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Steven Adams is now the second best scorer in OKC

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OKC’s big man development crew does it again.

Oklahoma City Thunder v Milwaukee Bucks
The beginnings of his face-up game.
Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Though Steven Adams entered the NBA four seasons ago completely undeveloped and raw, he’s shown a remarkable aptitude for learning. More than that, Adams has put what he’s learned over the past four seasons into practice. Watching a clip of old Steven Adams is borderline unrecognizable.

Steven Adams Then

Here’s a quick clip of Steven Adams’ first big game in the NBA. It was on November 8th of 2013. This was back when the Thunder were still a very high level team, but had just been criticized for trading James Harden. Though the controversy continues to this day, it was this game where I thought, “Okay, so that James Harden situation was DEFINITELY not a total loss.”

  • Adams doesn’t know who he is yet, despite showing signs of his future self. For example, Adams tips in the missed shot as a layup, which is considered a no-no in the NBA. Now, he would secure the rebound.
  • Too many moves, too little skill. It wouldn’t be long before Adams resolved to stick to just a couple of moves, and perfect them. Here we see the classic Kendrick Perkins push shot, which Adams doesn’t use at all anymore. We also see a couple of step-throughs, and inconsistent form on the hook shot.
  • Defense is raw and physical. You can see Adams swipe at the ball dangerously for each block. Craftier players might have gotten fouled on a couple of occasions. Nowadays, Adams’ foul management is much better. The stats back it up. In Adams’ rookie season, he averaged 6 fouls per 36 minutes. Now, Adams averages 3 fouls per 36 minutes.
  • Very basic floor positioning. Adams now has more places on the floor to move, since his hook is a threat out to 8 feet or so. Back in the day, Adams’ shot was much shakier, the Thunder loved to run HORNS set variations, and Adams was just learning the game. So Adams spent most offensive possessions either screening at the top of the key or in rebounding position under the basket.

Steven Adams Now

For comparison, let’s take a look at Adams’ highlights from last night. I want to stress that this type of night is no longer a career night for Adams. Since December 9th, Adams has scored over 15 points on six separate occasions. That includes three outings of 20 points or more, including the game you’re seeing below.

  • Dribbling has become a part of Adams game. Adams can hold the ball and power into his man. Or Adams could take a power dribble to get to the other side of the rim.
  • Facing up to the basket is now a part of Adams game. Because Adams used to be so inexperienced, coaches would tell him to keep his back to the basket at all times. It was effective, because it allowed Adams to develop a nice hook and layup game. But now that Adams is one of the quicker and more co-ordinated seven footers in the NBA, he can be trusted to face up in certain situations. In the video, you see Adams give Henson a quick misdirection for an easy basket. Or so it appeared. But Adams actually pushed the ball through Henson’s hands and completed the layup.
  • Positioning has changed as well. Adams is far from an offensive quarterback, at a paltry 1.2 assists per game. The assist game of Adams has always been on this level, as Adams per-36 minute assist averages have been consistent throughout all four of his NBA seasons. But Adams is a much more active part of the offense than he used to be. Check out that side pick and roll with Oladipo.
  • The defense and blocking ability of Adams has undeniably improved. Look at how disciplined Adams is to stay close to the ground on Antetokoumpo’s drive. Or how Adams blocked Parker’s dunk cleanly from behind Parker’s head. That’s the type of shot blocking skill you learn while practicing with Serge Ibaka, and now Jerami Grant.
  • The clutchness is there. Adams has always had an incredible drive to play the game, complete selflessness on the court, and a steely nerve. But throughout the years, Adams has become a real go-to guy in crunch time. Just look at the final play, where Adams is forced to guard Antetokoumpo in a one on one situation. Adams avoided the foul and got a clean stop during the time game.

All of those things contribute to Adams being a rock solid #2 option for the Thunder.

Why not Oladipo and Kanter?

  • Oladipo is too inefficient. Four years in the NBA, and Oladipo’s stats really haven’t improve in any way from his rookie season. Granted, Oladipo’s team wins more now. But Oladipo’s true shooting percentage, at just 55.2%, is just 0.9% higher than Westbrook’s true shooting percentage.
  • Oladipo can’t generate offense or secure the ball. Westbrook offsets his bad shooting with ridiculous assist and rebound numbers. Let’s compare. Westbrook is averaging 11 assists per 36 minutes. Oladipo is averaging 3 assists per 36 minutes. Westbrook averages 11 rebounds per 36 minutes. Oladipo averages 5 rebounds per 36 minutes. Westbrook averages 1.4 steals per 16 minutes. Oladipo averages 0.9 steals per 36 minutes.
  • In every way, Oladipo is simply an inferior version of Westbrook. There is very little that Oladipo can do that Westbrook can’t on a basketball level, except guard somewhat taller defenders. This is somewhat beside the point. But strategically, I think it’s a better idea to give more opportunities to Adams based on how unique his game is.
  • Kanter comes off the bench. Some will disagree that a bench player can’t be the team’s second best scorer. But Kanter rarely closes games, and often plays against backups. If Kanter were a starting power forward or center, his stats would be much less goudy.
  • Kanter doesn’t have as many moves as Adams does. I know this sounds ridiculous, given that Kanter is a much better scorer. But there’s reasons for that. Kanter has sticky, soft hands near the basket. And Kanter has quick, adept footwork. But Kanter doesn’t have a lot of go-to shot options in the post. Kanter is usually restricted to going with a layup in one way or the other. Because Kanter has so much girth, he is able to clear out space against most players with relative ease. But Kanter’s hook is not nearly as reliable as Adams’. I know Kanter has further range, but it’s just a basic jumpshot. Kanter’s turnaround is rare and risky. And don’t ever expect Kanter to do anything off the dribble outside of the post.
  • Lastly, Adams is much more of a team leader. That’s something that’s really changed about Adams over the course of his four-year career. As a rookie, Adams was silent, learning from those there. But, now in a central role with the Thunder, Adams is a bit more talkative and in command of the team on the court.

For example. Check out this picture of Adams literally dragging Kanter out by the arm to come set the high screen.

The screen worked, and Adams got a layup. A leader, indeed.

Has Adams’ Defense really improved?

The defensive box plus/minus score is one way of measuring just how well your defensive players are doing. At the top of the team is Westbrook, with a positive 4.3 rating. By this metric, Westbrook is the 7th best defensive player in the NBA. Second on OKC is Roberson with 2.0, which ranks him ~55th in the NBA. Third on OKC is Adams with 1.2, ranking him ~97th. (These numbers aren’t exact because there are a lot of players with really limited datasets.)

Of course, the defensive box plus/minus score can be deceiving. It’s hard to believe that the 38 year old Chris Andersen or the 36 year old David West is a more effective defender than Adams. Furthermore, these scores tend to favor big men who rebound well.

Looking at Adams defense within six feet of the basket according to NBA.com’s tracking, he currently decreases opponents’ shot percentage by 3.7%. This is within a percentage point of players such as Bismack Biyombo, Omer Asik, Miles Plumlee....and Enes Kanter.

Hilariously enough, Kanter’s large presence will deter shots near the basket when he’s in the right spot. Even the block numbers add up. Adams gets 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes, while Kanter gets 1.3. Overall, Kanter will deter opponents’ shots by 1.5% on average, while Adams will only deter them by 0.1%.

But here’s why every single Thunder fan will tell you Adams is a better defender. Adams is the one who plays starter’s minutes. Furthermore, Kanter is usually made to avoid guarding good offensive centers. As such, Kanter will guard power forward, where he is oversized and has an advantage near the basket. But Adams always plays center.

Conclusion: Only Adams’ foul rate has significantly improved

Adams continues to be a solid part of an elite defense. Despite not impressing across the NBA advanced stats spectrum, Adams has the nerve to make big stops when we need them. But I’m really not sure whether there has been any improvement on Adams’ actual defensive effect.

I think Adams’ real improvement was learning to play without fouling and gaining the year-by-year respect of the referees. Adams’ blocks per 36 minutes and defensive box plus minus score have steadily decreased since his rookie season. And Adams’ shot defense, according to NBA.com tracking, has stayed the same since his rookie season.

I’ve got to congratulate assistant coach Mark Bryant and the Thunder training staff on another big man development success. OKC tends to reach for raw big men to try and develop. Ibaka was the first successful project, vaulting from project to All-Star. And Adams will likely take that same vault. It’s no easy task to accomplish twice with two people from completely different parts of the world. But OKC knows how to develop young bigs. It makes me excited for the future of Domatas Sabonis and Jerami Grant.

*Footnote: Rebounding is traditionally considered a part of defense. I didn’t consider rebounding here because good rebounders don’t defend well. And good defenders don’t rebound well. But, defending and rebounding are both undoubtedly a part of team defense. It’s just impossible to judge who balances defending and rebounding the best when considering an individual player. So it’s easier to compare them separate categories for the sake of argument. (Besides, for all of Kanter’s boards, it’s not like Adams is a bad rebounder....)