'Just Throw Me into the Fire': Miami Heat Can't Put a Ceiling on Bam Adebayo

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2018

MIAMI, FL - FEBRUARY 27:  Bam Adebayo #13 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers on February 27, 2018 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2018 NBAE (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

MIAMI — A few weeks before the 2017 draft, the Miami Heat invited four prospects to their AmericanAirlines Arena practice court. One of them was Edrice Adebayo, known to most as "Bam," the Flintstones-inspired nickname having been bestowed upon him by his mother after she witnessed him flip over a coffee table at the age of one.

A bouncy 6'10" center out of Kentucky, the then-19-year-old Adebayo had caught the eye of Chet Kammerer, a longtime scout and the Heat's vice president of player personnel. Adebayo, Kammerer said, was big and fast and athletic. Also, his Kentucky roots meant he had already popped up on the radar of Heat president Pat Riley, a former Kentucky star.

Miami owned the 14th pick in the draft. Adebayo had averaged 13 points and eight rebounds per game during his lone season in Lexington. His offense was still raw. At Kentucky, he ceded the spotlight to some of his more prominent teammates.

He wasn't pegged as a top-10 pick in the lead-up to the draft, and the Heat hoped he'd fall to them. But they wanted to watch him in person first.

With the session winding down, the Heat tossed the prospects—Adebayo plus a few collegiate guards—into a series of two-on-two and three-on-three drills, instructing Adebayo not to switch on screens. They wanted to evaluate his quickness and comfort when scrambling in defensive rotations. 

"This is bulls--t. I want to switch," head coach Erik Spoelstra recalls Adebayo muttering. "I'm not afraid of that dude—why you trying to protect him?"

Adebayo had spent his basketball career perfecting the art of locking down smaller, quicker opponents. Growing up in North Carolina, he worked for hours guarding the explosive Dennis Smith Jr.—his then-AAU teammate and now 6'3" rookie point guard—during practices. At Kentucky, he'd play one-on-one with guards Malik Monk, now a rookie for the Charlotte Hornets, and Isaiah Briscoe, a former top recruit now playing overseas.

"He has 'guard feet,'" Kentucky head coach John Calipari says.

As the season progressed, Calipari favored switching on opposing screens, which neutralizes the primary advantage offenses create in pick-and-rolls by preventing any need to chase and recover.

The Heat were familiar with all this but not the intricacies of Adebayo's personality. His grumbling grew louder and louder. Play continued for about five possessions before Spoelstra, smiling, caved.

"Switch it," he said.

The guards (whom Spoelstra declined to name) didn't score again. The drills ended soon after. But not for Adebayo, who spent the next 20 minutes of his workout grousing—loud enough for everyone in attendance to hear—about the team's having doubted his ability to defend guards.

"Everybody at Kentucky told us he was their most competitive player," Spoelstra says nearly eight months later over the phone. "That's speaking our language here in Miami, and that's exactly what we saw that day." 

The Heat grabbed Adebayo with their first-round pick, with a focus on grooming him for the future.

"We anticipated this was going to be a developmental year," Spoelstra concedes. But then came post-draft workouts and NBA Summer League, training camp and the preseason, and before long the entire Heat organization was smitten with its new gem.

Adebayo was everything they wanted in a player—that rare blend of tiger and teddy bear, the kind of 20-year-old who one moment will bark at an opponent on the floor and the next will flash his bright, white smile to the sounds of Katy Perry's "Last Friday Night" (his favorite song from his favorite artist). 

His teammates enjoyed spending time with him. "He's super talkative and outgoing," Heat forward Kelly Olynyk says. "A lot of young guys aren't."

His coaches relished working with him. There was more talent oozing out of those Popeye-like muscles than even Adebayo's greatest proponents had realized.

"He forced us early on to think about playing him more," Spoelstra says. "This is still a developmental year, but he's also contributing right now."

Adebayo may be averaging only 7.1 points and 5.3 rebounds in 19.8 minutes per game. But as the season has progressed, his vision, versatility and burst have elevated him to a key cog on some of the most potent lineups for a Heat team likely headed toward the playoffs. As Olynyk puts it: "He's got a little bit of s--t to him that people haven't seen. I definitely didn't know how skilled he was."

Yet, as besotted as the Heat were with him, Adebayo's professional career didn't get off to the smoothest of starts. He admits that it took him about a handful of games to adjust to the pace of the NBA and not feel overwhelmed by the skills of his opponents. Two moments, he says, stand out.

The first came during the preseason. In each of the Heat's first three games, Adebayo hadn't been subbed in until the fourth quarter. Believing the pattern to be predictive, he approached the team's fourth preseason contest assuming he could spend quarters one through three relaxing on the sidelines. 

Then, with just over 7:30 left in the first half, a stunned Adebayo heard Spoelstra beckon for him to enter the game. Knowing he was in trouble, Adebayo gingerly approached the scorer's table.

He committed three fouls in 3:08 before being yanked by Spoelstra. As Adebayo returned to his seat, Spoelstra pulled him aside.

"You weren't ready, were you?" he asked. Spoelstra has been around the NBA for more than 20 years. His experience told him to expect a confrontation or at least a barrage of excuses.

"No," Adebayo responded. "I wasn't."

Spoelstra was floored.

"His response was so honest and authentic, it caught me by surprise," he says, chuckling. "I didn't even have a response. It almost made me feel like it was my fault."

The next wake-up call came just a few weeks later, when, four games into the regular season, Adebayo was thrust into the starting lineup to fill in for an injured Hassan Whiteside. The Heat were playing the San Antonio Spurs. Adebayo hadn't received any burn in the team's previous two games, yet on this night, he was being handed one of the toughest assignments in the league.

"I was thinking, 'Oh, I have to guard LaMarcus Aldridge," Adebayo says. He has a habit of slowing down his speech and lowering his voice into a powerful rumble on certain words—his method of adding emphasis—and does so here when mentioning the Spurs' All-Star big man. "I was like, 'OK, just throw me into the fire.'"

Aldridge dropped 31 points on the Heat that night. But for Adebayo, something clicked following that game. The action slowed down. He ceased struggling to process what a play call of "quick fist" meant. The players no longer resembled speed racers—a metaphor Adebayo had previously relayed to teammate Jordan Mickey.

He registered his first double-double two games later, against the Timberwolves. And while he didn't morph into a rotation mainstay until late November, Adebayo's performance, and recovery from his struggles, only further endeared him to the Heat. 

Adebayo is far from a perfect player. He struggles finishing around the rim. His jumper remains clunky. His post-up game is in its baby stages. Statistically, the Heat have actually been better—albeit by just 1.4 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com—with Adebayo on the bench.

That number, though, has been falling throughout the year. Adebayo gives the Heat a toolbox every team in the league is desperately searching for. He's one of only a handful of players in the league capable of locking down opponents at every position, including Stephen Curry—one of the toughest covers in the history of the game.

On the other end, he's flashed a feel rarely seen among rookies.

Unlike most teams, the Heat prefer to initiate sets from the elbows with their power forwards. After learning this during the summer league, Adebayo, officially a center, went to his coaches and asked to be given that same opportunity.

The Heat acquiesced, and Adebayo has blossomed in the role. From the top of the key, he operates like a conductor directing an orchestra. His assist rate (the percentage of his teammates made shots that he assisted on) of 12.4 percent puts him in 78th percentile among NBA big men, according to Cleaning the Glass.

Sometimes he'll zip backdoor lasers to cutting teammates. Other times, he'll fire a one-two punch of a soft handoff followed by a bruising screen featuring a technique—body angled, forcing opposing guards to chase over the pick to create a chain reaction of space and rotations—perfected over the season during, Adebayo says, "hours and hours of pod work."

 

That he regularly deploys Heat vernacular—from "pod work" to Miami's "Hunger Games" (a five-on-five scrimmage in which points are rewarded for good defense)—so early in his career is telling. Adebayo's presence provides the Heat, who've spent their post-Big Three years hovering around mediocrity, a much-needed path to a greater future. He might never be a star. But Adebayo is willing and capable of molding himself in the form of a Heat building block. 

The only question is: Just how good can he be?

"Right now he's somebody who's an incredible athlete, loves to compete and has a consistent work ethic," Spoelstra says. "I wouldn't dare to try to put a ceiling on someone like that."

       

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks and NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow Yaron on Twitter, @YaronWeitzman, listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here and sign up for his newsletter here. 

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