Steven Adams exactly the player, personality Oklahoma City Thunder need him to be

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BOSTON – Steven Adams arrived at Notre Dame Prep, as his first American coach put it, “with a guitar and a knapsack.”

Ryan Hurd, who coaches the Massachusetts basketball powerhouse, knew his team needed a center, and the highly touted Adams certainly was one. Otherwise, Hurd didn’t know what to expect from Adams, a mid-year transfer.

That uncertainty must have been multiplied for Adams, a native New Zealander who’d just moved to a new country and had a game against Nerlens Noel looming just a few days later.

On that first night at Notre Dame Prep, Adams was relaxing in the school’s game room with his new teammates, who, at the time, were really like strangers.

“I got challenged,” Adams said with a shrug, as if that explains what came next.

First, he won a game of ping pong, dazzling everyone with an array of spin serves. Then, he won in pool, banking in shots off multiple rails. Finally, he sat down on the couch, picked up his guitar and strummed “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Pressure to fit into a new and challenging environment? Hardly.

“I don’t think he understands it enough to care,” Hurd said. “…I think he has an ability to have fun in most situations, and he has an ability to entertain himself.

“I don’t see the grind of the NBA season wearing on him as bad as it might some other people.”

That’s an ideal skill, considering the 35-10 Thunder are on pace to place Adams – the No. 12 pick in the 2013 draft – in an uncharted intersection of competitive pressure and draft prestige.

Oklahoma City, with its Western Conference-best record, faces the glaring spotlight of a championship hunt. That does not make it easy to integrate Adams, who was a well-regarded prospect mostly due to his upside.

Most players drafted in the lottery can ease into a role on a team still finding its footing. That’s obviously not the case for Adams and the Thunder.

No rookie has been picked so high and been on a team so good since Paul Westphal was the No. 10 pick by the Boston Celtics in 1972 and then helped them to a 68-14 record as a rookie.

But the Celtics went 56-26, the NBA’s fourth-best record, the year prior and earned their No. 10 slot in a 13-pick first round.* The Thunder were too good to draft No. 12 themselves, netting the lottery selection in the James Harden trade.

*The NBA had 17 teams at the time, but four of them forfeited their first round picks to select in the 1971 hardship draft.

In modern draft history, Adams is unmatched.

Of course, teams on this level are judged not by regular-season record, but by championships. Darko Milicic was the No. 2 pick of the Detroit Pistons in 2003, and they won a championship his rookie year.

But Darko barely played. Adams is a rotation regular for the Oklahoma City, averaging 15.3 minutes per game and has played all 45 contests.

These aren’t just gifted minutes, either. The Thunder already had a starting center (Kendrick Perkins) and a backup center (Nick Collison).

“We have a good team. There’s some guys that don’t play on our team that probably have earned some minutes, but it’s hard to get minutes for everybody,” Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks said. “But Steven has done a great job. He’s active. He wants to get better. He studies the game with our coaches, and I see him improving as the years go on.”

Michael Carter-Williams, Trey Burke and Victor Oladipo have separated themselves from the pack in the Rookie of the Year race, but Adams leads first-year players with 2.0 win shares. Though that indicates the flaws of the statistic – Adams is seventh among rookies in the PER-based value added, a still respectable, but not elite, mark – it also points to Adams’ overlooked value.

He leads the Thunder in rebounding percentage (minimum: 50 minutes) and ranks second to Serge Ibaka in block percentage. But Adams’ most-elite skill is drawing fouls.

Of course, he’s been on the receiving end of more than his fair share of notable flagrant fouls this season.

From Nate Robinson:

And Vince Carter:

And Jordan Hamilton:

And Larry Sanders:

But Adams seems truly skilled at drawing even common fouls.

Only Dwight Howard, whom teams frequently foul intentionally, has played as much as Adams and has a higher free-throw-attempt rate.

And Adams is cashing in. After shooting 44 percent from the line at Pittsburgh last year, he’s making a reasonable 66 percent of his free throws this season.

Plus, on a team with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, getting into the bonus quicker is a huge asset. Try defending those superstars without a foul or two to give.

Adams’ basic numbers – 3.8 points and 4.6 rebounds in 15.3 minutes per game – are modest, but he’s proving to be an excellent fit with the Thunder.

That says as much about his unique demeanor – which has apparently remained unchanged since going pro – as his basketball skills.

Two years ago at Notre Dame Prep, Hurd quickly learned how Adams combines both attributes to ease into a new situation – no matter how high the stakes around him. In that first game against Nerlens Noel, Adams more than held his own:

“So that guy’s going to be a top-five pick?” Hurd said Adams asked him after the game.

“Yeah, I think so,” Hurd replied.

“Well, he needs a jump shot,” Adams said.

The Thunder are asking a lot from Adams, not in minutes or usage, but to make the transition from lottery pick to role player on a contender.

He might be just quirky enough, just brash enough and just good enough to deliver.

The strangest All-NBA ballot

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Remember those odd All-NBA votes? Dwyane Wade, Luke Doncic, Danilo Gallinari and Andre Drummond on the second team, Marvin Bagley III on the third team.

One voter – Kennegh Lau of BesTV, a Chinese outlet – is responsible all those. His ballot:

First team

G: Stephen Curry (Warriors)

G: James Harden (Rockets)

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks)

F: Kevin Durant (Warriors)

C: Joel Embiid (76ers)

Second team

G: Klay Thompson, Klay (Warriors)

G: Dwyane Wade (Heat)

F: Danilo Gallinari, Danilo (Clippers)

F: Luka Doncic, Luka (Mavericks)

C: Andre Drummond, Andre (Pistons)

Third team

G: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers)

G: Donovan Mitchell (Jazz)

F: Marvin Bagley III (Kings)

F: Pascal Siakam (Raptors)

C: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

A couple other standout All-NBA votes: Michelle Beadle of ESPN voted Eric Gordon third team at guard ahead of Kemba Walker, Bradley Beal, Klay Thompson, etc. Richard Walker of the Gaston Gazette voted Domantas Sabonis third-team forward ahead of LeBron James (who played more minutes than Sabonis!).

There are outlier votes for every award. You can dig through all the results here. Massimo Lopes Pegna of La Gazzetta Dello Sport (an Italian newspaper) apparently submitted his All-NBA team as his All-Defensive team (though it doesn’t exactly match his actual All-NBA team). Beyond that, these votes aren’t necessarily wrong. The consensus isn’t always right.

But All-NBA voting has taken heightened importance with its super-max connection. Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake. Ballots like Lau’s will increase scrutiny on the system.

That’s an overreaction. There are 100 voters so no single ballot carries too much importance. Again, it’s OK for someone to stray from the consensus.

It’d still be good to reconsider the salary incentives of All-NBA, though. The players who had the best regular seasons – my All-NBA criterion – aren’t necessarily the ones who deserve the highest salaries in years to come. It’s a flawed link, and that goes far beyond Lau’s ballot.

Magic Johnson ready to welcome D’Angelo Russell back to Lakers

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In 2017, then-Lakers president Magic Johnson traded D'Angelo Russell to the Nets and delivered a biting sendoff: “What I needed was a leader.”

Russell wasn’t ready to run a team on the court. His work ethic and maturity off it left plenty to be desired. Most infamously, he alienated his teammates by recording and posting a video of Nick Young discussing sleeping with women other than his fiancé.

But Russell went to Brooklyn and became an All-Star.

So, with rumors swirling about Russell returning to Los Angeles in free agency, Johnson is changing his tune.

Johnson, via Bill Oram of The Athletic:

“Now he’s ready,” Johnson said. “He’s much more mature. I said the only thing, he was immature back then. He could always score, but the guys would never play with him because of what he did (with the Young video). But now all those guys are gone and he’s on another level now.”

This is peak Johnson – talking about players on other teams (no longer tampering), spinning the story to make himself look good and directing the Lakers’ roster without having to take responsibility for it.

There is truth to what Johnson is saying here. Russell is more mature now. It would have been difficult to keep him in a locker room with teammates who didn’t trust him.

But Johnson is also the one who moved Russell rather than betting on his talent. With the right nurturing, Russell could have become a star in Los Angeles in the first place. The Lakers wouldn’t have to use all their cap room to sign him now. They could have already had him.

It’s a little disingenuous for Johnson to present this as him being right all along.

Magic GM John Hammond: ‘We have no idea’ when Markelle Fultz will play

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Markelle Fultz has played just 33 games, the most recent one in November, since the 76ers drafted him No. 1 overall in 2017. Philadelphia traded him to the Magic in February, and he didn’t play at all for Orlando last season.

When will Fultz return?

Magic general manager John Hammond on 96.9 The Game:

He will not play in summer league with us. We didn’t think there was any way that he was going to do that. We didn’t plan on him doing that. So, probably not the place for him right now.

But overall, I can just say that he’s doing well.

He’s working extremely hard. He’s in good shape. His weight is good. His overall body-fat percentage is very good. So, if you look at him, you say, “Wow, he looks great.” So, it’s just a matter of him just continuing to get more comfortable, continuing for him to get himself in a position where he’s ready to step on the floor and help us.

And look, we have no idea when that’s going to be. We’re hoping much, much sooner than later. But once again, we’re trying to do this the best we can, and that’s have that word of patience.

We want to have patience with him and get him ready and put him on the court when he can be most productive.

Patience is probably the right approach, because I don’t know an alternative. But I’m also not sure where patience gets anyone.

Fultz’s issues run so deep. It doesn’t appear time is solving anything. Does Fultz have a long-term injury that’s actually healing? Does he have a mental block that’s actually being addressed? It’d be nice to see some signs of progress.

Unfortunately, that won’t happen in summer league. The next opportunity for Fultz to publicly display his ability will likely be training camp.

But the way this has gone, I have no expectations of Fultz being ready for that, either.

Bradley Beal: Wizards told me they won’t trade me

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The Wizards don’t have a long-term general manager.

They do have a plan for Bradley Beal.

Washington coach Scott Brooks, acting general manager Tommy Sheppard and owner Ted Leonsis have each conveyed it to the star guard.

Ben Golliver of The Washington Post:

Beal said that Leonsis, Sheppard and Coach Scott Brooks have each independently told him in recent weeks that he would not be moved.

“They’ve been very transparent and that’s been great,” Beal said. “They’re not keeping me in the dark about anything, even about the trade rumors. . . . It’s great having that peace of mind.”

Leonsis is the most important deliverer of that news. He’s the only one guaranteed to last into a new front-office regime.

But Leonsis also said last January the Wizards wouldn’t trade Otto Porter. They dealt him to the Bulls a week later.

These declarations are obviously non-binding, and Leonsis doesn’t have a great track record of sticking by his word. The owner might say John Wall aggravating his injury changed Washington’s outlook. But that’s the point. Situations change.

What happens if the Wizards are one of the NBA’s worst teams next season? That’s quite possible given their roster/cap outlook entering free agency. Would they keep Beal through a year of his prime even if playoff-bound teams are making lucrative trade offers?

And what if Beal reaches the final season of his contract? Would Washington keep him and just hope for the best in unrestricted free agency?

How long does this no-trade pledge last?

The Wizards reportedly plan to offer Beal the largest extension possible this summer. That’d be worth $111,786,897 over three years.

That’s also way less than he could get by playing out the final two years of his contract and hitting 2021 free agency. Especially if he makes an All-NBA team in 2020-21, which would make him super-max eligible. Or he could make an All-NBA team next season that would make him eligible for a super-max extension, which would be worth the same as a new super-max contract as a free agent.

Beal’s projected max contracts:

  • Extension in 2019: $111,786,897 over three years ($35,134,668 per year)
  • Super-max extension in 2020: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Re-sign regular-max in 2021: $214 million over five years ($43 million per year)
  • Re-sign super-max in 2021: $250 million over five years ($50 million per year)
  • Leave in 2021: $159 million over four years ($40 million per year)

So, Beal will likely reject an extension this summer and wait until he makes an All-NBA team or his contract expires, whichever comes first. That’d at least be the financially prudent path.

In the meantime, he can know the Wizards say they won’t trade him – however far that assurance goes.