Choosing the Oklahoma City Thunder player with the most upside is a tricky proposition. The Thunder just have so much young, raw talent.
Perry Jones is such an athletic freak that James Harden once told The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry that Jones was probably the most athletic guy on the team. Jeremy Lamb, despite his ups and downs this season, has a load of potential on both ends. Heck, even Andre Roberson might deserve to be in the mix thanks to his bizarre combination of defense and rebounding (he's a shooting guard).
Believe it or not, though, none of those guys gets the prize. The Thunder player with the most upside is rookie center Steven Adams.
OKC hasn't been great with Adams on the court this year, per 82games.com, and his base numbers are nothing to get excited about. But when you consider both what the Thunder need most and the flashes of brilliance Adams has shown on both ends, he's the player to watch over the next few years.
Adams is never going to be an Al Jefferson-esque back-to-the-basket wizard (or even anything close to it), but he could become a solid offensive player given time.
If there's one NBA skill Adams brings to the table right now, it's offensive rebounding—he's a monster on the offensive boards and will likely get even better as time passes.
Adams is gobbling up nearly 15 percent of all available offensive rebounds—second-best in the league behind Andre Drummond—and is on pace to become one of just eight players ever to rebound at that level before their 21st birthday.
Adams is terrific at outmuscling opponents in the paint or at darting in from the perimeter to crash the glass. Nearly 30 percent (!!) of Adams' possessions have come from offensive rebounds, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required), and he could break into most NBA rotations on the strength of his rebounding alone.
The problem with Adams is that he doesn't convert all that much around the basket. He's hitting just 41 percent on shots coming from offensive rebounds and just 53 percent around the rim, period.
Part of that is because Adams gets fouled so much (his free-throw rate is a whopping 73 percent), but either way, he should work on finishing at the rim and holding onto the ball. He's turning it over at far too high a rate.
With that being said, Adams has the potential to be more than just a great offensive rebounder.
Adams is a surprisingly good passer for a 20-year-old “project” big. He isn't required to do much of that for the Thunder, but even so, what little he's done has been impressive. He'll never be Joakim Noah, but it wouldn't be surprising to see him take on the same type of role Nick Collison has in a few years—orchestrating give-and-gos and tossing tricky passes to cutters from the high post.
With luck, Adams could also become a very good roll man someday.
Though he struggles holding onto some passes in the pick-and-roll (much like Serge Ibaka did when he first entered the league), he's a good screener, is quick to the basket and draws a ton of fouls. He'll have to up his foul shooting to really threaten defenses (he's shooting 59 percent from the line), but he's certainly got the tools to be dangerous in that facet.
Again, turnovers are the big bugaboo for Adams. To do any of the stuff mentioned above, he'll have to be much more careful with the ball. If he manages to do that, and improves his finishing around the basket, the Thunder could have a solid offensive weapon on their hands.
This is the big one for Adams. Defense is why he was drafted, and ultimately, defense is how he has the best chance of making a mark for the Thunder. If everything breaks right for him, he could be a stud on the defensive end.
Adams is athletic and very nimble for a 7-footer, and that's already made him a stout one-on-one defender.
Opponents are shooting just 39 percent against Adams in isolation and post-up situations, per Synergy, and he held Dwight Howard to 0-of-5 shooting in a recent matchup. Adams is insanely strong, and even centers like Howard have a hard time moving him around in the paint.
That makes him a fantastic fit with Ibaka—much like Kendrick Perkins, he's able to corral players toward certain spots on the floor (where Ibaka is usually waiting).
Adams isn't an explosive athlete in the Howard or Drummond mold, but he can get up quick. He's swatting nearly two shots per 36 minutes, and he has a few highlight-reel rejections on his resume.
One of the most impressive things about Adams is his springiness—he can jump, land and jump again very quickly, and it puts him in position to make plays that most guys just can't. For example, he blocked a shot against the San Antonio Spurs a few months back that Daily Thunder's Royce Young described by writing:
One play that blew my mind from Adams: Danny Green beat his man on a pump fake, so Adams stepped over in the lane to cut off his drive. Adams jumped, anticipating a shot, and Green dished to Tiago Splitter. Adams landed, spun and jumped again, swatting Splitter’s shot. Unbelievably impressive play.
It sounds cheesy, but you really can't teach that stuff. Adams can just do it, and that, combined with his general quickness, gives him the ability to contest pretty much everything at the rim. Adams isn't yet an elite rim-protector, but he's improving and opponents shoot low percentages in the paint when he and Ibaka are on the floor together, per nbawowy.com.
That same springiness should serve Adams well on the defensive glass. He's only a so-so defensive rebounder at the moment, but as then-Grantland's Sebastian Pruiti expertly pointed out a few years ago, there are huge differences between offensive and defensive rebounding.
Adams is still learning the nuances of that—positioning, not ball-watching, etc.—and there's no reason to think he won't be a strong rebounder on both ends of the floor someday.
If there's one area Adams really has to improve on the defensive end, it's his pick-and-roll defense. Adams has a tendency to stick with pick-and-roll ball-handlers for a step too long, opening up passes for easy dunks or layups.
That tendency to stick with ball-handlers leads to a lot of unnecessary fouls as well. Adams is averaging well over six fouls per 36 minutes, in part because he bumps guards an awful lot when hedging on pick-and-rolls.
Young bigs often struggle with the ins and outs of pick-and-roll defense, and Adams is no exception. But he's improved a ton over just the course of this season and has the quickness to stay attached to a guard and race back to defend his man—the exact sort of thing that's made Nick Collison such a great defender.
Adams will be a good center some day—a surefire rotation player who can chip in with rebounding and some hard, physical defense. That might be all he becomes, and that would be just fine. Heck, that's all OKC really needs.
But Adams has the potential to be a two-way force; a rugged defender who can protect the rim and blow up pick-and-rolls and a strong roll man who can initiate offense from the high post. Something like a bigger, more athletic Collison. Again, everything would have to break right for that to happen, but...my goodness would OKC be terrifying if Adams ever got to that level.
Adams has shown just flashes on both ends this season. If he ever puts it all together, the Thunder might have something special.