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Thunder player preview: Steven Adams is set to terrorize an arena near you

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First he was a cult hero, now he could be the breakout star of the NBA worthy of the Most Improved Player award.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder-Media Day Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Adams is twenty three years old. Hell, during his national coming out campaign in the Western Conference Semi-Finals and Finals, he was just twenty two. That’s terrifying as an isolated fact.

Contextually, it’s even scarier. Cameron Payne is 22. Alex Abrines and Semaj Christon are 23. Mitch McGary is 24. Point being; Adams’ ceiling and potential are frightening. Considering he wasn’t introduced to basketball growing up in New Zealand until being noticed as a six foot five 14-year old, he’s only scratching the surface of what lies within.

Look at what he was up to before the preseason contest with Minnesota on Sunday:

He didn’t stop there, either. Against the shorthandedd Timberwolves, he took out his frustrations from missing a few games on the sidelines with a dodgy ankle. Unfortunately for Cole Aldrich and the Minnesota bigs, they were his victims.

Seeming that he wasn’t satisfied with showing off his athleticism and movement, Adams went to work again. This time, Gorgui Dieng joined Aldrich in absorbing the pain.

The worry/opportunity now for player and team is how much rests on his incredible young shoulders. Adams’ ankle injury early in preseason meant the Thunder’s defensive vulnerabilities were on full display. Without Adams, the Thunder became soft like pudding defensively, particularly on the interior.

Whilst Adams’ absence does display their defensive weakness, it also shows the vast improvement of Adams in such a short span on time. Entering only his fourth year, Adams is becoming an elite defensive anchor and this season, without departed Serge Ibaka, he will have the chance to prove that is the case.

Kevin Durant’s departure (yes, we need to stop talking about it but it’s still part of the picture for now) creates further defensive issues. Durant’s length and athleticism enabled him to be a strong and versatile perimeter defender. Without Durant, OKC’s defense requires something different from Adams, and more than ever players will be funneled into him under the rim.

Adams’ 25 minutes per game over the last two seasons is certainly set to increase, and it wouldn’t surprise to see him around the 30-34 minute range, depending on need. Despite a plethora of bigs on the roster, none offers the skill set that Adams does.

The curiosity going forward this season is where he improves his game. His passing has come on in droves, and he showed nice flashes in the post season.

The Thunder have routinely run sets where Adams receives the ball at the top of the key, where originally he would perform hand-offs and easier sorts of passes. With growing ability and anticipation, Billy Donovan has trusted Adams to initiate offense or try and create where he sees fit. A career assist rate of 0.7apg will certainly rise.

Oklahoma City should also be able to lead the league in offensive rebounding by a considerable margin, to the point where they break the offensive rebounding percentage record. A bunch of forwards and centers great at it are joined by Andre Roberson, Victor Oladipo and Russell Westbrook, all sharing athleticism that allows them to lead over defenders for second chance points.

Basketball-Reference.com’s 2016-17 projection pegs Adams with averages of 11.5ppg (58.5FG%), 9.9rpg, 1.3apg and 1.6bpg. Those would be very successful numbers for a player who averaged 8.0ppg and 6.7rpg last year.

The departures of Adams’ star teammates opens the door to increase his production significantly, and his projections could be exceeded because of his still untapped potential. Sam Presti and the Thunder hoped they drafted a franchise center when Adams came aboard, but he’s gone above and beyond their expectations.

Comparing certain previous advanced numbers is fruitless because of the huge changes in the roster around him, but there’s no doubting the Thunder are significantly better with Adams on the floor.

The next point of intrigue is the Kiwi’s contract situation. He’s heading into restricted free agency next summer and a long-term deal has not yet been sorted. Whilst Roberson and Oladipo will both likely be less of a priority and may not sign until the summer, Adams must the franchise’s top priority.

If Adams were to leave somehow (though they would match any offer for him next summer), it would be a complete disaster. He’s worthy of commanding a five-year, max offer and may even take a discount (if only slight) to get paid now rather than wait it out this season under the cloud of a new contract.

Optimistic outlooks are needed in Oklahoma City nowadays, and they won’t be spared here. Adams could become the barometer of the Thunder’s success. Russell Westbrook and Adams are the two essential core pieces who the team fall out of the Playoff race without.

Like the Khals under Khaleesi in the early days of Game of Thrones, Adams can help the Thunder prove the doubters wrong this season. Big seasons from his fellow cornerstone and superstar teammate Westbrook could mean big things in the standings for their team.

If all goes well, this will become more than a regularity because their chemistry gets better by the game.

So now the question is for this season at least, how high can Steven Adams climb?