It didn’t even take three full seasons in the NBA for Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo to shred the “work in the progress” status from his bio. At the young age of 22 years old, the former Kentucky Wildcat is on the brink of building an All-Star résume.
In the early stages of his third year in the Association, Adebayo has taken his game to levels that far exceeded the lofty expectations that were placed upon him when he was drafted with the 14th overall pick back in 2017. He was quickly viewed as the “heir” to the starting center position that had long belonged to Hassan Whiteside, quickly forcing the Miami front office into an issue: Adebayo clearly needed more minutes; Whiteside needed a new home.
The result has paid massive dividends a quarter of the way through Adebayo’s newfound role as the Heat centerpiece. Whiteside was shipped to Portland with Adebayo sliding in as his replacement.
Alongside four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, Adebayo has taken advantage of starters minutes, boosting his numbers into obscene percentiles amongst the NBA elites.
Adebayo is shooting a higher percentage on more shot attempts than a year ago; he’s one of just 13 qualified NBA players averaging a double-double; he ranks above the 90th percentile as a passing big man; he’s already a legitimate Defensive Player of the Year candidate.
Adebayo isn’t just a one-trick pony – he never has been. He influences the game in all areas of the floor on both sides of the court. If Miami needs a big rebound, Adebayo reaches towards the rafters to pull it in. If Miami needs a defensive stop, Adebayo can switch onto any size point guard no matter how quick or agile they might be.
This isn’t hyperbole, Adebayo is one of the most versatile players – not just centers – in the entire NBA.
During his 2019-20 campaign, Adebayo is posting figures of 14.6 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game in 23 outings while shooting a career-high 57.9 percent from the field. The shortlist of NBA players currently averaging at least four assists, one steal, and one block per game consists of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Karl-Anthony Towns, Al Horford, and Adebayo.
That’s quite the list.
Playmaking has become second nature for Bam. He preys on defenders when he has the ball in his hands above the paint, constantly surveying the floor from the baseline to the top of the key, searching for any sliver of space that he can sneak a bounce pass through. His 19.6 percent assist rate ranks in the 96th percentile among all NBA bigs. Especially working out of the pick-and-roll, Adebayo has a knack for slipping passes downhill for easy layups or mid-range pull-ups. He generates 1.23 points per possessions as the roll man, a well-above-average mark.
And if he isn’t initiating the pass himself, he’s working to receive one.
One of my favorite aspects of watching Adebayo is how he probes and waits for openings before he attacks. He uses his size and wide hips to keep smaller guards from fighting around him in the pick-and-roll, freeing up his teammates with just enough space for the two to work some magic. His tall stature allows him to see over defenses and manipulate them from there.
Adebayo ranks second in the NBA in elbow touches per game at 7.3. Only Nikola Jokic – commonly referred to as the best passing big man in the league – averages more at 8.4 elbow touches per game, yet the Nuggets big man posts an assist rate of just 17.6 percent compared to over 23 percent for Adebayo.
Sometimes Adebayo will delay the handoff out of the pick-and-roll, opting for a “pitch” pass which he’ll then immediately follow with a beeline for the rim. His gravity as a roller draws flat-footed centers away from the ball, allowing the Miami guards more space to attack the basket. If defenders foolishly back off Adebayo to double the ball, he’s a lob-threat waiting to happen. Adebayo is connecting on 72 percent of his shots at the rim.
Thread: Bam Adebayo’s continually developing playmaking has been a delight to watch. Particularly noteworthy is how he’s able to find cutters in various ways — from the elbows, from the post, after his own drives, etc. Here’s just a sampling from recent Heat games: pic.twitter.com/Lr1A4vyc0x
— Positive Residual (@presidual) December 5, 2019
These aren’t just simple passes, either. Adebayo throws in head fakes, ball fakes, anything that can cause a defender to hesitate for even half-a-second. He makes the defense react before he does.
Even if the defense manages to slow him down, Adebayo is too big to avoid fouling. Adebayo draws fouls at a rate that only a few big men in the NBA can match. His free throw shooting has dipped this season (65.9 percent compared to 73.5 a year ago) but he’s taking twice as many attempts at the charity stripe than he has in his first two seasons.
When it comes to grabbing loose balls, Adebayo is always in the mix. He ranks in the mid-80th percentile in terms of defensive rebounding amongst NBA bigs. He also belongs in the top-15 in both offensive and defensive rebounding. His 242 total rebounds are 10th most by any player this season.
All of those facets of his game are nice and they help round him out as a unique NBA big man. But there are plenty of forwards and centers who can pass like a guard or rebound at a high-level or guard multiple positions of the floor. But there are few – if any – that can do them all. Adebayo’s defense is what separates him from the pack. We aren’t talking about him just making an All-Defensive team, we’re talking about him being the best defender in the whole damn league.
Consider some of these stats real quick.
Opponents are scoring 5.1 fewer points per 100 possessions when Adebayo is on the floor for the Heat. But even more impressive is his pure presence in the paint; opposing teams are taking fewer shots at the rim when he’s in the game. Miami allows eight percent fewer shots near the bucket with the starting center controlling the paint. That’s the top figure in the entire league. Teams aren’t even trying to go at Adebayo anymore and he does everything possible to make sure they can’t.
Even when he gets switched out on guards, Adebayo’s recovery time is frightening to watch. 6-foot-9, 255-pound giants aren’t supposed to move with the quickness and grace that Adebayo does. If you think you have him beat, it takes him one step to get back while it takes others two or three. Adebayo is never off balance. Watch how much of the court he covers against Marc Gasol and then Kyle Lowry in the clip below.
In case you needed to add another clip to the Bam Adebayo for DPOY folder, here's his work against Lowry. pic.twitter.com/het6j1wcz6
— THE Jasmine Watkins Fan Acct. (@NekiasNBA) December 4, 2019
This isn’t normal. Lowry would have a mismatch against any other center in the NBA outside of maybe Anthony Davis. Adebayo hounds him all the way to the rim for a tough missed layup late in the fourth quarter. Miami wants teams to switch onto Adebayo.
Miami boasts one of the top-10 defenses in the league and Adebayo is the overwhelming reason why. The Heat’s most efficient lineup consists of Adebayo next to the sharpshooting Meyers Leonard down low, joined by Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, and Butler. Those five have played a total of 418 possessions together this season – easily the most used five-man lineup by Miami – and post an unreal defensive rating of 92.6 (those five also post an offensive rating of 108.6, making for a point differential of +16.0). The top defense in the league at the moment, the Milwaukee Bucks, sport a defensive rating of 101.1.
The Heat has won five of its last six games, including two overtime wins against the Bulls and Raptors. The franchise’s 17-6 record is fourth-best in the NBA and they don’t show any signs of slowing down. They are a threat in the Eastern Conference to make a deep playoff run. Miami is seriously good. Butler might be the engine, but Adebayo is what powers it.
He’ll be receiving plenty of All-Star votes once the polls open up to the public. Jump on the hype train now before it fills up.