Steven Adams is turning heads.
The Oklahoma City Thunder's top pick from the 2013 NBA Draft (No. 12 overall) was supposed to be a project. He was supposed to be the young big man Scott Brooks and GM Sam Presti drafted and developed to replace Kendrick Perkins in the future.
The organization's expectations for Adams seemed reasonably high entering training camp, but most figured he would spend the majority of his rookie year with the Tulsa 66ers, Oklahoma City's D-League affiliate. And with Perkins, Hasheem Thabeet and Nick Collison under contract through the 2014-15 season (Thabeet: 14-15 team option), Adams spending two seasons in Tulsa wasn't completely out of the picture.
Not so fast.
Although it was just the pre-season and four of the Thunder's opponents likely won't make the playoffs (Istanbul excluded), Adams was extremely impressive in his first seven games. The 20 year-old averaged 7.9 points, eight rebounds and 23.4 minutes per game. He also started two games against the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz. His points/rebounds in each contest looked like this:
Three double-digit scoring games and a double-double isn't bad for a project.
After seven impressive pre-season performances, Adams' impact at the NBA level may be felt sooner than expected. He has forced Brooks' hand and although they have the more experienced Thabeet, the Thunder have to witness what the New Zealand native can bring in the immediate future before thinking about a transfer to the D-League.
How much burn will Brooks give his rookie center?
That's yet to be determined. However, 8-10 minutes seems manageable.
Brooks frequently rotates the center position, mainly out of necessity. Perkins is barely a 25-minute player and Thabeet is unreliable defending offensively skilled bigs. Collison is the scrappy veteran every NBA team needs, but to get the most out of his skill set, he has to rotate at the power forward with Serge Ibaka.
Thabeet averaged 11.7 minutes per game last season. Perkins averaged 25.1 and Collison averaged 19.5. It's hard to see Brooks cutting into Collison's minutes, but a drop in Thabeet's and Perkins' burn in order to make room for Adams could happen.
Brooks could work Adams into the rotation by cutting Thabeet's playing time in half and dropping Perkins' by three to five minutes. That's 8-10 minutes with an offensively skilled center, something the Thunder has lacked since becoming a Western Conference power.
Offensively skilled is high praise for a rookie center, especially after just one year in college.
However, Adams has shown his abilities. The former Pittsburgh Panther has found himself in the right spot at the right time, which can sometimes be more skill than dumb luck. Savvy court awareness not only leads to easy buckets, it leads to easy rebounds as well. This showed on Oct. 20 against the Utah Jazz.
On multiple possessions against the Jazz, Adams ran the court, cut through the paint and received dimes for easy finishes. He also positioned himself under the basket consistently for easy offensive rebounds and put-backs. While Perkins and Thabeet are quality players, they rarely show the offensive court awareness Adams showed in the pre-season.
Although Adams has earned NBA minutes, he still has a lot to learn.
It will take time for Adams to develop and learn the nuances of being an NBA center. He will have to learn what Perkins does best: the little things. Adams has to go through the maturation process of setting quality screens, the high-low, defending in the post, helping, clogging the lane, defending the basket, passing out of the post and outlets. The scoring and rebounding will come, but the small stuff has to be learned over time.
Adams also has to learn to defend at the NBA level. If he were to play 20 minutes per game this season, opposing bigs would eat him alive. Team's like Memphis, Portland, San Antonio and Los Angeles would have field days working against a 20 year-old rookie. He has to learn on the run without being thrown into the fire. If he plays more than 15 minutes, it could be more than he can take on at such an early age.
The Thunder are facing what has already turned into a season of adjustments. Russell Westbrook's injury set the team back nearly two months. Brooks can only hope he has found refuge in a young center that can help carry a beleaguered bench through two months without its true sixth man, Reggie Jackson.
Adams has earned his playing time, now it's time to see if he can earn his spot on the team.