NEW YORK – Long before the signature ponytail, before the sleeve of tattoos down his right arm, before being dubbed the NBA’s strongest man, Thunder center Steven Adams faced off against teammate Nerlens Noel at the BABC Holiday Classic in Boston in 2012. Noel was the nation’s No. 1 prospect out of the Tilton School in New Hampshire, set to attend Kentucky in 2013. Adams came to America a year earlier, joining Notre Dame Preparatory School in Fitchburg, Mass. after graduating from Scotts College in Wellington, New Zealand. It was the first battle between the now-teammates, and a matchup Noel says he’ll never forget.
“The first time I played him it was a hyped-up matchup in prep school and I was just wondering, how is this man 6’10”? He looked straight outta caveman or something,” Noel told The Crossover. “We first went at it and he was a big, tough dude then. He’s only gotten stronger since, which is crazy.”
Adams may have caught Noel by surprise at the BABC Classic, but the Kiwi’s story isn’t one of diamonds in the rough. Adams was a five-star recruit before committing to Pittsburgh, ranked ahead of 2013 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and future first rounders Marcus Smart, Gary Harris and Kris Dunn. Adams won the MVP of New Zealand’s Under-21 national tournament in 2012. He played in the Jordan Brand Classic game that same year, and the adidas Nations Tournament the year prior.
Adams’ talent landed him with Jamie Dixon at Pittsburgh, a 20-hour plane ride from his hometown of Rotorua, New Zealand. Less than a year later he was in Oklahoma City, selected with the No. 12 pick in 2013 NBA draft.
The offensive opportunities were few and far between for Adams in his first season with Oklahoma City. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant monopolized the ball with each sporting a usage rate over 30%, while Serge Ibaka gobbled up opportunities in the paint. Adams’ sturdiness became his biggest asset as a rotation player, taking punishment from some of the league’s largest forces. What is often a debilitating task for young centers came as second nature to Adams.
“The New Zealand culture, they’re a hardworking bunch, bit rough around the edges, that type of thing.” Adams said. “But my family in particular, were a bit rougher than normal... With my genetics, getting rough and playing big is just natural.”
Five seasons, one Durant departure and over $100 million later, Adams still manages much of the dirty work for Oklahoma City. He anchors the paint as Westbrook and Paul George hunt turnovers on the perimeter, protecting the back line of the league’s No. 3 defense. He’s a dedicated and physical screener, one of 15 players to generate at least 3.5 screen assists per game. Adams embraces the unglamorous in the locker room, too. He leads the Thunder’s “green-drink crew”, imploring Westbrook and Jerami Grant to chug their post-game recovery drinks as quickly as possible. Adams, unsurprisingly, finishes his concoction in one mammoth sip.
Adams’ strength and toughness is no secret. He’s firmly entrenched as the Thunder’s leading interior presence, and is known as one of the league’s premier rim protectors. Oklahoma City sports the league’s best defensive rating when the Adams-Westbrook-George trio shares the floor. Yet it’s Adams’ evolving skill-set that’s been crucial to Oklahoma City’s success, a key development alongside Paul George’s MVP campaign and Russell Westbrook’s triple-double streak.
Adams’ assist rate is up over a full percentage point compared to his previous career high, and he’s dishing interior passes with authority. Often an outlet for Westbrook inside the free-throw line, Adams is now finding cutters with an increased verve, dropping off dimes to Grant, Noel and George. His signature flip shot is as effective as ever, with impressive touch for a 7’0” behemoth. Adams is eighth in the NBA in field goals made within five feet. He boasts a better percentage in the restricted area than Marc Gasol and Nikola Jokic. As the Thunder climb to the league’s fifth-best scoring offense, Adams’ game continues to grow. The correlation is no accident.
“Obviously Steven has always been a great defender and great rebounder his whole career, but I think he’s now giving us a real post presence,” Thunder head coach Billy Donovan said. “We throw it in to him and he’s generating offense for himself or for others and it’s led to a great year.”
Oklahoma City has found its groove in year two of the Westbrook-George marriage, winning 11 of its last 12 contests entering Thursday’s matchup at New Orleans. The Thunder’s pair of All-Stars will rightfully earn the headlines as the playoffs approach, but don’t dismiss Adams’ importance to their postseason goals. Not only is Adams the NBA’s strongest man. He’s also an increasingly-skilled big, and a key linchpin on both ends of the floor as the Thunder aim for their first Finals berth since 2012.