Less than a year ago, during the early stages of his freshman season at Pittsburgh, Steven Adams showed flashes of his seething potential, but looked a bit lost when faced with stiffer competition and a bigger stage.
In his first two games against ranked opponents — a mid-November loss to Michigan and a late December loss to Cincinnati, both on national television — Adams played a combined 34 minutes. He committed six fouls. He scored zero points. And scouts noticed.
“At the start of the season, it was a horror show,” ESPN analyst Chad Ford told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette during a pre-Draft interview about Adams. “It looked like he had never played organized basketball before. The first time I scouted him, I remember I wrote down in my notes: Years away, come back and check on him as a junior.”
Ten months later, the one-time project is, well, still correctly labeled as an ongoing project. But instead of preparing for his sophomore season at Pitt, the New Zealand native is in his first training camp with the Oklahoma City Thunder, viewed by many as the team's future at the center position.
His sudden ascension from there to here is mostly related to substantial developments through the latter half of last season, which included a double-double in his only career NCAA Tournament game.
“I caught him in a Big East game at the end of the season, and he was a better player,” Ford told the Gazette. “By the Big East tournament, I was seeing what scouts were seeing when he was in high school.”
But from a pure basketball standpoint, Adams' biggest period of growth may have come in the past few months, starting the day after he was selected as the 12th overall pick.
With the sport now his profession, Adams immediately began daily workouts in OKC with a coaching staff known for its development of young talent.
“I feel like I've grown a lot,” Adams said. “Like quite a bit. Big thanks to the coaches here.”
And through two preseason games, the results couldn't have been much more encouraging.
Adams played a combined 32 minutes during the Thunder's recent overseas trip, compiling 13 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks.
Those numbers certainly aren't eye-popping, but his constant activity and general court awareness jumped off the screen.
Most notably, he made a couple of sly backdoor cuts, smoothly gathering and finishing a pair of quick passes that have commonly ricocheted off the hands of Thunder centers in the past.
“He's so hungry, and he's so eager to get better that I guess you could say we (foresaw) him doing well,” point guard Reggie Jackson said, before admitting, “Maybe not this well, but he picks up things quickly.”
The learning curve remains steep for the 20-year-old, particularly on defense, where his youthful energy was on full display in the first two exhibition games (eight fouls in 32 minutes).
“Once I'm in the game, it's going very, very fast for me,” Adams said, when referring to the Thunder's complicated defensive coverages. “There's so much to think about. So I just kind of have to slow myself down and work on the defensive stuff before everything else.”
But the physical tools, at 7-feet, 255 pounds, are already there. And the offensive skills seem to be further along than most expected.
So a guy who once seemed ticketed for an extended stay in Tulsa has suddenly become an intriguing option for the Thunder's immediate rotation.
Time will tell and history would suggest otherwise, with Scott Brooks showing a usual reluctance to play young guys over known veteran commodities.
Kendrick Perkins is the entrenched starter. Hasheem Thabeet is the returning backup. But Adams, already viewed as the future, could be making a push for a rotation spot in the present.
“It takes some time,” Brooks said, trying to tamper expectations. “He has to understand what we do on both ends of the floor. The game always seems to be faster for younger players. But I think what he's done the last 10 days is good to see. It's fun to see his enthusiasm, his excitement for the game.”