The Craft: The Invisible Superpowers Of Steven Adams

Welcome to The Craft, a serial look inside the world of player development in the NBA.

Steven Adams chugs along. Bumps from opposing defenders barely register. The grabs and hand checks common among grappling big men are dispatched quickly. Adams absorbs these physical manipulations and keeps moving, turning a crowded lane into a path of little resistance.

This is an invisible superpower. Even the most brilliant, well-scripted offense can fall apart in the face of challenged logistics. The hang-up in running layered, coordinated action is that it demands synchronicity. Smart defenders know this—and just what they can get away with off the ball to disrupt it. A great defense gets stops by constantly jostling, contesting not just shots and passes but actual movement. By putting bodies in the way of where opponents aim to go, a defense controls the terms of engagement. 

Adams ensures that at least one train always runs on time. No matter what’s in his path, Adams will get to his spot to screen or dive or carry out his specific responsibility within the Thunder offense. Opponents are shrugged off so casually that Adams appears to move around the floor unencumbered. It took years to get to this point. Years of building strength and adapting to the physicality of the league, the sum of which opened up the game for Adams. There would be no more patiently waiting for space or opportunities. Adams had the means to create lanes for himself and from that came a capacity to see beyond the immediately available.

“I can see it but I'm still gumpy, mate,” Adams said. “I’m uncoordinated. I still can't do the cool stuff.”

The last two years are a testament to just how much an “uncoordinated” player’s game can change by working to improve his physical balance. Offensive players are often at a disadvantage when it comes to keeping their center through contact, if only because a defender can steel himself through knowing his intended reaction; dealing with the impact of a collision is far easier when a player understands exactly when and how that collision will occur. This troubled Adams on the roll. Coming out of a single season at Pittsburgh, Adams had wild, unreliable touch on his shots around the basket. Any physical hit would throw him off completely. 

“When I was a rookie receiving contact, I would be disconnected,” Adams said. “My upper body would be going this way, lower body going that way. It would just be a bad shot because it was off-balance, y'know? Now I'm kind of anticipating it and I'm a lot stronger, so I can maintain that balance while I'm taking a hit. That's really what it comes down to. Not getting out of your own cylinder of balance, if you will.”

A stronger, better balanced Adams became much more difficult to stop short of the rim. And with gradual adjustment in his actual rolling technique, the Thunder equipped Adams to make himself more available in the first place. It needs noting that Adams, at 19, was raw beyond his skill level. Even the way he moved around the floor betrayed his inexperience, down to his somewhat unpredictable rolling style. Adams is a rangy leaper who can cover an impressive amount of ground when he skies for lobs. Otherwise, his availability was fleeting—dependent on his roll and the point guard’s passing window lining up in one small moment. Even getting a young Adams the rock was harder than it looked.

What made Adams more accessible—and ultimately made him one of the highest–volume pure roll men in the league—was a change in positioning. The natural tendency for rollers is to line up their body with the basket itself. As they turn out of their screen, they run right toward the front of the rim:

This is great for lobbing the ball over the top, but not much else. The opportunity to throw a pocket pass disappears almost as soon as it materializes. Working alongside Russell Westbrook, too, meant that Adams’s quick roll would have to align with one of the fastest and most erratic drivers in the game. What worked in some games and against some matchups wasn’t feasible in others.

Squaring up to the ball made Adams more viable. There are times where it still makes the most sense for an athletic 7–footer to make a play for the rim, particularly when the offense has built in the space for it. The very threat of that action is valuable. Part of the reason Adams is involved on a much more consistent basis, however, is that now when he rolls, he does so sideways. Adams lines up his entire body toward Westbrook—shuffling along as Westbrook shook his way through:

“I just look at the angle of his body, really,” Adams said. From that, Adams can discern how quickly he needs to move and where, and what angle to take himself. The goal is to take that small passing window and extend it. Every step buys another beat. Staying synced up with Westbrook takes what had been a set, limited opportunity and turns it mobile. No matter where Westbrook goes in between the screen and the rim, that pocket pass will be there to overburden the defense with another killer option. 

“What's making that easier is the guards, they're doing a good job of moving while I'm rolling just to get their man outside so I don't actually get hit,” Adams said. “That's what it comes down to. The dudes are worried about him so then they jump over and it gives me a lane to go down easily. So it's pretty much our execution, really. Like 80% of it is our execution.”

Turning every pick-and-roll into a variable speed exercise has been good for Adams. Things tended to spiral out of control in Adams’s younger years when he caught the ball at full speed. Repetition has tempered some of those woes, but this kind of positioning also helps Adams to shield the ball from potential help. Most defender hoping to swipe the ball away now has either Adams’ elbows to contend with or his entire body to work around. Any others are cleanly in his field of view. 

No matter the exact spot of the pass, a sidestepping Adams always catches the ball with options. Hard, straight–line rollers bank their action’s success on a single outcome. Either the finish is there or it isn’t. Adams makes his move with counters in his back pocket, namely the option to transition smoothly from a pick-and-roll catch into an impromptu post-up. This is the future of the play type. Stodgy, deliberate post play is all but dead in the modern NBA—endangered by advances in team defense and aggressive denial of post entry. It eats up too much clock for too little return. Post players who can catch on the move, seal effectively, and quickly parse movement all around them, however, can build on the pick-and-roll in a way that exploits a defense’s moment of disarray.

For years that kind of play was well beyond Adams, who shot 26.9% out of the post during his rookie season, according to Synergy Sports:

“When I shot it when I was a rookie, I was obviously not confident in my shot and I was doing it just because they told me to,” Adams said. Now it’s actually a part of his game. Hooks and flip shots are comfortable for Adams, who is strong enough to keep his base, schooled to catch the ball in better position, and trusting in his touch in a way he never was previously. 

“It's one of those things where you play it by ear,” Adams said. “We can go over it in practice as many times as you want and do drills but it's nothing like the game. So you've just gotta pop it off in the game. If you mess up, be okay with it. Mistakes are gonna happen and you kinda just grow from there.”

The way for non-shooting bigs to score in today’s NBA is not with an endless array of post counters. It’s with simple, reliable moves that can be executed out of fluid situations. Adams has reached that comfort level with his hook shot and as a result, he shoots 48.4% in the high paint—the space within the lane but outside the restricted area—according to NBA.com. Even that modest success is transformative; opponents can deny Adams a great opportunity and still wind up surrendering a good one.

That’s enough to make some opponents hesitate in how they choose to defend Westbrook, which in turn changes everything for the Thunder. All of stems from the fact that Adams has made himself unflappable from roll to catch to pivot. Adams never knows exactly what he’ll encounter when he turns to make his move, though he know enough about the possibilities to get a quick read of his situation.

“Coaches do a good job of explaining to me what is actually open,” Adams said. “So if I do get the pocket pass, if I do receive any contact from the weak side then there will more likely be a pass somewhere in here.” He motions to the weak-side wing. “That'll be open. They tell me to shoot it because they want me to be more aggressive attacking the rim and stuff. That's kinda like my first thought and then passing second.”

This is Adams’s purview. His only shot attempts to come beyond 14 feet were out of clock desperation. Single dribbles are reserved for hand-offs or gathers. His versatility stretches only so far as his role with the Thunder allows, and what it allows has lined up rather neatly with the skill set Adams has built for himself. It’s proof of his progress that Adams is as distinct in game from his rookie self as he is in look. That isn’t enough.

“Even the stuff I'm supposedly like OK at now,” Adams said, “it still needs a ton of work.”

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