Sam Presti has to nail this pick. It’s the 2013 NBA draft, and the Oklahoma City Thunder are on the clock with the 12th pick. This pick is one of the two first-rounders (and the only one without top-20 protection) the Thunder received from the much-maligned James Harden trade, from which the Thunder also received Kevin Martin – who will soon depart for Minnesota after just one season in Oklahoma City – and Jeremy Lamb, practically invisible in his rookie year. Presti’s always been one to preach patience – process over results might as well be the company motto, and the motto for all who hail from the Spurs’ factory of executives – but when you trade away a beloved player and end up losing in the second round of the playoffs (a worse finish than the year before), patience is wears thin awfully fast.
Unfortunately for Presti, this is considered one of the weakest drafts in the past decade. By the time the 12th pick rolls around, most of the supposed immediate-impact players are gone, and all that’s left are projects or reaches – among them, Steven Adams, whose name David Stern calls from the podium. It’s become somewhat of a typical pick for the Thunder, as Adams is a high-risk, high-reward prospect who underwhelmed during his one year at Pittsburgh yet has all the tools to be valuable player – he just needs a few years of development.
One month later, in the Orlando Magic’s pristine practice gym, Steven Adams is outplaying many of his higher-picked peers. While Jazz rookie Trey Burke struggles to orchestrate the pick and roll, Adams excels at blowing it up. Michael Carter-Williams shies away from contact, Adams feeds off it. It’s as if his lone year at Pittsburgh was a figment of the imagination. Gone is the stiff, raw freshman and in his place is a player displaying uncanny defensive instincts and timing. Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb are the stars in Orlando, but Adams is the revelation.
Of course, this is Summer League, and the list of Summer League performances that failed to translate in the regular season is as long as Giannis Antetokounmpo’s middle finger — lest we forget the lessons taught by Jerryd Bayless, Anthony Randolph and Marcus Banks.
Once Adams faced real, NBA-caliber competition, his effectiveness and production would crash down to rookie levels, if he was lucky enough to even see the court, or so the story was supposed to go.
Yet come the regular season and even into the playoffs, Adams seemed unfazed by the higher competition. A common refrain among rookies is that adapting to the physicality of the NBA is one of the toughest first-year adjustments. It’s often the reason we see players who dominated in college out of sheer strength struggle to do much of anything in their first season. For Adams, who relishes contact and physical play, there was no such obstacle.
“He knows who he is,” Hubie Brown said of Stevens during Game 3, and this is the reason why Adams has been able to contribute to the Thunder while his fellow lottery picks languish on the bench. Adams never had to suffer the identity crisis so many rookies face their first year. The players that explode during Summer League, when they return to their full team, no longer find themselves with the offensive freedom and lack of defense once abundant a few months prior. It was to Adams’ benefit that he was never featured in Summer League, but rather asked to play the exact role he would in the regular season. Adams never had to figure out when to look for his own shot and when to defer to his more senior teammates, because from the moment he became a part of the Thunder, that was never going to even enter into his character. Who he is, for the moment, is rebounds, defense, toughness, a pest in the post and an invulnerable face. He’s still raw, still developing, but he’s well enough along to fill a role the Thunder need.
The postseason is rarely a time for rookies (Pero Antic was key to the Hawks’ near-upset of the Indiana Pacers, yet he is hardly a rookie by any conventional definition). Even the most talented rookies, those lottery picks deemed ready to contribute immediately, are relegated towel-waving and high-fiving. CJ McCollum and Otto Porter have seen minuscule minutes, while Cody Zeller was hopeless against the Heat. In fact, of all the 2013 lottery picks, only Steven Adams, the unlikeliest of rookie contributors, is making an impact on his team’s championship march.