Despite being labeled as a long-term project and a certain D-leaguer to start his pro career, the Oklahoma City Thunder center from New Zealand (I try to mention this as much as possible), Steven Adams, has been surprisingly great through four preseason games.
He is putting up surprisingly good numbers and has shown tremendous development since he finished his college career at Pittsburgh. With seemingly most of the Thunder fanbase thoroughly sick of Kendrick Perkins, calls have been growing for Adams to get some significant minutes this season as a center in the Thunder rotation.
However, according to Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman, Scott Brooks, despite praising Adams' play, has thrown cold water on the idea of Adams being an early big part of the team. Mayberry wrote that, “The way Brooks spoke about Adams after the game confirmed my suspicions [about Adams not being in line for big minutes]. He just doesn't trust young players to do the little things consistently.”
As a Kiwi, I obviously don't want to hear this, but beyond my obvious Adams fandom, the rest of the Oklahoma City fans should be disappointed, but not surprised, by Brooks' apparent unwillingness to throw his young center in the deep end this upcoming season.
After all, since the Thunder have become championship contenders, the coaching staff have appeared allergic to giving young players minutes. Nevertheless, as I hope to point out as you read on, Adams should be the man to break this trend.
Of course, Adams' play is the main reason he deserves to open the season with significant playing time. In four preseason games, he has averaged 24 minutes and seven points while shooting 68 percent. He has also reeled in 7.8 rebounds per game (four on the offensive end) and, most importantly, notched a plus-6.25 plus/minus rating.
Also, while it could be argued that most of this is due to that one monster game against New Orleans, the fact that he put up a big double-double playing starter's minutes against a good team is not something to be minimized.
Beyond the numbers, Adams has also freed up the team to play a better brand of basketball. Despite being a legitimate seven-footer with good bulk, Adams moves around like an athletic power forward, and it has allowed the Thunder offense to play faster and get into their sets earlier in the shot clock. This suits their athletic lineup perfectly and gives them an even more elite offense.
Adams is also a competent offensive player unlike the Thunder’s other options at center, and his ability to adjust to passes and finish at the rim improves Oklahoma City’s pick-and-roll game immensely. In time, that will open up the rest of the team since defenses will actually have to guard the center.
Finally, Adams has shown already that he is a great offensive rebounder, which is something that Oklahoma City has not had since moving from Seattle. While Serge Ibaka has all the tools to be one, he spends too much time spotting up for jumpers to earn a meaningful number of second-chance opportunities. However, if Adams gets the minutes, this will be a big part of his game and will help the Thunder score more efficiently against good defenses.
Of course, regardless of Adams' preseason performances, if Kendrick Perkins were playing well at center there would be no controversy here. However, after a historically bad postseason, Perkins is no longer looking like a starter in the NBA.
While tough as nails and a great defensive communicator, he has no offensive value and is not good at protecting the rim or grabbing rebounds. In the modern league with very few back-to-the-basket big men left, his one redeeming quality of decent post defense is becoming a marginalized skill only required in a handful of games a season.
Therefore, the Thunder need another option at center who can pick up the slack against fast, small-balling teams like the Miami Heat—or even just outfits that do not run their offense through post scoring, which is more or less every team except the Indiana Pacers, San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and maybe the Houston Rockets. Steven Adams is just a better matchup against most teams in the league.
The only other contender for minutes as a true center on the Thunder roster is Hasheem Thabeet, and it already seems that Adams has justifiably leapfrogged him in the pecking order.
Thabeet may offer a more solid defensive wall than Adams and has much more NBA experience that should make him less vulnerable to mental mistakes. But like Perkins, he is a slow-footed player who struggles against the pick-and-roll and has no offensive skill set at all.
Most importantly, Adams has a lot, lot more potential. We all know what Thabeet is at this point in his career, and he has value as a bench player who can take up space and alter some shots. However, Adams has legitimate Tyson Chandler potential as an athletic defensive anchor who can control the boards and provide high efficiency scoring without needing the ball in his hands.
A player like this would put the Thunder over the top and evolve them into a team who could take down the Miami Heat even with LeBron James in god mode. Therefore, giving Adams the game time to develop quickly should be seen as imperative for the development of this team.
The largest barrier to Adams receiving game time could well be Scott Brooks’ unwillingness to risk playing young guys. Jeremy Lamb and Perry Jones played practically never last season, and even Reggie Jackson did not get much burn until Russell Westbrook was injured. After being very proactive in giving Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden big minutes early in their careers, Brooks has returned to his natural conservatism in regard to allocating minutes, favoring experience over potential.
His comments after Adams' great performance against the Pelicans supports this conservatism. When asked by reporters about Adams, Brooks responded with, “It’s going to be hard to duplicate 10 points, 15 rebounds. Those are All-Star numbers,” per dailythunder.com. This is an indication that the coaching staff are not yet in love with Adams' game and are desperately trying to temper expectations for his rookie season.
While this could be to keep his head from growing too big, his personality and attitude makes this unlikely. Not to sound to sound arrogant, but New Zealanders are generally not ones to blow their own horn. The only other reason to lower expectations in the media is because the Thunder organisation are not expecting that much.
However, I think that it would be much better for the Thunder to speed Adams' development by giving him game time. The Thunder will be in the playoffs this season even if he loses them a game or two early in the season. If he can develop quickly, his skill set could make them the best team in the league if Westbrook returns healthy for the postseason.
So, with all this in mind, I will outline how I would like the minutes at center to be handed out in 2013. Despite my desire to see his minutes shrink dramatically, Perkins will be the starter this season for Oklahoma City. Brooks trusts him, he has been the starter for a long time, and he is being paid a lot of money this year.
However, despite getting the starter moniker, I hope he only sees between 15 and 20 minutes on the court a game. Against teams like the Memphis Grizzlies who try to batter teams down low, he should see more, but for the most part this would be a good range for him.
After him, Adams should be the first man off the bench at the five, and I would like to see him get a similar amount of minutes, between 15 and 20 a game. Finally, the remaining 13 minutes at the 5 should be split between Hasheem Thabeet and their power forwards, Nick Collison and Serge Ibaka, playing the small-ball center role.
Of course, I am not their coach, so it will be interesting to see if this is close to what happens, or if Scott Brooks goes with the veterans instead. However, at least his recent statement about Adams is promising. At the Friday practice, per dailythunder.com, he said that there is no plan to send the seven-footer to the D-League. It may not be a statement about his minutes, but it's a good start.