Every minute Steven Adams now plays as a starter will be like three coming off the bench.
That’s how Thunder coach Scott Brooks explained the value of his backup center now being thrust into emergency fill-in duty for injured starter Kendrick Perkins.
Adams, in essence, will now get triple the experience for up to six weeks as Perkins recovers from surgery on his left groin, an injury he sustained early in the third quarter of last Thursday’s game against Miami.
“He’s playing against high-level, first-string players (now),” Brooks said of Adams. “And I think game-by-game he’s going to continue to develop and grow as a player that we are excited about.”
There are things Perkins does well that the Thunder knows Adams, simply because of his inexperience, isn’t ready to supply.
Strong positional defense and satisfactory signal-calling on that end are the most pivotal.
“That’s the biggest thing is trying to replace that familiarity and the communication,” said Nick Collison.
But the Thunder also knows Adams’ natural gifts should give him a chance for success.
“I think his athleticism, and we know that he’s a tough competitor, that’s going to continue to get us by,” Brooks said.
Adams understands he has a lot to learn. But when he looks at how far he’s come since November, he’s satisfied with his development and sounds ready for a stiffer challenge.
“For me, it’s gone up quite a bit, especially on the defensive end,” Adams said of his understanding of the game. “That’s all I’m working on and I’m getting a lot more comfortable at noticing stuff before it happens whereas at the start of the season they’d be doing it right in front of me and I’d be like, ‘What is that?’ I mean, I still got a long way to go but in terms of progress I’m doing really well.”
Since the preseason, Adams has shown his ability to rebound, run the floor and use his energy to win loose balls and get hustle points. But as a starter, the Thunder now needs him to do that and more.
In addition to needing to communicate better and be in the right positions at the right time, Adams must quickly improve his pick-and-roll defense and passing skills from the high post while also cutting down his fouling. He also will have to be a solid screen-setter so that Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook continue to get open shot opportunities. And when needed, he’ll have to make himself available to them around the basket by being ready when passes come his way.
Most of those things didn’t matter as much before. Adams was playing limited minutes while coming off the bench as part of a second unit that played a different style than the starters.
But now, many of those little things that few noticed Perkins providing could become big things if Adams is unable to figure them out.
“I think he’ll do a great job,” Collison said. “And I think with the minutes and the comfort level we’ll see him play a lot better. It’s tough to adjust to playing in the NBA, and it’s also tough to play with five minutes here, six minutes there. I think the extra time will help him.”
Rebounding is an area that Collison said Adams should be even better in due to additional minutes leading to more confidence. And that’s scary considering Adams averages 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes, with nearly half of those coming on the offensive end.
“There’s a lot of balls that go off his hands that he’ll be able to snag with just that little bit more comfort level,” Collison said.
With Perkins sidelined, Adams will get ample opportunity to get comfortable.
And for a rookie who is clearly the future at the position, Adams being thrown into the fire for what could be a 20-game trial run might be a blessing in disguise.
“This is his first year. He’s learning just like everybody else had to learn,” said Westbrook. “Now he’s got put into the position where he has to communicate and has to talk so he’s going to learn.”
But the Thunder isn’t putting any additional pressure on the rookie.
Brooks said this stretch isn’t about Adams stepping up. It’s about the team doing it together.
“Even though we know we will miss Perk while he is out,” Brooks said, “we have a lot of pride in what we do…and we’re going to keep getting better.”