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The Five Plays That Explain How Bam Adebayo Elevates the Heat

At 22-8, Miami has wildly outperformed expectations. Its do-it-all center is a big reason.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bam Adebayo is seated at the wrong table. In today’s NBA, big men are sorted by skill set, with the traditional, hulky types in the back and the prized coterie of centers who function as guards up front. Adebayo is still seated with that first group, and he’s still thought of as a rim-running big who, bless his heart, should enjoy the simple things on offense. Have a lob, Bam. Power dunks look good on you. The misconception is based in part on Adebayo’s body. He’s a 6-foot-9, 255-pound center with bounce and speed. Entering the league, he was expected to become who Clint Capela is now. The richest pre-draft comparison is Tristan Thompson, whose offensive limitations famously hindered Cleveland from 2017 on. But in just his third season, Adebayo has already shown more versatility than those other two players.

“We’re running the offense through [Adebayo] more and more,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told Sports Illustrated in November. “We started that process last year, but the last three months of the season, he’s really improved his playmaking and his passing.” Adebayo replaced Hassan Whiteside in the starting lineup in February. His presence galvanized Miami, enabling the team to stretch the stiffness out of the offense and lean back into the fluidity of Spoelstra-ism. The Heat now delegate playmaking, passing, screening, and ballhandling to 22-year-old Adebayo; he’s the Heat’s leading rebounder and blocker, averaging 15.7 points, 10.6 boards, 4.6 assists, 0.5 steals, and 0.6 blocks. He is also, to borrow Marcus Smart’s self-proclaimed title, a stretch-6—one of the league’s elite defenders gifted with the ability to guard anybody, positions 1 through 5.

Adebayo deserves to be recognized alongside the other faces of positionless basketball. He makes the Heat prestige TV. He’s a legitimate All-Star candidate, one of the biggest reasons for Miami’s shocking rise in the Eastern Conference, and a man with respectable odds for both Defensive Player of the Year and the Most Improved Player award.

Not long ago, a reporter suggested to Jimmy Butler that there was one star in Miami. Butler was perplexed. “This is a team of one star? Who is that? Bam?”

Below are five plays that showcase Adebayo’s brilliance. Together they are my plea for you to get on the Bamwagon.

His Perimeter Defense Against Steph Curry

A center who can guard the perimeter requires attributes that almost defy physics: One must be a towering man who is as laterally mobile as someone much lower to the ground. Adebayo pulls this off by reshaping his length. Matched up against 6-foot-3 Curry in the clip below, Adebayo widens his defensive stance dramatically, effectively sinking his center of gravity. His feet are the stuff of Dance Dance Revolution champions, quick and light despite the large steps he has to take to cut off Curry’s driving lanes:

Curry tries multiple tricks to shake Adebayo, like hard planting a step forward and hurriedly shrinking backward, but nothing works. Adebayo stays in front of Curry while stationing his foot outside of the guard when Curry attempts to blow past. It’s a one-man trap. Adebayo defends the perimeter like a frenzied four-handed clock: His wingspan is too daunting to shoot over, and his spread stance is too much to get by. Eventually, Curry is forced to pass it off to Kevin Durant. Did I mention this clip isn’t from this season? It’s from 2017, three months into Bam’s NBA career.

His Bounce Pass Against Milwaukee

The awareness that serves Adebayo so well on defense also makes him one of the best passing bigs. Among centers he’s second in assists with 4.6 per game, trailing only Nikola Jokic, and many of those are on par with the Joker’s in craftiness. Adebayo’s court vision makes his most fantastical passes seem like glitches in the game. Here he catches the backward toss from Kendrick Nunn at the free throw line, spots a clear lane to Meyers Leonard underneath the basket, and throws the bounce pass while still in forward motion from the catch. The glitch:

Another underappreciated aspect of Adebayo’s passing is his patience. Not all big men are comfortable possessing the ball for long outside of the post, but Adebayo has the composure of a playmaker (probably because he is a playmaker). The bounce pass below against Philadelphia is a sterling example. Adebayo receives the ball at the elbow and holds tight for the half-court set to play out: Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro are lingering above the perimeter on the weak side; Robinson cuts to the basket, but Matisse Thybulle is trailing too close. Meanwhile, Herro creates an inch of separation, follows Robinson’s path, and the bounce pass meets him in stride:

Another notable outcome of Adebayo’s ball movement is that it often leaves him open after the fact. He’s devoted to dashing and surging and zipping while off the ball, which creates opportunities for his teammates, but Miami has implored Adebayo to be more selfish. Here’s a bonus clip of his jump shot, which, at this point, is respectable:

Adebayo is working on his 3-point shot, kinda. Butler has promised him $500 for each game that he attempts a 3; Adebayo owes Butler $500 for each game he fails to. Through 30 games, Butler’s up $6,000.

His Chase-down Block on Eric Bledsoe

The pinnacle of rim protection is a chase-down block. The defender has to be agile enough to keep up with the driver, then powerful enough to pin the ball and the reputation of his opponent against the glass. Adebayo’s timing below is pristine: He tails Bledsoe tightly in transition, acting like a Formula 1 driver as he waits for the exact moment to pounce. Then Adebayo glides from the perimeter to the free throw line in a single step, and as poor, unsuspecting Bledsoe picks up his dribble down the lane, Adebayo leaves the ground.

Please look at this step.

His Dribble Handoff Against Atlanta

Adebayo was always supposed to be a rebounder. But now he’s able to grab a defensive board and immediately push the ball in transition. That’s no small thing. It eliminates the habitual handoff from the big who caught the rebound to the ball handler who has to take the ball up the court; it’s one second saved, but it allows Adebayo, with his long strides cutting the hardwood in half, to smoothly create offense before the defense is completely set.

Having handles while being so sturdy makes Adebayo a buy-one, get-one-free playmaker. In this clip against Atlanta, he initiates a handoff to Duncan Robinson before the Hawks are ready. Robinson’s man, Kevin Huerter, tries to follow his assignment, but Adebayo’s already morphed from ball handler back to bulky center, and screens Huerter into a full stop. Robinson hits the 3.

Trusting Adebayo to have the ball in his hands and to deliver it on target frees his teammates to recede to the perimeter, which contributes to Miami being so efficient from deep. The Heat are the second-best 3-point shooting team in the league and are shooting 38.5 percent. The open looks set up by Adebayo don’t go to waste.

His Drive Against Philadelphia

Big men driving in basketball is akin to the beloved fat-guy touchdowns in football. It’s fun to see those players use their bodies in a way those at their position usually don’t. But Adebayo has the handle to freewheel down the lane, and to prove it, I have selected a delicious video of him stepping past Joel Embiid on his way to the basket. Adebayo receives the ball from Leonard well above the arc and faces up with Embiid at the top of the key. He hesitates, then bursts to the right with a left step so imposing it swivels Embiid.

As a prospect, Adebayo was sold as a finisher around the rim—just not as a solo act. Now he scores on 55.9 percent of his shots off drives, which is tied for sixth among centers who average at least one drive per game. (He does plenty of the traditional big man basket smashing, too.)