A Rookie For All Seasons

Bam Adebayo Fits The Modern NBA Today And Tomorrow
Andy Lyons
by Couper Moorhead

It doesn’t take very long to figure out how Bam Adebayo can fit not just with the Miami HEAT, but also the modern NBA.

You’re probably more than a little familiar with how positional designations have, year-by-year, been left by the wayside. There’s nearly no such thing as a small forward anymore and centers aren’t even on the All-Star ballot anymore (it’s just frontcourt these days). But while positions have become less and less important there’s been an even greater emphasis on particular skillsets.

Can you shoot?

Can you drive?

How many positions can you defend?

It doesn’t really matter how tall or short or strong or athletic you are. If you have a particular set of skills and know how to use them, the league will find you a home.

That’s where Adebayo comes in. We’ll start with the offensive side of the ball.

“Explosive. Jumper. Leaper. Lob threat. Runs rim to rim,” Pat Riley said during Adebayo’s introductory press conference.

“It’s a wow factor. He’s not 7’1”, like Hassan [Whiteside], but he plays like him at 6’9”. He’s an above the rim player for real while other guys try to play above the rim.”

You don’t have to go very far back into HEAT history to find other examples of hyper athletic big men. Whiteside. Willie Reed. Amar’e Stoudemire. Chris Andersen. They weren’t high-volume perimeter shooters yet each of those players were effective cogs in their given units by virtue of setting screens and rolling hard to the rim for lobs. Erik Spoelstra is fond of reminding that there’s more to spacing the floor than just having a lot of shooters. Those snipers can stretch the floor to open up the paint, but the rim runners shrink the floor to free those shooters. It’s a symbiotic relationship that’s been a foundation of Miami’s offense for years.

It worked at the University of Kentucky, too, where the team had an offensive rating of 115 whenever Adebayo was on the floor (112 when he was off), he posted 1.312 points per possession as the roll man (just 32 possessions) and shot 76.2% around the rim (per Hoop Math). If you’re projecting someone as a spread-floor finisher, those are the numbers you want to see.

Averaging 4.1 offensive rebounds per 40 minutes is a strong sign as well. One of the best antidotes to the many smaller lineups used around the league is the ability to crush that size with second-chance points.

It might sound fairly simple to say Adebayo can find early offensive success by screening, rolling and crashing the glass, but those are no small feats. Complexity doesn’t always beget impact.

As for further down the road, there are hints at more. Adebayo wasn’t an elite shooter last season but he took 103 jumpers and was making threes during draft workouts. It’s too much to expect a sudden increase in perimeter usage out of the gate, but it’s not something we can rule out. And he posted up nearly 200 times at .912 points per possession, flashing a righty hook-shot that should come in handy.

Now defense. This is where it becomes abundantly clear why Adebayo was attractive to Miami with the No. 14 pick.

There were a number of big men projected in Miami’s range in this draft. Some traditionally large in size. Some highly skilled. Some great shooters. Some great shotblockers. As far as the film goes, none of them appeared quite as defensively flexible as Adebayo.

“You need the versatility to defend the floor, you need guys to defend multiple positions,” Spoelstra said.  “I’m still stunned by someone this large and athletic, who can still move his feet. We think that fits our defensive style. A guy who can show that style of quickness.”

We don’t need to rehash the evolution of Miami’s defense over the last four or five years. The most recent iterations have excelled in combining guards and forwards capable of defending multiple positions with big men who can clog the paint. Occasionally, and sometimes quite effectively, those big men have switched out onto perimeter players, but generally the HEAT have left the switching to the other four positions and had players aggressively fight over the top of screens while the anchor big sits in the driving lane.

Adebayo, it seems, might have the athleticism to eventually combine both those defensive worlds, both eating space in the middle and suffocating ballhandlers on the outside much in the same way Chris Bosh was able to do during Miami’s recent title runs.

It makes sense that Adebayo models himself after perhaps the most hyper-versatile defender ever.

“I always wanted to be like [Kevin Garnett],” Adebayo said.

That’s clearly the loftiest of lofty expectations for someone both Riley and Spoelstra noted on multiple occasions is only 19-years old. There’s many years and many more games between what Adebayo is now and what he could be, but that’s part of what makes him so interesting. Whatever he becomes, whatever level of achievement he can reach, his athleticism, size and versatility could potentially the needs of the league now and whatever those needs will be then.

“The narrative changes very quickly in this league,” Spoelstra said. “There is a place certainly for a player of Bam’s skillset and ability and physicality. He can also make teams have to adjust to him.”

For now, however, let’s just let him get through his first NBA Summer League. There’s no shortage of new experiences for young players, both on and off the court, and he’ll be receiving a crash course in new for the next three weeks.

It won’t be until the new becomes old and routine that we’ll have a firm grasp of what Adebayo could become.

But he most certainly should fit.