Most bigs in the modern NBA serve a hyper-specific purpose. There are the roll men and rim protectors (Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert, for example) alongside with the floor spacers (Kristaps Porzingis and Brook Lopez), with only the superstar talents allowed to flash their full skillset. The center position is increasingly one of specialists. Bam Adebayo is an outlier.
“The perfect word for Bam Adebayo is dynamic,” Heat center Meyers Leonard told The Crossover. “He does everything we could possibly ask of him.”
Dynamic indeed. Adebayo enters Friday averaging 14.5 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game, one of five players to average four assists per game while hauling in over ten rebounds. Adebayo is joined by Luka Doncic, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns and Nikola Jokic in the distinction, a quality crop of co-stars for the 2017 first-round pick. The Heat ditched Hassan Whiteside for Adebayo in the offseason and never looked back, standing fourth in the East at 12–5. Only five teams give up fewer points per 100 possessions. The Suns are the lone team to assist at a higher rate. Adebayo has been a catalyst in both metrics.
Adebayo’s showed flashes of his immense defensive potential as a rookie in 2017-18. He led Miami in defensive rating, morphing from a weak-side shot blocker to a defensive linchpin. Adebayo kept his feet on the perimeter and impressed with his closing speed. His rotations became cleaner as the year went on, earning a certificate from the Erik Spoelstra school of team defense. Whiteside’s departure appeared imminent even approaching the 2018-19 season.
The Kentucky product impressed defensively as a rookie. This version is a different animal. Adebayo doesn’t just defend point guards on the occasional switch. He’ll wrangle guards as his primary defensive assignment, overwhelming them with his length and agility. Miami trusted Adebayo to guard Russell Westbrook to start Wednesday’s contest in Houston, and the decision wasn’t an outlier. There’s a crop of players that can passably defend every position in short spurts. Adebayo can be a multi-positional defender for 40 straight minutes.
“Bam has been doing a great job defensively,” Heat center Kelly Olynyk said. “He guards one through five, does whatever you ask of him. Off-ball, on-ball, pick-and-rolls, everything. His skill has always been there.”
Adebayo is the nucleus of Miami’s defense, and his versatility has allowed Spoelstra to experiment with a slate of double-big lineups. The Heat allow just 99.5 points per 100 possessions when Adebayo plays with Leonard, sporting a plus-5.9 net rating. They’re a touch stingier next to Olynyk, though the two players have logged 100 fewer minutes together.
Adebayo’s evolving offensive arsenal has opened a Miami offense that risked a spacing problem in 2019-20. He started his career as a rim-rolling center, and Adebayo is still impressive in that regard. Adebayo is averaging 1.25 points per roll possession in 2019-20, the fourth-best mark among the 25 players with at least 40 roll attempts. But Adebayo isn’t a mere finisher this season. He’s arguably the fulcrum of Miami’s attack, an adept ball handler with the vision of a quality point guard.
Adebayo can take a handoff at the top of the key and drive forward before dumping the ball off to a cutter. Allow Adebayo to catch the ball near the free-throw line, and he’ll ping a pinpoint pass to an open shooter. Adebayo is cerebral and patient. Many bigs can’t wait to charge toward the basket or fling an errant pass when they receive the ball in space. Adebayo keys Miami’s motion, searching for the open shooter while remaining a threat to score. His 54.5% field goal percentage between 10-16 feet (a career high) has made a marked difference this season, forcing defenses to respect his shot around the foul line. Teams could previously sag toward the rim against Adebayo, cutting off lanes near the baseline. Leave him open in 2019-20, and he’s a reliable bet to make teams pay.
Adebayo isn’t fooled by traps and additional rotational help. He diagnoses the situation, then makes his move in a split section. It’s a controlled attack, and Adebayo is disciplined as only a Spoelstra disciple can be. It’s rare for a young big to handle such responsibility with ease.
“Offensively, we're running the offense through [Adebayo] more and more,” Spoelstra said. “We started that process last year, but the last three months of the season, he's really improved his playmaking and his passing. ...It seems like every month I can give him something more on his plate and he's been able to take on all of that.”
Adebayo is a fringe Most Improved Player candidate–potentially third behind Luka Doncic and Pascal Siakam–and his first All-Star appearance is in play in a weak Eastern Conference. But don’t expect Adebayo to chase individual accolades. His game exudes selflessness. He’ll chase Westbrook and bang against Joel Embiid. Open jumpers are eschewed for hockey assists. The Heat offense hums with a purpose as screeners and cutters punish lax defenses. Miami would risk serious stagnation without Adebayo. His value lies outside of the highlight reel.
“Bam is all about finding other ways to impact winning,” Spoelstra said. “With his work ethic and team attitude, he's only going to continue to get better.”