Bam Adebayo’s wrist was pressed back beyond 45 degrees, stunning the internet. But Kevin Graves, Adebayo’s AAU coach in North Carolina, was fixated on Adebayo’s legs, hanging straight from his body like he had rockets at the bottom of his sneakers. The big man had taken two swift, long strides to meet Jayson Tatum at the right side of the basket and block, with his left hand, a dunk that seemed destined to send Game 1 of the 2020 Eastern Conference finals to a second overtime.
Doctors fixated on the force. But Graves was thinking about control. Adebayo bursts with power but springs with grace. He’s worked to achieve this balance since he was 12 years old. At the end of every practice, Graves made the team’s guards—including Dennis Smith Jr., a future lottery pick—drive from the right wing while Adebayo, starting at the left block, would have to recover to the right side to try to block them with his left hand. Then they’d switch sides.
Adebayo’s AAU teammate, Brandon Childress, should have known better when he tried to win a high school game against Adebayo on a right-handed floater. Graves, who has a picture of Adebayo’s hand ripping the ball out of the air and securing the win, posted it on Facebook after Adebayo’s block against Tatum. “For my kids, to say: ‘Listen, this is a learned skill. This is not just him challenging Jayson with a left hand. This is him knowing if he goes right-handed, he’ll foul Jayson,’” Graves says over the phone. “‘This is him picking an angle to tilt his body and still meet him at the summit.’”
Miami improbably finished the Celtics off in six games, sending the fifth-seeded Heat to the NBA Finals. But before he got a chance to find out whether he could keep up with Anthony Davis’s giant strides or put a lid on a jumper that seemed to become more purified with every stroke, Adebayo hurt his shoulder in Game 1. He missed games 2 and 3 (and was limited for the rest of the series), watching helplessly on the sideline as Davis switched onto Jimmy Butler when no one else could stop him.
The Heat, like the champion Lakers, had only 71 days off before tipping off this season, one that’s been ravaged by injuries and interrupted by COVID-19 protocol for Miami. They finished the season strong, sneaking out of play-in territory and landing the Bucks, who they beat in five games last year—thanks to the wall they built against Giannis Antetokounmpo—but lost to in Saturday’s Game 1.
The block was Adebayo at his full potential, representing a version of the Heat that’s still in there, somewhere, despite a trying season. But for those who watched Adebayo grow up, the block was a confirmation. They had seen some rawer, less defined variation of it before.
They’d seen it at the 2015 City of Palms tournament in Fort Myers, Florida, a gathering of high school elites. High Point Christian Academy, Adebayo’s high school, received an education in fast-paced basketball from Chino Hills and the Ball brothers and got knocked out in the Final Four. “He was pissed,” coach Brandon Clifford says. “He does not like to lose at anything. He’s such a kind person, he’s funny. But when he loses, that’s when you see the true competitor come out. He doesn’t want it to happen anymore.”
The third-place game was next. “It was the fourth game at the City of Palms,” Clifford says. “We’re tired.” And they had just learned that three starters were going to be out. Against Jayson Tatum and a string of Division I talent. The coaching staff scrambled in the wee hours to prepare the team to play zone.
“We were playing all different kinds of defenses,” Clifford remembers. And Adebayo played the entire game. The excitement orbited around Tatum and Adebayo, two blue-chippers committed to Duke and Kentucky, respectively, but they didn’t clash until the game’s final two minutes, when Tatum used his long strides and shooting touch to break free.
“We were looking around,” Clifford says. “There’s only one guy on the planet right now that can slow this guy down, and fortunately, he’s on our team. There’s a time out with probably two minutes left. I was like, ‘Bam, you gotta guard this kid.’”
His eyes lit up. Adebayo, a center, had to roam the paint and swat shots in High Point’s system. “In high school, you can’t give up the rim,” Clifford says. “He was guarding more big guys because you had to have that. But we saw him in practice every day. We knew who he could guard.”
“That was basically the plan,” recalls J.D. Johnson, High Point’s strength and conditioning coach. “Once we’ve exhausted everything we can throw at Tatum, the plan at the end is to have Bam be the closer.”
In the game’s last possession, Tatum pulled up on the right wing, with Adebayo’s hand in his face. The ball rimmed out, and High Point Christian escaped with a third-place victory. Afterward, they were exhausted, delirious, happy. “You really have to execute and everybody’s gotta be on,” Johnson says. “It was definitely an all-hands-on-deck thing. Everybody was very excited that we did the job and there was a very balanced scoring effort. That usually tells you how much of a team effort it was. There really is nothing better, especially when it’s against a very talented player and very talented team.”
There’s something sweet about the collective exhaustion of shorthanded upsets, when a team musters what it’s not supposed to. Heat assistant coach Malik Allen says Bam’s block of Tatum last year inspired a similar feeling among the team. “It lifted us as a group. That’s how impactful it was, just from a defensive standpoint, for us,” he says. “He was playing hard defense and just made, within our defense, the unbelievable play that had to be made. It’s one of his gifts—those moments, defensively, and just seizing that moment.”
“You felt it. Our team collectively, they felt it. I can’t really put words around it.”
I’ll try: Though his body is supernatural, there’s nothing supernatural about his progress. Adebayo entered the NBA a curio—undersized yet skilled for his position, inconsistent yet high-motored. Miami chiseled away at his budding guard skills until he was an All-Star. “[The Heat] hold you to a standard, and then they give you challenges along the way. So every day, when I would conquer another challenge in practice or in games, or my development would get better, they would add more challenges to the table,” Adebayo recently explained to GQ. “So, at first, I wasn’t a switching big. I could switch, but I wasn’t switching off. And then it got to a point where it was automatic. Coach was like, look, now you’re automatically switching. I got to expand my game and explore my game. And I had room for error. There was growing pain, but I feel like they believed in me.”
Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro and Jimmy Butler had watched him do that work. When they watched him block that shot, they didn’t just see it as an amazing physical achievement; they saw it as another example of Miami’s developmental success. It wasn’t the product of magic: It was a culmination of work, driven by Adebayo’s desire to be reliable. “Bam is never gonna let his teammates get beat if he can help them,” Graves says. “Other guys would have literally stood in the lane and watch Jayson dunk that to win the game. Not Bam.”
The Heat’s swarming defense is built on the belief that people can, indeed, be places they aren’t supposed to be. It’s both spiritual and systemic. The block was a symbol of their defense at its best: powerful, sharp, in control, explosive, audacious yet responsible.
The block that now defines Adebayo is oddly traditional for a player as modern as he is. Adebayo’s coaches envisioned his versatility from a young age, and in increments, they fed his promising shooting touch, his lateral explosiveness, his sly passing. Adebayo demanded that they be demanding.
“He’s a brick house,” Clifford says. “That’s what his mom always said. ‘My baby’s a brick house. You don’t have to worry about him, coach.’ There’s a lot of truth in that. She called teachers at his old school, the principal, and got on the principal about not pushing him hard enough. He’s one of our best students. She didn’t care. She wanted him to be pushed harder.”
One day, Bam pulled Johnson into the coaches’ office and confronted him. “‘Coach, I need you to yell at me like you yell at everyone else.’ He had the idea that I was treating him special,” Johnson says. “I was like, ‘Hey man, I’m not treating you any differently. You just bring it so hard every day.’”
As for the left-handed blocking drills? “He hated them, to be honest,” Graves says. “When you’re 12, 13, you don’t want to do defensive drills. You want to shoot.” So they would bribe Adebayo by “letting” him jump in one-on-one full-court drills with guards. “Most big guys don’t have the endurance. He used to challenge himself to stay in front, guard without fouling, and make sure you secure the rebound after you challenge the shot.”
But Adebayo wanted to be able to guard the best player on the other team, regardless of position. He wanted to defend big man Harry Giles, but also wanted to take on the likes of Tatum and Brandon Ingram. “When he’s playing against guys that are prolific scorers, that if you don’t guard them, they can have big nights, he’s gonna be the guy that says ‘I want that responsibility,’” says Kenny Payne, now a Knicks assistant coach, who coached Adebayo at Kentucky.
“Bam hates being scored on. Most kids look at how they’re scoring. They’re not looking at their games based on ‘How many defensive kills did I get? How many times did I box out the weak side? How many times did I rebound outside my area? How many punch-out steals did I get by playing passing lanes?’ Bam bases his game on, how can I stop people?”
Clifford says Adebayo maxed out the leg press his first day in the weight room at High Point. “He’s literally looking at us and laughing,” Clifford says. “He’s having a good time. Most guys max that weight at one or two reps. He’s literally just repping it out.”
At Kentucky, Payne finally fed Adebayo’s ever-hungry motor with the legendary Big Henry: a supersized treadmill that’s really a test of will disguised as high-intensity cardio. “At times, he was upset at me,” Payne says. “But as soon as the workout was over, he would say ‘I love you.’ I would tell him I love him more.”
Adebayo is constantly asking the Heat coaching staff for more: more film, more reps, more responsibility. As a result, Bam has developed a modern, diverse game tailored to a modern, diverse game. In the postseason, defense is becoming more like offense: versatility wins. Block all the shots in the paint you want during the regular season, but if guards can abuse you on switches, they’ll play you off the court. As offensive players evolve to be able to do everything, defenders have to be able to take away everything. As our very own Kevin O’Connor wrote recently, Adebayo is the “only defender to log over 300 plays both switching and dropping” on pick-and-rolls, according to Second Spectrum.
A modern big’s survival is rooted in his ability to adapt. Can he, as Adebayo did in the Heat’s Game 1 loss to the Bucks, cut off Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday in the same possession? Can he take on the task of defending Giannis Antetokounmpo while also providing help against Brook Lopez in the paint? Twice, Adebayo helped off Antetokounmpo and turned two entry-pass attempts to Lopez into interceptions. Adebayo held Antetokounmpo to 1-for-6 shooting when he guarded him, cutting off his Euro-step, bumping him out of the post and into off-balance faders.
It wasn’t enough. Adebayo opened the game by slamming his first shot against the backboard and bobbling a few rebounds and passes. After that, he was timid on offense, short-arming floaters and hesitating to drive against Lopez’s length. He finished 4-for-15 from the field. The Bucks left Adebeyo wide open from 12 feet out and took Game 1 in overtime. “I don’t think they really did anything, to be honest, in my opinion,” Adebayo said after the game. “I just didn’t look at the basket.”
“I feel like he needs to be more aggressive,” Goran Dragic said. “I’m not saying to take that midrange shot, but he’s got that ability to put the ball on the floor and be more physical and try to challenge them at the rim. I know Lopez is big but I think Bam has that quality where he can score many ways against him.”
He can also get involved as a playmaker. When I spoke to Allen prior to Game 1, he noted the importance of Adebayo’s development as a passer. “We’ve been able to keep building his playmaking to where he’s an initiator,” he said. “He’s been able to do that incrementally in those blocks, increasing his playmaking and reads and helping our guys, our shooters, help relieve a little pressure off JB.”
Last season, Adebayo took most of his shots near the basket. Now, midrange shots take up over half of Adebayo’s shot diet, and, according to Cleaning the Glass, he’s shooting them at an efficient 45 percent clip.
Adebayo, the defender, had his coming-out party last year. But for the Heat to get back to the NBA Finals, he’ll have to showcase the tools he’s burnished on offense.