The Rise of Bam
Bam Adebayo Keeps Taking Small Steps That Add Up To One Giant Leap
Just before Thanksgiving the Miami HEAT flew into Philadelphia and were effectively run out of the building, trailing by as many as 41 points. It was in many ways a throwaway game with the HEAT playing on a back-to-back against a team with the size to be a matchup problem for just about anyone, but there was one big picture item that was impossible to ignore. Even with Miami missing a few uncharacteristic threes, the offense hardly resembled the democratic, pass-happy attack that had previously led to blowout after blowout win.
Instead, with Joel Embiid sagging off Bam Adebayo – legally, given that you can be in the paint as long as you want while your man has the ball – everything appeared to be stuck in the mud and nobody was around to toss a rope.
It looked, quite often, like this.
Miami recorded just 12 assists off 30 makes on that forgettable night, and it would be tough for anyone to forget what that scheme made the offense look like. The team that loves to get guys going downhill, with cutters and shooters in constant motion, was left trying to solve a puzzle on a 24-second shot clock.
“Last time we played they totally flattened us out,” Erik Spoelstra said.
There are few things Spoelstra will speak with more pride about than his player development program. Under their one percent better every day mantra, each player, no matter their age or experience, gets a custom-fitted lesson plan and a coach dedicated to keeping them on track. For Adebayo’s first two seasons, the man in charge of his development was Juwan Howard. The two would spend hours upon hours together working on just about everything, because with a player of Adebayo’s talent there was no reason to put him in a box.
Then Howard’s alma mater, the University of Michigan, came calling and suddenly Adebayo was without a development guru.
“I thought [Juwan] would be the guy who would see me develop throughout my career,” Adebayo said.
Everyone in the organization, Adebayo included, was thrilled for Howard, but they were left with a hole in their coaching staff. They needed a spirit guide for their big men, so Spoelstra dialed up Malik Allen, then an assistant with Minnesota, who just so happened to have worked out Adebayo in a pre-draft workout when Allen was coaching with Detroit.
“We had a really good rapport,” Allen said. “We just kind of clicked, so when I got the job here it was like we’ve known each other for a long time. There wasn’t a big history, but it seemed like there was.”
Spoelstra quickly got to getting everyone on the same page. He met with Allen. He met with Adebayo. He met with Allen and Adebayo together. Allen picked his spots for when to be vocal, knowing he was stepping into a preexisting relationship, but there was no wasting time. With Adebayo set to be the team’s starting center, everyone knew he was about to get more attention, and a more detailed scouting report, than he had ever seen before. It’s a different league once you become known.
Those are specifics the HEAT don’t get too far into, but we can presume they at least had an inkling of the coverage Adebayo would see from the massive 76ers lineup, given that Adebayo was an unproven shooter and it also happens to be an iteration of Philadelphia’s base defensive package. There would be no surprises, but you still have to experience things you know are coming.
In handing the 76ers their first home loss of the season Wednesday night, Adebayo again knew what to expect. This time, he also knew what it felt like.
“It feels good. Just to get this win with the way we game-planned and saw the film from last game,” Adebayo said. “We went over [it] and we had solutions for it and we did that tonight.”
The first thing you’ll probably want to know is, yes, Adebayo hit a confident jumper with Embiid conceding all that space.
That is, however, what the good Admiral Ackbar would call a trap. While Adebayo certainly will need to take those shots in order to get better at them – he’s hit fewer than 35 percent in his career – Philadelphia wants possessions to come down to whether or not you take a jumper. They’ll live with a few makes when the math is so heavily in their favor the same way teams like the San Antonio Spurs used to with LeBron James.
“It’s such an easy thing to say, ‘Ah, well he should be able to do this.’ At some point, does he have the development? Yeah, he wants it to be part of his package,” Allen said. “The game will also present opportunities for you to keep playing. With bigs who drop back when [Bam] has the ball, you have the opportunity to get to handoffs with our perimeters and all of the sudden they see a ton of space. They see oceans.
“There are nuances to it.”
So while it’s great to see Adebayo take a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Embiid off the dribble in the same way he’s done to many other centers this season…
It was even better that the team spread that wealth of space in the middle of the floor around, with both Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro benefitting from having a free runway into the paint.
When Adebayo touched the ball on any Heat offensive possession in the first meeting with Philadelphia, Miami scored just 0.467 points per possession. That is not a good number. When Adebayo touched the ball Wednesday night, Miami scored 1.33 points per possession. Night and day.
Miami’s zone defense may have changed the complexion of the game during their 37-19 second quarter, but it was Bam’s patience and efficiency (23 points on 9-of-16 shooting) that put the team in the driver’s seat. And it was that approach to Philadelphia’s scheme – again, from everyone – that figures to make the greatest impact in a grind-it-out playoff series.
Low hanging fruit remains for Adebayo, which is a strange thing to say for a player who is playing at an All-Star level. There is the aforementioned jumper.
“It’s not something that happens overnight,” Allen said. “You don’t go to the gym and say, ‘I shot 500 jumpers’ and all of the sudden it all starts falling for you the next two games. It just doesn’t work that way. It’s a process.”
There are also the shots he actually regularly takes, those little 6-to-10 foot touch shots that aren’t quite jumpers and aren’t quite layups.
Adebayo shot just 25 percent on those looks his rookie season, which was partially a shot selection issue as he learned you can’t just take off from your launching pad eight feet away and expect to score on professional defenders. He improved to a slightly-below average 41 percent last season, and this year he’s making almost half on nearly double the attempts. If that improvement is even close to real over the course of the season it’s far more significant than the occasional jumper is in the short term. Those touch shots are tough. They’re also what you get in a playoff series.
Just about everything else, though? Adebayo is already proficient. The defense speaks for itself with Adebayo being one of the single most destructive weapons available to any team on that end. He’s taking the ball full-court. He’s running the offense in traffic from the middle of the floor. He may not be the loose-wristed creative genius that Nikola Jokic – perhaps the best passing big-man of all time – is threading needles that most people don’t even see, but he’s at the very least the quarterback who can make all the throws. Adebayo’s passing showed great promise from the get-go, and he has more than lived up to expectations. If you’re open, or going to be open, he has the particular set of skills to find you.
Adebayo’s ascension may not be quite as rapid as it seems given that he’s essentially delivering on the promise of his per-possession numbers, which were exceedingly unique last season. That’s part of taking the leap, doing what you did, but doing more of it.
In some ways Adebayo has become a walking microcosm of his own team. The HEAT have been so good, so fast this season that they’ve quickly moved their own goalposts from ‘Can you be a playoff team?’ to ‘How far can you go in the playoffs?’ Adebayo very well should be deserving of an All-Star spot this season, at 22-years old, but this is still a player who still had to take the natural first step of proving he could be a winning, consistent, full-time starting center just a few months ago.
“He’s in that process of learning how to play as the guy,” Allen said. “The center. It’s not a 20 minute-a-game sample size. This is your deal. It’s an adjustment. You just want to be there to help them as much as you can, and it’s not just ‘You have to be doing this, this and this.’ You have to help him work through mistakes, or work through where there is improvement to be made. And keep highlighting the good things that they are doing.”
Allen would probably get hoarse were he to list all the good things Adebayo is doing every day, even with all the parts of his game he can improve upon. There are plenty of learning moments ahead, especially in the postseason where every young player endures failures on the road to success. Winning at Philadelphia is a step forward for both him and the team, but when the emotions of the win fade that’s all it will be. One step.
Adebayo has most certainly arrived, but he still has so far to go.