted the technique over the last few years from point guards like Derrick Rose and Tony Parker, who use their high-arcing floaters to mitigate their size disparity in the lane. But getting the ball over the arms of defenders isn’t the utility here; Adams’s release point on his shot is nearly a foot higher than Rose’s patented floater.

The modified floater works because it goes against the expectations of a defender. The average professional basketball player has more than a decade’s worth of experience defending shots; there are certain rhythms and motions that become ingrained. A player throwing a ball toward the rim with one hand while facing up isn’t one of those.

As Thunder coach Billy Donovan told The Norman Transcript: “There are times he can’t get to the rim all the way. A lot of times he’s getting that ball in the pocket, he’s getting that ball at eight feet. That’s a good shot for him. He’s really kind of mastered that shot.”

Lopez has a similar maneuver, but it’s a situational weapon in his repertoire. For Adams, it’s quickly become a default setting. According to the NBA stats database, Adams took 11 jump shots in his three preseason games, nearly a fifth of the total amount he attempted during the entire 2015–16 regular season. All 11 of those “jump shots” were some variation on his one-armed toss. It’d be hard to think of a more perfect go-to move for a player who has never paid much deference to the conventions of basketball — or to anything else, really.

“I just throw it up there, honestly,” Adams told reporters after last week’s exhibition against the Denver Nuggets. “I’ve been practicing and stuff. I just throw it up and hope for the best. It turns out OK.” Hours upon hours of refining an unnatural shot into second instinct is brushed off as pure luck.

Adams’s usage rate during the preseason was at 26.5 percent, higher than what Karl-Anthony Towns logged last season. It’s extremely unlikely that Adams will take up that large of a share of Thunder possessions during the season, but his rate will hew closer to his preseason usage than the 12.7 percent he logged in 2015–16.

More encouraging than Adams’s newfound touch around the basket is the likelihood of his being empowered to show off the passing ability he flashed during last season’s Western Conference finals.

Utilizing Adams as a hub from the elbow will allow the Thunder to get creative in their team offense. Adams, Victor Oladipo, Enes Kanter, Andre Roberson, and Joffrey Lauvergne are all above average off the ball, landing in the 60th percentile or higher in scoring efficiency on cuts last season. Then, there is, of course, Russell Westbrook, who spent only 1.9 percent of his possessions involved in cutting plays, but has brandished his off-ball chops in opportune moments. With the coaching staff’s trust in Adams, it’s fair to expect more backdoor plays along the baseline from Westbrook, who has already established a good rapport with Adams.

Here, Adams hits Westbrook on a beautifully angled one-handed bounce pass between two defenders, which led to free throws:

And here, Westbrook splits a double-team with a jump pass to Adams around the free throw line, and then stumbles his way into the paint. For a moment, Adams has the eyes of all five Nuggets defenders. Westbrook’s stagger into the lane essentially allows him to stroll past enemy lines under the veneer of weakness. Recognizing the situation (possibly before even Westbrook does), Adams again slips a bounce pass between two defenders to Russ soon after receiving the catch — just as Westbrook is regaining his balance. Beautiful, heady stuff:

Fair or not, the Thunder will largely be viewed through the prism of what they’ve lost. In the absence of Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, OKC is down two extremely versatile frontcourt defenders. Kanter, Ersan Ilyasova, and rookie Domantas Sabonis will pick up the slack, which is a bit concerning. Kanter may never be anything more than a below-average defender; Ilyasova’s lateral mobility has deteriorated significantly after a slew of injuries; and while the Thunder are impressed by how quickly Sabonis has picked up on the team’s defensive principles, his inexperience will assuredly do him in.

Adams will serve as the fulcrum of the Thunder D at a time when switching is increasingly imperative throughout the league. Luckily for the Thunder, they know he’s capable. When switched on to Steph Curry during the Western Conference finals, Adams did admirably well by maintaining a good amount of distance between himself and Curry, betting on his near-7-foot-5 wingspan to close any gaps.

Not only does Adams move his feet impeccably for a 7-foot giant, he has incredibly quick hands. Here he is during the preseason, switched on to Danilo Gallinari way past the 3-point line:

Adams told Windhorst in May about his teenage years when he was first learning how to play basketball. His coach had offered a challenge: execute a tip dunk in a game, and he’d buy Adams a new pair of shoes. It was an exercise that encouraged Adams’s improvement in coordination and timing; it took him about a year to complete. Nearly a decade later, Adams’s effort on the offensive glass is as much about technique as it is being in the right place at the right time. You might’ve seen what he did to Cole Aldrich in the preseason:

He would do the same thing again in Denver two days later:

In both of those plays, Adams goes up for the board at an angle, with the side of his body running perpendicular to his opponent’s back. This allows him to easily pivot away from the defender once he secures the rebound, and generate the requisite amounts of torque and momentum to turn back and deliver boomerang dunks off of extended plays. Last season, Adams, along with fellow ’Stache Bro Kanter, proved himself to be an offensive rebounding genius. He’s only getting smarter.

“Players are protected and eccentricities embraced,” is how Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins described the way the Thunder treated their players in his excellent profile of Westbrook last week. It rings true in more ways than one; the organization is notoriously stingy with its media access to players, and has gone to baffling lengths in preserving a certain image of its athletes. Last year, The Ringer’s Bryan Curtis offered an intimate look at Oklahoma City’s tyrannical media gatekeeping for Grantland:

Durant has been talking to the press more and more since signing with the Warriors, and the tone of his comments has become increasingly incongruous to the Durant we knew in OKC. As a member of the Thunder, he was painted as altruistic; remember when he suggested we all call him “The Servant”? The media rounds he’s made since July have been his “take back my life” song. It seems fair to wonder whether the team’s attempts to control his public identity as the city’s golden boy over the years had something to do with the dissonance. In Adams, they’ve been afforded a reset button in learning how to navigate stardom with their players and not for their players.

But making the leap from fifth starter to second option is a major shift. Will the media be charmed by the jokes if he’s failing to live up to whatever standard we’ve set forth? Will the organization have the patience to let the situation play out? Is it possible to Keep Steven Adams Weird?

Adams’s media day press conference was short, but pointed. If reporters weren’t indulging him with jokes, they were asking him, in one form or another, whether he was prepared to be Oklahoma City’s next star. Durant’s name wasn’t uttered once, but his void was felt. It practically hovered over Adams’s tattooed shoulder.

The presser highlighted perhaps the rarest skill Steven Adams has, unique to every other player in the NBA: the ability to absorb the importance of a moment, then refract its triviality. It’s a personality quirk that, when you think about it, isn’t too dissimilar from how we understand Westbrook. Both players manage a level of detachment from outward perception, they just do it in opposite ways. Adams uses words; Westbrook refuses to. Their internal resolve drives them as athletes, but it’s something neither player feels the need to broadcast to the public. When asked how it felt to become a veteran leader on this team so early on his career, he said, “I feel like a father, so congratulations to me.” The joke landed.