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Spotlight: Steven Adams

by Max Rappaport, Sixers.com
Posted: June 27, 2013

The story of 19-year-old center Steven Adams is more like the plot of a Pixar movie than the biography of your typical NBA prospect.

Raised in Rotorua, New Zealand, Steven is the youngest of 18 children born to Sid Adams, a near-seven-foot-tall English Navy man. The elder Adams moved from the UK to New Zealand in part because of the fact that his abnormally large frame made him a target of ridicule in post-World War II-era England.

“He went through a pretty rough time,” Steven told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of his father’s treatment. “That was when they were discriminating against ‘freaks’ – that's what he called himself. He was really, really tall, and they'd tease him.” 

But Sid’s atypical size proved to be a blessing for his 18 children. 

On average, the males in the Adams clan stand about 6’10”, and the women, 6’5”. Six of Steven’s brothers have played for New Zealand’s national basketball team and his half-sister, Valerie Kasanita Vili-Adams, is a 2008 Olympic champion and a three-time world champion in shot put. Amazingly, despite his 7’0”, 255-pound body, Steven did not begin taking basketball seriously until 2007. 

The story of Adams’ meteoric rise, from basketball dilettante to potential lottery pick, is one of resilience and rebirth. 

In 2006, Adams’ father, then in his mid-70s, died. At just 13 years of age, Steven became disillusioned and began to act out.

“When I lost my dad, that was a big hit for me,” he said. “I didn't have that parental guidance, and I kind of took advantage of it because I was a stupid idiot. I decided not to go to school a couple of times, go when I felt like it. I always lied to my brothers and sisters. They’d ask: ‘Are you going to school?’ I’d say ‘yeah’... They eventually found out.” 

His 37-year-old brother, Warren, a former member of the New Zealand National Basketball Team (1989 and 1997), offered to take guardianship of young Steven in Wellington, New Zealand, where he would be exposed to a better school system and fewer negative influences. The move proved to be a godsend for young Steven. Wellington’s superior schools gave him the academic structure he needed, while Warren and his friends provided an outlet for him outside the classroom – basketball. 

"Steven had to learn how to learn" Kenny McFadden, a friend of Warren and the director of a basketball academy in Wellington, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We had to establish good habits with him. At first, it was culture shock for him. 

“We wanted to get him in an environment where it was school-first. He had to wear a suit and tie every day. He had to shine his shoes. The biggest challenge for us early on was finding size-18 dress shoes for him." 

McFadden embraced a mentoring role for young Steven, picking him up every day before school for 6AM basketball practice and training him in the early evenings, as well. 

“He was the hardest worker I had ever seen," McFadden said. “He [had just been] missing discipline and an education [before].”

It became clear to McFadden almost immediately that Adams was destined for professional basketball, but concerns remained about his ability to gain academic eligibility at a U.S. college. 

But Adams excelled both on and off the court at Scots College, his high school in Wellington, earning accolades and a scholarship offer to Pittsburgh. After graduating from Scots in December of 2011, the lifelong Kiwi traveled to America to attend Notre Dame Prep in Fitchburg, Massachusetts for one semester, in an attempt to prepare himself for the pace of the American game.

Adams’ freshman season started with a bang – a 26-minute, eight-point, eight-rebound, four-block, and three-assist collegiate debut against St. Mary’s. But Panthers head coach Jamie Dixon employed a “frontcourt by committee” approach throughout the season, with both Adams and junior power forward Talib Zanna leading the way with just 23.4 and 23.9 minutes per game, respectively, while starting every game in which they appeared. While the young New Zealander’s numbers from last season – 7.2 points (57.1 FG%), 6.3 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game – don’t jump off the page, the fact that they were attained in such limited minutes is impressive. 

“No chance [I was going to put up huge numbers as a freshman],” Adams said, when asked if he was disappointed by the drop in production from his play in New Zealand to his freshman season at Pitt. “The level of competition is much higher than in New Zealand. I wasn’t used to playing against really tall people that are strong as well. It’s usually rugby players that play [basketball in New Zealand] – short, stocky – so you just go over them.” 

At the end of the 2012-13 season, Adams was pegged as one of college basketball’s rising stars. Next season, many thought, the raw seven-footer would take control of Pitt’s front line and become an impact player on both ends of the floor. 

Adams, though, had other plans. 

Surprising many, he entered his name into the early entry pool of the 2013 NBA Draft after just one season at Pitt. Having only begun taking basketball seriously six years prior, the decision was a risky one.

“[I decided to leave Pittsburgh early] mainly to help certain family members [from a financial standpoint],” Adams told the media at May’s NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. “[My family didn’t ask me to come out]. It was strictly a personal decision.

“The other reason I declared for the draft is that they’ve got the best coaches in the world in the NBA, so I figured I might as well get the best coaching I can while I’m young.”

A projected lottery pick in Thursday’s draft, Adams feels he has a lot to offer an NBA right away, despite his inexperience.

“I’m a high-energy player. I like transition, so running up and down, and stuff like that” he said. “Also, just being physical. I’m working on my post game. When it comes around, I really think [that’s going to be a strength].

“I don’t think I’m going to go right [into the NBA] and dominate. I will dominate, say, certain tasks that they put me up to, though.”

An eager and willing student with a warm and humble demeanor, Adams is enjoying the ride.

“It’s been fun, eh? It’s been awesome. It’s not like I’ve done this before,” he said of interviewing with, and working out for, NBA teams at the combine, before continuing in deadpan. “They look after us, too. They have a bunch of food and drinks and stuff. It’s cool. It’s nice.”

A big kid from a big family, with a big heart and a big personality, Adams has the chance to be the standard-bearer for a nation with a limited basketball history. 

“It’s just straight rugby,” he said of New Zealand’s sports landscape. “All funding goes towards rugby. But basketball is starting to come up now, because we’re having some successes with our national team – they’re doing really well and are bringing some more interest [to the sport]. And then myself, along with some other New Zealand players, getting scholarships to colleges in America, it’s helping basketball there a lot.”

But Adams, a self-professed “stress-free kind of guy”, isn’t letting any potential pressure get to him. Remarkably, the 19-year-old hasn’t even looked at a mock draft in the run-up to Thursday.

“None,” when asked what feedback he’s been given about his potential range in the draft. “I haven’t looked at anything. My coach hasn’t told me anything and neither has my agency. I’m just trying to go as high as possible.”

Thursday, Adams will find out just how high that will be.

For an in-depth look at this year's draft, including dynamic prospect profiles, frequently updated rankings, mock drafts from around the web, and more, check out the 2013 SIXERS.COM DRAFT CENTER