Thunder rookie Steven Adams: Why has he been so foul prone?

Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Fouling out in three straight games last week was just an exclamation point for Steven Adams and the foul troubles that have plagued him all season long.

For the first time in almost three seasons, a NBA player fouled out in three straight games.

That player is our own lovable New Zealand rookie, Steven Adams. Adams barely lasted 10 minutes in the games against the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors on January 16th and 17th, and then fouled out again against the Sacramento Kings on January 19th in 19:23 of playing time.

Though the foul trouble has become more impactful recently, it has been a noticeable theme throughout all of Adams' rookie season. While he had never fouled out before doing so in three consecutive games, he has had five games with five fouls, 19 games with three to four fouls, and 15 games with one or two fouls. There has been only one game that Adams got through without a single foul (January 1st against the Milwaukee Bucks), and he logged just 6:16 of playing time in that game.

Considering Adams' typical playing time (15.4 minutes per game, only one game over 30 minutes this season), it is remarkable how many fouls he racks up. He's finished more than half of his games this season with three or more fouls!  (27 out of 43, or 62.8%, to be precise)

By contrast, Adams was great at staying out of foul trouble in college. In his final season at Pittsburgh, he averaged just 2.8 fouls per 40 minutes. With the Thunder in the NBA, Adams is all the way up to 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes. I did a quick check of other rookie centers from the past four seasons that played at least 500 minutes in their first season (a qualification Adams has already met), and compared their fouling from their last season in college to their rookie season in the NBA.

The Data

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(Note: Adams' fouls per 40 minutes are as of January 23rd; no other rookie centers have played over 500 minutes this season.) If you prefer a less-cluttered version without the change included in the graph, click here.

For the most part, fouling extrapolates reasonably well enough from college to pros, factoring in: a) increased minutes; b) increased competition; c) overall speed of the game; and d) veterans who know how to manipulate rookies into picking up cheap fouls. That general increase aside, players that know how to go straight up while contesting shots and position themselves correctly in college will mostly be able to translate that to the NBA over the course of a season. Noted tough guy Kyle O'Quinn was the only player that saw a rise of over two fouls per 40 minutes (Meyers Leonard came close, though for context he looked raw and overwhelmed overall as he'd only played center for about four or five years before the NBA).

The obvious outlier, of course, is Steven Adams. Of the eight centers I looked at, Adams had the second lowest fouls per 40 minutes in college. His increase from college to the NBA, however, was nearly more than twice what O'Quinn's was (4.9 compared to 2.5). The graph really speaks for itself. The comparative size of Adams' red and blue bars, compared to each other and the rest of the graph, seems almost impossible.

Adams has already played 647 minutes this season as the Thunder's backup center, a material sample size. Could Adams' excessive fouling become a long-term problem? While the trend indicates that possibility, in overall context  of how other centers' fouling have translated from college to the NBA, Adams' fouling feels too unlikely for there not to be a regression closer to the mean. After all, the season's only half finished and Adams was adept at avoiding foul trouble last season with the Pittsburgh Panthers.

I didn't watch much of Adams in college, but most pre-draft scouting reports lauded his ability to challenge shots without fouling, as well as his mobility in recovering or when drawn out of the paint. These of course are the two biggest ways that players will pick up a lot of fouls, but Adams was good at avoiding both while in college. Here are a few quotes from the scouting reports of Bullets Forever's Umair Khan and DraftExpress' Jonathan Givony.

His mobility helped him a lot in the pick and roll, while he did have his issues hedging too far out at times, for the most part he was disciplined in recovering back to his man in time. He has enough lateral quickness to switch onto guards, and does a good job contesting without fouling, averaging just three per 40 minutes. The majority of those came via over-the-back calls or aggressive hedges on guards.

via Bullets Forever

His quickness and overall mobility is extremely impressive for a player his size, and allows him to make a significant impact on this side of the floor, particularly on the pick and roll. Adams can step out on screens and recover very effectively, even being able to switch out on guards at times and not look entirely uncomfortable. He'll get beat off the dribble at times, but is athletic enough to recover and still make a play at the rim, showing very good instincts as a shot-blocker.

[...]

In the post, Adams does a solid job, looking patient and not fouling too often, playing under control and showing a much better feel than he does on the offensive end.

via DraftExpress

How then do you explain this year's foul troubles? Here is a good sign: Adams' good habits in college have mostly shown up in the NBA as well. He challenges shots inside and outside without fouling (going straight up with two hands or blocking a shot), he moves well enough near the perimeter, and of course, he's extremely physical in the post.

Adams' Success

Actually, he's extremely physical everywhere. This can be a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. With Adams, it is a bit of both. The Thunder do benefit with having Adams coming off the bench to make things difficult in the paint by moving guys and throwing his weight around, but most of Adams' foul troubles root from his physicality. Like Khan said, Adams gets called for a lot of loose-ball fouls as well as overall gritty fouls. Without having actually counted them out, I'd say a good amount of his fouls occur away from the ball. I've seen Adams push a guy while chasing a board, push his shoulder into guys while on offense, or randomly grab guys in transition, all of which have resulted in fouls called against him.

Are they silly fouls? Sometimes they definitely seem like it. Adams might cost his team an offensive possession or a defensive rebound all while getting himself into foul trouble. On the other hand, curtailing such aggression would be contrary to the identity as a player that Scott Brooks is trying to mold Adams into.

"I tell him, 'Don't worry about your fouls,'" Brooks said after the Thunder's win against the Kings on the 19th. "Play the brand of basketball we need you to play: tough, physical, protector of the paint and rim."

There was no better example of Adams playing the brand of basketball Brooks wants him to play than when he was

Play the brand of basketball we need you to play: tough, physical, protector of the paint and rim. -Scott Brooks

matched up with Rockets center Dwight Howard last week. It was likely a point of emphasis from the coaching staff that Adams would have to grind and fight for position all night with Dwight and his huge shoulders. It ultimately led to Adams fouling out after 10:18 of playing time, but guess what? Dwight finished 5-of-13 for 11 points with five fouls himself. That's not all Adams of course (Kendrick Perkins played a factor as well), but it is obvious he was a big part of the Thunder's success against Howard on the night. Adams even drew a double foul on himself and Dwight, which elicited this hilarious reaction (which, for Adams, is also his reaction to most fouls). Check the play out. You can see that the grabbing and handsy stuff is pretty par for the course with Adams.

Same thing occurred Sunday night against the Kings and DeMarcus Cousins. DMC (who, by the way, has been great this season and his play could justify an All-Star selection) was held to 16 points on 6-of-17 shooting to go with three fouls. Cousins did have 14 rebounds, but I guess you can't win 'em all. Adams did well enough to make Cousins feel his presence, and again, it was with his aggressive play away from the ball.

On this play, Adams gives up inside position to DMC (which is a problem he still struggles with sometimes), but gets tied up and fouls Cousins while denying him the entry pass inside. It's neat to see the extracurricular stuff after the whistle, because Adams was clearly in Cousins' head throughout the game.

The aggressive play doesn't really bother me. Brooks seems to be taking it in stride, and I generally like what I'm seeing even with the foul trouble. As Brooks said in the same interview after the Kings game, "Play aggressive, keep working, and that stuff will improve as time goes on."

Adams' areas for improvement

There are other, more tangible elements that Adams does need to fix to cut down on his fouls. He still gets beat in the post sometimes, even when he doesn't give up significant position. Against some of the league's more skilled post scorers, Adams doesn't have the technique to consistently keep up with their moves and counter-moves (an up-and-under can obliterate him), which can force him into fouling. According to Synergy, the play type that leads to the highest percentage of shooting fouls drawn (12.1%) is a post-up. Granted, Synergy has only tracked 132 of Adams' defensive possessions which isn't the greatest sample size, but it passes the eye test well enough.

In this play, Adams denies the post entry pass well and forces Randolph to give up position to receive the ball. He does a great job of not letting Randolph back him down as he would do against many other post defenders, but once Z-Bo pulls out the fake, Adams bites and it's over.

Over-hedging on pick-and-rolls has also been a flaw for Adams. It seems to have become less of a problem recently compared to when the season started, but we still see Adams pushing guards too much with his body

Play aggressive, keep working, and that stuff will improve as time goes on.

when he defends the pick-and-roll. As the earlier scouting reports were quick to point out, Adams has great mobility and shines guarding the pick-and-roll. He can switch and stay in front of a guard, or he can hedge and bump a guard to allow the original defender to recover. It just happens that when he bumps a guard, he'll sometimes bump a bit too hard and draw a foul. Earlier this season, Brandon Jennings was able to draw a foul from Adams on back-to-back possessions when he hedged on pick-and-rolls from the exact same spot on the floor.

For all of his issues with fouls, it looks like Brooks is comfortable taking his time with working on them. If he's comfortable with it, I suppose I am too. Brooks has been blessed with some solid big man prospects, but he really hasn't accomplished much with their player development as Cole AldrichByron Mullens and D.J. White all have failed to earn a long term spot on the team.

Make no mistake - fouls are a problem for Adams that will need to be addressed for him to claim the starting center role for which many have clamored that he be given. It will be a challenge but not an insurmountable one. Fouling this much in the NBA after not fouling much at all in college is an anomaly, and the fouling he does seems very correctable even with Brooks encouraging the same level of aggressiveness.

Since fouling out in three straight games, Adams has gone two games with "just" two and then three fouls in 17 and 14 minutes respectively. It is progress as much as it is regression to the norm, and is expected to continue.


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