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How Steven Adams Can Grab OKC Thunder's Full-Time Starting Job at Center

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How Steven Adams Can Grab OKC Thunder's Full-Time Starting Job at Center
Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Not getting what you deserve must be frustrating. Just ask Steven Adams.

The 20-year-old center logged just 14.8 minutes per game in his rookie year, with Kendrick Perkins blocking his path to become a starter. But by midseason, it became more and more apparent that Adams deserved a spot in the Oklahoma City Thunder's starting lineup.

With the Thunder's season over, we all know the narrative at this point. Scott Brooks likes playing veterans, and that's how you end up with Perkins starting all 62 games in which he played while averaging 19.5 minutes a night. But especially after Perk's February groin injury, his playing time hit egregious levels of stubbornness.

Adams really did improve throughout the year, and he picked up his game another degree during the postseason.

The rookie shot 69 percent from the field and averaged 2.6 blocks per 36 minutes during the Thunder's playoff run, seeing his minutes spike to 22.2 a night after Game 5 of the first round.

In some ways, the playing-time increase was kind of arbitrary. Adams deserved minutes long ago, but part of it was because of some learned maturity on the defensive end.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

During the regular season, Adams was more prone to foul than Alex Cora. He hacked more than Patrick Bateman. He was a personal foul personified. 

Back in games one though 82, he had to leave early so many times because of those troubles, but during the last two rounds of the playoffs, while playing an even more physical brand of basketball against aggressive teams like the Los Angeles Clippers and San Antonio Spurs, he totaled four or more fouls in a contest just twice in 12 games.

There's a reason we see all these fouls. Adams goes hard on the defensive end and aggressively helps when ball-handlers enter the lane.

That's how he's found success for most of his professional career, but down the stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs, Adams started to hone his craft a bit more. 

Discipline. It's happening. And considering the kid isn't even old enough to drink yet, we shouldn't be all too surprised that he had all this room to grow.

We saw a great example of Adams' maturity in Game 4 against the Spurs, when he came off Tiago Splitter to stuff Boris Diaw at the rim. As Diaw posts up Kevin Durant, Adams cuts off the lane to Splitter while hanging off him just enough to give him room to help.

Courtesy of NBA.com

After Diaw makes a spin move and gets around KD, Adams shifts toward the ball-handler, but he doesn't want to lose his man so that Diaw, one of the best passing bigs in the league, can find Splitter with an easy dump-off. 

So, as Adams goes over to help, he accounts for the Spurs center by reaching out and touching him with his right arm. His eyes can't sense Splitter, but his fingertips sure can:

Courtesy of NBA.com

Then, there's the part that shows real improvement. This is where Adams would get plenty of his fouls. He would lunge. But here, he doesn't do that at all.

Adams leaves the ground a split second after Diaw and goes straight up. Verticality! We're getting it!

Courtesy of NBA.com

Once the rookie knows he has the block, he swats with his right hand. It's a risk, but a calculated one, the type intelligent shot-blockers make. It's not one of those oafish, reckless swats you may see from a less refined rookie.

Here's the play in its entirety:

It's pretty obvious Adams could fit in with Dean Portman and Fulton Reed (Zach Randolph certainly agrees), but he's progressed from being a guy who only uses his body. He's actually, you know, developing real skill.

Scott Brooks noted exactly that talking to Berry Tramel and Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman during the Thunder's playoff run:

As every player in their developmental stage, you can throw more at him and more to him, and he can internalize it. But he still has some ways to go, but he’s off to a good start in his career. 

One of the reasons to like Adams is the basketball IQ, his way of knowing how to play help defense. Now, that understanding is starting to translate to the offensive end. Mainly, Adams is actually learning how to pass.

Watch here as Adams flings a no-look pass to Derek Fisher in the corner for a wide-open three in Game 5 against the Spurs:

The awareness to make this pass without looking is tremendous, but really, Adams makes this play before he ever touches the ball. Once he screens Kawhi Leonard, who is guarding Durant, you know someone is going to get open. It begins here:

Courtesy of NBA.com

...Then it's all instinct from there. And the instinct is part of what has gotten better.

Adams came into the league as an athletic dunker, someone who got his offense by setting picks and getting dump-offs. And though his arsenal has slowly grown (like his ability shown here to screen off the ball), the on-ball picks are where Adams starts his offense. That's what helps set him apart from Perkins on the offensive end.

Don't get this wrong: Perkins is one of the best screen-setters out there, especially when he's throwing his body on guys off the ball. But his actions after the pick are what limit him as an offensive threat.

When a big man comes over to set an on-ball screen, his roll has to be quick. It shouldn't be shocking that rim-running has to do with a mix of speed, quickness and court awareness, and when you're running in quicksand, it isn't going to have much of an effect.

Adams, though, has the potential to become a floor-spacer because of his screen-and-roll capabilities. Think DeAndre Jordan or Tyson Chandler.

When Adams darts to the rim he's capable of making defenses collapse in on him, and part of that is because of his screens. 

Uncredited/Associated Press

When he bodies up defenders like that, he's creating mismatches. He's changing an offense, and it's not just about his scoring. He's doing it in ways the other Thunder centers can't.

All Adams needs to do to become the Thunder's starting center next year is continue breathing. Really, nothing else should matter. 

He's already better than Perkins. Heck, he was better than Perkins in January. He just didn't get the opportunities, but that has to change next year.

There aren't any more excuses for Brooks. As long as Adams is out of foul trouble, he's the better option than a slower Perk. 

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Even as a post defender, which is supposed to be Perkins' main strength, Adams doesn't really trail by all that much.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Perkins averaged 0.71 points per play when defending post-ups this past season, an elite number. But Adams' 0.79 points-per-play figure isn't too far behind and is still well above league average. 

It's funny. The rookie may have actually become a little overrated as this year progressed. He still has a lot to improve. But the mere fact that he isn't Kendrick Perkins was enough to send every basketball fan into some sort of crazed hysteria about the greatness of Adams.

The potential is there. Heck, it may arrive by the start of the 2014-15 season, but there are still holes. 

Adams does get caught out of position on the defensive end at times, which can lead to all those fouls. His hands aren't as soft as you would want (though they are more marshmallowy than Perkins' igneous paws). And his shooting range doesn't go outside the paint.

But again, that can improve, even though the mentality will probably be the same. Adams has always had this aggressive persona. Just look at what Marshall coach and former Pittsburgh assistant Tom Herrion had to say about him before last year's draft. From NBA.com:

"It was one of the biggest no-brainers,'' Herrion told ESPN.com about the trip he made to New Zealand, where he first heard about Adams. "He reminded me immediately of those older guys at Kansas, players like Raef LaFrentz. He was physical. He had big shoulders. He had a big frame."

The attitude of the aggressor is here to stay, and that's a good thing. It gives a young player something on which he can build. But the skill still needs to develop some more.

Adams actually shot well at the NBA combine last season and did step out to hit the occasional jumper when he was at Pittsburgh.

Of course, that doesn't always translate, but it does show an ability to step away from the paint in the most relaxed setting possible. And we have started to see a little Perkins-style floater during the second half of the year.

The passing is getting better, and the fouls are starting to go away. As long as Adams continues on this trajectory, he'll end up grabbing the starting center spot even if Brooks doesn't want to give it to him.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

All statistics current as of June 6 and from Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com unless otherwise noted.

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