Opinion: Steven Adams - the NBA rise of a Kiwi icon

OPINION: Oklahoma City Thunder fans entered the 2017/18 NBA season with a renewed sense of optimism.

Life after Kevin Durant had entered another stage with the acquisition of All-Star guard Paul George and future Hall-of-Famer Carmelo Anthony.

Alongside reigning MVP Russell Westbrook, it was a trio touted as the latest iteration of the 'Big Three'.

What's become clear in the months since - and even more so following their first-round exit at the hands of the Utah Jazz last weekend – is that Steven Adams also deserves his a spot on the team billboard.

The Kiwi centre was defiant in the series' decisive Game Six in Utah, but ultimately his 19-point, 16-board gem wasn't enough to swing the tide against the Jazz, their rookie juggernaut Donovan Mitchell and impending Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert, who had his opposite's measure throughout.

While the ignominy of a first-round defeat is far removed from the promise that accompanied both George and Anthony's arrivals at Cheasapeake Arena, the evolution of the kid from the wrong side of the Rotorua tracks into one of the NBA's best big men has been the season's gleaming silver-lining.

The Kiwi has been the Thunder's second-most important cog, one of its most consistent players, and the type of competitor that has stars across the league eyeing him with equal parts envy and respect.

Opinion: Steven Adams - the NBA rise of a Kiwi icon
Photo credit: Getty Images

In a league that has long been trending beyond the arc, Adams' throwback style of play at the centre position has proved that you don’t need your big man to shoot threes to be successful.

In a sense, his play has been a renaissance, an anomaly that has reinforced the value of the good old-fashioned, hard-nosed centre, the likes of which have scarcely been seen since the New York Knicks of the mid-90s.

The steel-groined colossus is the kind of on-court enforcer every player wants on his team and his combination with point-guard phenomenon Westbrook has been the cornerstone of the Thunder play this season.

He's progressed to a level where he's now regarded as one of the NBA's premier exponents of the pick 'n' roll, an age-old basketball play that involves a two-man game to help free either player and set-up a scoring play for the other.

Adams has provided the bedrock for the furious, often manic, approach of Westbrook, setting countless immovable screens to clear the runway for the whirlwind's assaults on the rim.

On the flip side of the play, which sees Adams with the ball in his hands, a lethal 8-10 foot floater has seen him develop into one of the NBA's best mid-range scorers. Coupled with his elite ability to finish at the rim, this makes for a formidable presence in the paint and a headache for opposition coaches.

It's typical of the type of trench work on which Adams has laid his ever-growing reputation – and is no better exemplified than his work on the glass in 2017/18.

<<enter caption here>> at Pepsi Center on October 10, 2017 in Denver, Colorado.
Photo credit: Getty Images

His average of nine rebounds a game is eye-catching enough on its own and good enough to see him ranked in the league's top 20.

But it's the offensive boards where he's made his biggest impact, increasing his average by a startling 1.5 rebounds per game from the season before to establish himself as the NBA's best in that category.  

That's right - the best in the NBA.

Those boards have created countless second-chance scoring opportunities for his team, his seven-foot frame boxing out opposition forwards with the kind of rock-steady foundations that would make the ancient Romans jealous.

"It just feels like we can take any shot we want, knowing Steve's going to go get it," said teammate Paul George of Adam's prowess on the offensive boards.

"I don't think no one man can stop Steve in the paint," added Carmelo Anthony.

His season's field-goal percentage finished at a gaudy 63.1, which puts Adams fourth among all players.

It speaks to an efficiency that is the underlying key to his value. Very rarely does coach Billy Donovan run an offensive play for Adams to get a look at the basket - he simply knows his role and makes its mastery his sole focus.

That said, Adams has had plenty of game-changing, gargantuan box-score moments. The 25-point, 10-rebound masterpiece on 12-of-13 shooting to spearhead a demolition of LeBron James' Cavaliers.

A 24-point and 12-rebound torching of Miami. Twenty-eight double-doubles through his 76 starts, up 12 on the season prior.

Commentary crews even set a new benchmark for the number of mentions of his 17 siblings and that one who's an Olympic champion, of course.

And we can't overlook the long-awaited admission that he looks like "old mate" from Game of Thrones.

Combined with this slew of career-best numbers across the statistical gamut, Adams has propelled himself into the conversation of the NBA's best defenders at the centre position, one of very few frontliners capable of venturing outside of the paint to lockdown opposition guards.

Opinion: Steven Adams - the NBA rise of a Kiwi icon
Photo credit: Getty Images

Adams is now prominent in scouting reports, feared by opposition and revered by teammates. ESPN analysts named him one of the top-25 players in the NBA under 25-years-old.

History shows that players at the centre position don’t reach peak until a relatively late age. At just 24, he's still years away from hitting his prime.

Many of his fans took exception with what they deemed Adams' "snub" from this season's annual All-Star Game. The fact is, in a stacked Western Conference, his chances of edging out another forward (there are no dedicated centre spots anymore) were very slim.  

He didn't deserve it, but he'll get there eventually.

Away from the court, he's seen his popularity among fans and media soar, all behind that quintessentially Kiwi nature. Adams puts on no airs, pulls no punches – it's pure, unfiltered honesty, and more 'bro's and 'mate's than a mid-summer's BBQ at Mangawhai.

While his teammates arrive at games adorned in the most audacious designer garbs, Adams saunters in wearing camouflaged hunting gear. While other players' social media accounts are filled with the trappings of wealth and assorted rappers, Adams is at home, posting selfies of his Xbox exploits on video game du jour 'Fortnite'.

He doesn’t have any party-fuelled post-season holiday plans to unwind, just a trip to his beloved Japan to indulge his love of anime.

His appeal has reached the point where it's transcended sports and he's been embraced by New Zealanders nationwide, his charisma and down-to-earth appeal sparing him (so far) from that age-old NZ tradition of tall-poppy chopping.

Head to any summer festival and you'll see as many Adams jerseys stumbling about as you would the 'James' and 'Curry' staples, as he quickly transforms casual basketball observers into bona fide members of the Thunder faithful.

Five years into his career, Adams has become a genuine Kiwi icon. Not only is he on another stratosphere in terms of highest-earners (by way of a four-year, NZ$140m extension in 2016), he's also become the most famous and recognisable NZ athlete on the planet.

He's no longer a cult hero, he's just a hero.

But while Adams' star continues to grow, his team now finds itself on the brink of a dicey transition period.

George, who's been vocal regarding his desire to return to his native Los Angeles, is unlikely to recommit to the franchise.  Meanwhile, Anthony, whose ability to the play the game of basketball seems to have evaporated, has the kind of contract and self-inflated ego that could cripple the team for years. 

They may even find themselves with a new head coach, as Billy Donovan's unimaginative offence, questionable player rotations and back-to-back first-round playoff exits have put his head in the vicinity of the chopping block. 

Too many two-pass possessions and far too much Westbrook "hero ball".

Russell Westbrook with Steven Adams.
Russell Westbrook with Steven Adams. Photo credit: Getty Images

And for all of Westbrook's transcendent talent, how far can a team really go led by someone so number-hungry and, at times, plain selfish? Don’t be blinded by the eye-catching statistics.

It's high time Adams became more of a focal point on the offensive end of the court. Give him more post-up opportunities, perhaps even let him pop for a mid-range baseline jump shot.

He's more than capable of hitting a 15-footer and Adams drains three-pointers with regularity in practice.

"I work on everything every summer," he laughed during his exit interview. "I’m comfortable shooting it. I mean, the tough part is just making them, you know?" 

Whatever transpires in the off-season, you can be sure he'll bring with him another tool to training camp come September.

For NBA tragics across Aotearoa, the day Adams was drafted represented a monumental, if measured, serving of hope and expectations, and he's already managed to surpass them all.

In short, he's a genuine force in one of the planet's most popular sports leagues and he's still a considerable distance from his ceiling.

Don't call 2017/018 a breakthrough - he's been improving for years.

And his best is yet to come.

All statistics courtesy of basketball-reference.com


Stephen Foote is a digital sports producer for Newshub.