Adams grows as defensive anchor
He’s barely 24 years old, but it’s not too soon for Steven Adams look back fondly on the good old days.
Times were simpler in his basketball youth — as recently as his NBA rookie season — when, as a 7-foot center, his defensive responsibilities were defined and confined.
“It used to be way easier, to be honest, just guarding post guys, traditional bigs,” Adams said. “You’re just stuck to that dude and it’s like, ‘He’s gonna duck in now.’ Really slow. Easy. Not easy, but you know what I mean.” Uncomplicated.
In the intervening years, the game has changed. The Nuggets run their offense through Nikola Jokic. The Timberwolves have Karl Anthony Towns slashing to the rim and shooting 3-pointers.
As the position has shifted, so has Adams’ role. This season, he’s being given more flexibility than ever to make his own defensive decisions, Thunder coach Billy Donovan said — when to close out on a 3-point shooter, when
to stay inside and protect the rim and when to float in help defense to “fill in some gaps.”
“I think if anything it’s been more trying to put him in positions defensively where he can utilize his length, his size, his intelligence and really help anchor our defense from that back line,” Donovan said.
In four preseason games, at least, Adams is filling that role nicely.
During Adams’ 71 minutes on the floor this preseason, the Thunder outscored its opponents by 36 points, and by an average of 19.4 points per 100 possessions. Oklahoma City allowed 84.1 points per 100 possessions with Adams on the court in preseason and 94.9 in 67 minutes without him.
That’s indicative of a role that’s growing.
But in a way Adams’ job is easier, too.
The Thunder added experienced pieces to its starting lineup in Paul George and Carmelo Anthony, and Adams has found himself sharing the frontcourt with decisive, communicative defenders.
That’s a change from most of last season, when Adams started at center alongside a rookie in Domantas Sabonis who showed defensive promise, but for whom the game hadn’t slowed down.
Rookies, Adams said, often aren’t good communicators because by the time they realize they need help — or become aware a bone-crunching screen is coming — it’s too late to tell a teammate.
“The good thing with Melo — he’s getting old, mate,” Adams said. “Mostly the old guys are good at talking because they have to. They have to make up for their movement. It would suck if he didn’t talk and he didn’t move. He can talk, which is really good. It solves a lot of problems.”
Adams solves some, too, with the diversity in his defensive game.
“It makes it easier for myself and other guys out there on the court to know that we have an agile big like that, a very aggressive big,” Anthony said. “And we can play off of that, and we can be aggressive knowing that he has our backs, too.”
Adams’ job is hard — and getting harder by the year.
A self-described “large mass of molecules,” Adams said closing out to the 3-point line is “the hardest thing in basketball,” and it’s increasingly a part of a role that’s ever-expanding.
But Adams is a studious defender who’s long been effective and is “getting better and better with his awareness,” Donovan said, even as he takes on more responsibility.
“Study and repetition makes it instinctive,” Adams said. “It’s not like in a game I’m thinking, ‘OK, potentially they might ...’ You can’t think about it. There’s too much s*** in your head. You have to rely on instinct, and that all comes from having confidence from the buildup that you’ve had before.”
Oklahoma City’s Josh Huestis, left, and Steven Adams, center, defend against Melbourne’s Casey Prather in the fourth quarter of a preseason game on Sunday at Chesapeake Energy Arena.