The biggest move of the 2019 offseason for the Miami Heat was trading for Jimmy Butler. He was the star that locked everything into place and established the team’s floor as a probable playoff squad. But the Heat — currently tied with the Celtics for third in the Eastern Conference — could not have raised their ceiling quite as high this season without executing another part of that same trade: sending former starting center Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers in exchange for Meyers Leonard, elevating third-year big man Bam Adebayo into the starting lineup.
Newly minted as an All-Star, Adebayo has become everything you want a modern center to be. He is both willing to do the dirty work and capable of doing much more than that. He’s a strong screener, passer and finisher, and an incredibly active defender. That combination of skills has made him wildly productive: Adebayo is one of just two players averaging at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, one steal and one block per game this season. The other is reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.1 Pretty decent company to keep.
For Adebayo, everything stems from his uncommon athleticism for a player his size. Listed at 6-foot-9 and 255 pounds, Adebayo has a 7-foot-2¾-inch wingspan and a 9-foot standing reach. He did 15 reps on the bench press at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine while also posting a 38.5-inch max vertical leap. Mix in his performance in other drills like the shuttle run, lane agility drill and three-quarter court sprint, and Adebayo registers a bSPARQ rating2 of 103.81, placing him in the 97th percentile among all bigs who have participated in the combine since 2000.
That athleticism manifests itself in a variety of ways, but it does so most often when Adebayo is tasked with defending large swaths of space. He’s not a Rudy Gobert-type big man who can plant himself in or around the lane and just declare the rim a no-fly zone. In fact, his rim-protection numbers actually fall pretty far short of the Gobert types. Adebayo ranks just 50th in the league in shots defended at the rim, contesting just 4.4 per game, according to Second Spectrum data on NBA.com. And among the 69 players challenging at least four such shots per game, Adebayo’s 61.8 percent conversion rate allowed ranks a disappointing 54th.
But what he lacks in the verticality department, Bam makes up for with a combination of agility and lateral mobility that would make almost any big man in the NBA jealous. He has remarkably quick feet and arms that could best be described as uber-long. All of those traits working in concert allow him to defend just about anybody, no matter their position.
The Heat take advantage of that, asking Adebayo to switch more often than just about any center in the game. Only one center3 in the league has switched into a one-on-one matchup with a guard more often than Adebayo, according to Second Spectrum. He has also rewarded the team for its faith in his abilities. Among the 25 centers who have defended guards on at least 20 isolation plays this season, Adebayo ranks fourth in points allowed per possession. He can stay in front of players who are quick off the bounce more often than not, but even when he gets beat, he has great recovery speed and the ability to get off the ground incredibly quickly to block or alter a shot.
His abilities as a space-eater extend to the pick and roll as well. He’s one of just 20 players leaguewide who have defended the screener in at least 1,000 pick and rolls this season, per Second Spectrum data. Among the wider group of 122 players who have defended the screener at least 250 times, the 1.048 points per possession Miami has allowed when Bam defends the screener ranks 31st, or in the 76th percentile.
Being able to switch and handle himself when defending pick and rolls helps Adebayo — and, by extension, the Heat — shut down opposing drivers before they really gather a head of steam toward the rim. So, while he may not challenge as many shots at the basket as some of his center brethren, some of that stems from the fact that opponents just don’t take quite as many of those shots when he’s in the game. The Heat allow a lesser share of opponent shot attempts to come from inside the restricted area and the paint with Adebayo on the floor than off it, while also forcing midrange attempts at a greater rate when he is in the game.
|Opponent shot attempts||With Bam||W/out Bam|
|In restricted area||23.1%||25.1%|
|In the paint||43.7||45.5|
Those edges seem small, but they make a sizable difference in Miami’s teamwide defensive numbers: The Heat have allowed 1.164 points per possession on plays that include an opponent driving to the rim with Adebayo out of the game compared with only 1.078 points per possession with him in the game. That might not seem like an enormous differential, but it’s the equivalent of turning an opponent with the league’s eighth-most efficient offense off the drive into the sixth-least efficient.
He has a similar effect on the other end of the floor, even while not using all that many possessions for himself. Adebayo is the Heat’s most frequent screener both on and off the ball, and he acts as a connector piece for a lot of their second-side action, executing dribble and fake handoffs as well as pick and rolls in rapid succession, sometimes multiple times on the same trip down the floor.
He’s the only player in the league who has executed at least 50 dribble handoffs with five different teammates,4 per Second Spectrum, and most of those combinations are pretty successful when it comes to generating points. He’s developed particularly good chemistry with Duncan Robinson on these plays. Some are designed by Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, but on others, the duo will freelance their way into a rapid series of handoffs, fakes and slips until somebody pops open. And on occasion, Robinson will just hunt the ball while Adebayo has it in the open floor, hoping to get a handoff for an open 3-point look.
While the handoffs serve as a useful conduit for Miami’s side-to-side ball movement and help players like Robinson gather a head of steam as they come around the corner, they’re not the only area in which Adebayo has displayed chemistry with multiple teammates. He’s set the third-most off-ball screens in the NBA this season and is one of only five players to set at least 100 of them for at least four different teammates. Three of those four rank in the top third in points per possession on plays involving a handoff from Adebayo, per Second Spectrum. He has also set the ninth-most screens in the pick and roll this year and is one of just seven screeners who has run 250-plus pick and rolls with three or more partners.
|Teammate||Dribble handoff||Off-ball screens||Pick and roll|
Pick and rolls involving Adebayo have not been as profitable on a per-possession basis as dribble handoffs and off-ball screens, but he has excelled in one particular area that is quite important: passing the ball to a teammate after catching it on the roll. According to Second Spectrum, only four players have thrown more such passes than Adebayo this season, and he is one of just nine players who have created at least 25 baskets or shooting fouls with those dishes.
Lots of guys can see the pass right in front of them in this situation: the corner kick or the dump-off to the big man in the dunker spot when you’re coming downhill. Not as many can see the pass to the guy behind them or on the opposite side of the floor; and even fewer can see the passing lane that will open only if you put the ball on the deck and draw help into the middle, creating a crease that wasn’t there when you received the pass. Bam can do it all.
That specific skill has helped turn Adebayo into one of the league’s best overall passing big men. He ranks second among centers in both assists and potential assists per game, behind only Nikola Jokić. And he’s the only center in the league whose passes have turned into assists more than 10 percent of the time, per Second Spectrum. As he’s gotten more and more comfortable with each of these types of actions, he has also become better at finishing them with each passing season: His shooting numbers from 0 to 3 feet, 3 to 10 feet and 10 to 16 feet have gone up each year, per Basketball-Reference.com.
It’s more difficult than ever for centers to become true stars these days, simply because the job description of a modern center is so narrowly defined. All that most teams need from a center is rim protection and solid screens. Doing a few important things really well is a good way to make yourself a useful role player in the NBA, and a lot of teams are content with that at center. But the teams that can get more out of that spot benefit greatly. Bam can set screens, eat up space, keep the ball moving, grab it off the glass and he can do it all at an extremely high level, with relative ease. The Heat reap the benefits, because doing a bunch of really important things really well is a pretty good way to turn yourself into a star.
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