NEW ORLEANS — Steven Adams never dreamed big.
Not this big.
Not NBA big.
“I never took an interest in the NBA,” he said. “I was so into rugby. That's all I grew up watching.”
Adams didn't even know about NBA All-Star Weekend until 2012, the year before his first and only season at the University of Pittsburgh. The only reason he decided to, as he put it, “look into it” was because “everyone was buzzing about it.”
Two years later, Adams has been pegged as a rising star in the league.
The Thunder rookie center made his All-Star debut Friday night in the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge, the first milestone in what could be a long and prosperous career.
“It's huge,” Adams said of his first appearance. “I can't really put it into words. It's kind of a different feeling, because you're representing all of Oklahoma City as well as New Zealand and yourself. So there's some sort of pressure to kind of make sure you make a good first impression for who you're representing.”
So far, Adams has handled himself just fine, making those in both his hometown and his host city proud.
Selected 12th overall, Adams has exceeded all expectations in his first NBA season and become a quality and consistent contributor on a championship contender. He's on pace to become only the sixth rookie since 1985 to average at least 14 minutes on a 60-win team.
Gary Neal with San Antonio in 2010 was the last to do it. Manu Ginóbili, Richard Dumas, Vlade Divac and A.C. Green also did it.
“It's a huge compliment to him and to the people that voted him and selected him to be here because the things that Steven does, they're little things throughout the game that don't necessarily always show up on the stat sheet,” said Thunder assistant and Team Webber coach Rex Kalamian. “So for him to be selected to play in this game, people see that he has value.”
Even if Adams didn't always see it.
“I didn't even know,” Adams said when asked when he realized he could make it to the NBA. “I just took a risk, I guess. I just thought I might as well try. And it turned out pretty well.”
As he stood alongside fellow rising stars, being peppered with question after question by media from Oklahoma City to Greece, Adams was asked if his inclusion in Friday's festivities gave him a better idea of what could be in store for his future.
“Not at all,” he said. “I had a dream about shooting a 3-pointer once. That would be pretty fun.”
While amusing, Adams' response actually reveals plenty about what's gotten him here.
He's as green as he is gregarious. But both traits have helped him to keep his head down and work ethic up. He doesn't know he's supposed to be this successful this soon.
“I had no expectations coming in,” Adams said. “I just literally took it day by day and whatever happened, happened. (Coaches) didn't say anything. I didn't say anything. I just kept working hard and doing whatever they said. It turned out well.”
Hard work is something Adams got from his family, particularly his father, who served in the Royal Navy.
“We grew up just doing work,” Adams said. “He made us do a lot of work.”
For the Adams family, it was normal. For other kids, it might have been too much.
“I guess that's where it's from because all my family is exactly the same,” Adams said. “They just like the manual labor kind of work.”
Being the youngest of 18 children also played a part. Chores, Adams said, routinely got passed down to him. Still do when he returns to New Zealand.
But that upbringing helped Adams join the Thunder with a strong workmanlike mentality already intact. It's helped him fit in on a team with title hopes and a locker room filled with some of the best talent in basketball.
“Honestly, it's having a good group around me with the Thunder,” Adams said when asked about his immediate success. “Obviously, I don't know anything about NBA basketball. So all I did was fully trusted and committed to them. Whatever they asked me to do I went and did and it seems to be working out pretty well.”
“All the veterans are really, really cool. There's no hidden agendas. They just want you to get better. They're all on the same boat. They try to get you better as fast as they can.”
Adams is doing his part, too.
“I think he's just trying his best to keep the game simple and not overthink it,” said Thunder guard Derek Fisher. “That's the toughest part as a first-year player. I think overall he's done a good job of it.”
Said Russell Westbrook, “He plays the game the right way, and I think when you do that stuff just flows for you.”
When Kalamian watches Adams, he sees all the makings of a player with a bright future.
“He has tremendous potential,” Kalamian said. “It's all based on his growth and how quickly he picks the game up from his position, the opportunity that he receives in terms of minutes and how hard he's going to work at it. A lot of that stuff is going to come from within. But he's a diligent young man and he works hard. He's got a good spirit about him and he wants to learn and grow.”