With a game that transcends categorization and convention, Bam Adebayo is carving out a niche as one of the best big men in the NBA.
Alvin Gentry did not want to talk about Bam Adebayo. The Pelicans head coach didn’t brush off the question, didn’t act put upon in any way. But when asked about the challenge of his injury-racked team trying to defend Adebayo, Gentry smiled, looked around at the wall of reporters in front of him, and said, “Well…I think we should be talking about Kendrick Nunn,” before easing into a chuckle.
He waxed poetic on Nunn’s improbable journey as an undrafted player to becoming one of Miami’s best scorers, before remembering the original question and offering some niceties about Adebayo. Then he continued talking about the Heat rookie’s shooting proficiency.
After the general scrum disbanded, Gentry walked back toward the visiting locker room. I stopped him for a minute, still looking for that answer on Adebayo. “Don’t get me wrong,” he explained, “Bam’s a great player. He does a lot for this team, especially defensively. But what Nunn is doing is just,” he stopped and glanced over each shoulder, “f*****g unbelievable.”
When I followed up with whether Bam’s versatility reminded him of a player he had coached with the Golden State Warriors, a three-time champion, two-time All-Star, former Defensive Player of the Year and debatable hall-of-fame inductee, Gentry looked taken aback. “You mean, Draymond? On defense, for sure,” before adding without a hint of irony, “More athletic, though.”
One can hardly blame Gentry for not making Adebayo a primary focus, nor for not knowing how to exactly measure his impact. His production isn’t gaudy. He is an established starter for the first time in his NBA career. Jimmy Butler is the player expected to lead Miami to future success. Nunn’s path provides an unusual early-season narrative. Adebayo thrives while teetering between positions and labels, a marriage of both fantasy and science.
The term “unicorn” has lost its luster. Overuse may not exactly have brought about its death but, at least, it’s become the fertile garden from which boredom grows, overtaking the fascination with the avant-garde. We think of passing bigs as Cold War remnants that emerge fully mature from a mildewed foundry lost in a frozen expanse that is largely unpronounceable.
Similarly, elite defenders all seem cut from the same cloth — undrafted, undersized and blue-collared — guarding more talented ball handlers with an insatiable hunger, yearning to prove they deserve to be here and that nothing should ever come easy.
Adebayo is neither of these. He possesses a muscled 6-foot-9, 250-pound body. He attended the University of Kentucky, if only for one year, as much a powerhouse and factory for elite players as exists at the collegiate level.
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But to watch him is to see something unique, not entirely definable. He sails unfettered for dunks and rebounds as if his mass was theoretical. He threads passes to teammates that only a handful of people his size can make with such precision. On defense, he accepts all challenges, spreading his feet as he widens his base to shut down larger opponents, or gracefully matching each step, like a fearsome reflection, with the quickest guards on the planet.
Adebayo’s role had always been unclear during his first two seasons. When he was selected 14th overall in the 2017 NBA Draft, Heat fans were reeling from having missed an opportunity to add Donovan Mitchell, taken just one selection sooner by Denver before being traded to Utah, a player who seemed capable of filling the void vacated by Dwyane Wade’s departure in 2016. Adebayo had been projected as a late first-round pick and Hassan Whiteside, re-signed the year before to a hefty deal, was the team’s center. Choosing Adebayo seemed even more perplexing after the team added Kelly Olynyk as a free agent just a month later.
During those first two seasons, there were enough flashes to show that Adebayo was different, if not exactly better. His versatility and speed were a sharp contrast to Whiteside’s one-dimensional plodding, his physicality more visceral than Olynyk’s. The positional glut kept Adebayo from truly shining but he never wavered in his determination to prove his worth, an attitude that still drives him today. “Whether you get five minutes or fifteen or the whole game,” he explained to The Step Back, “your minutes should be inspiring and motivational.”
Now, in his third season and at just 22 years of age, those ambitious seeds have fully grown. “He’s the heart of this thing, the engine that keeps us rolling,” said Butler after a recent win. “Everybody follows suit when it comes to that guy because he just plays so hard. He’s one of the better bigs in the league because he does everything so well.”
Butler’s veracity could be questioned, given his own path to Miami, one strewn with the wreckage of broken locker rooms and contradictory statements. But Butler has been steadfastly inspiring in his own way during his short stint with the Heat, deflecting accolades while pointing to the strengths of his teammates as the primary reason for Miami’s unexpectedly hot start to the season. Moreover, the proof of Adebayo’s do-it-all value certainly exists:
If it’s easy to ascribe the supernatural label of “unicorn” to Adebayo, you can count him as one unwilling to accept it. The foundation of his success is something much more scientific. “Everybody,” he says with a mischievous, Cheshire Cat grin, “has their tendencies.”
He analyzes opponents with wide-eyed zeal, pointing to Rajon Rondo’s well-documented approach to the game as one of his inspirations. Adebayo relishes in film study during which players unintendedly reveal their weakness. “Everybody comes into the season with ‘new stuff’ [air quotes] but everybody has their go-to move. Everybody has that one go-to move that if they get into a bind, they’re going to use it. You just have to know what it is and then counteract it [and] I think studying helps.”
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Adebayo downplays the role his physical tools play in his success, viewing himself as, in his words, “more of a technician.”
“A lot of guys aren’t the best defenders because of athleticism. I feel like being in the right spot at the right time, just knowing people’s habits, makes more of a difference.” He mentions Marc Gasol as another role model. “He won Defensive Player of the Year and he isn’t very quick laterally. But he knows everybody’s tendencies, he knows what your favorite move is. He communicates. He’s the loudest dude on the court. And I feel like when you have that type of mentality, that understanding…with that technique? You can guard…you can contain a lot of people.”
His devotion to film sessions seems antithetical to Adebayo’s magical impact but it shows that he is very much a work in progress, that his tool of choice is still the chisel and not the wand. He may act as the fulcrum to Miami’s offense, as comfortable calling plays and scanning the floor for off-ball movement as any guard, but he is limited in his own scoring abilities. Most of his points come around the rim and he has always been hesitant to score from the perimeter. But he admits the confidence in his shot is rising, as he’s pushed by teammates and head coach Erik Spoelstra, and it will soon be a legitimate part of his repertoire. “Spo’s helping me expand my range, encouraging me to be more of a threat on the offensive side. Just, uh, letting me a little bit off the leash this year.”
But until that day comes, if ever, Adebayo seems content with his current role. He speaks of a team-wide comfort level with the system, of a spirit of unselfishness that manifests as potent scoring but extends beyond the court as well. “We don’t hold anything back from each other. It’s all out there. And when you do that? You can make a lot of things go good.” He searches for the right word to describe Miam’s egalitarian, pass-happy offense, and squints as he finally finds the right one: “pure.”
The mid-November game between Miami and New Orleans was supposed to be a premier event. One knows this because the tiny kiosk, the one under the scarlet-and-tangerine seats of the AmericanAirlines Arena that serves café Cubano to staff members, is open and pouring out shot after syrupy shot.
The designation made sense because the Pelicans feature a slew of recent high draft choices including rookie Zion Williamson, as well as Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram. Miami fans had braced the chill winds off Biscayne Bay for the chance to see them but they were left wanting, as those players sat out the game due to injury.
The contest was a lot tighter than it probably should have been considering how bare the Pelicans roster was that night but the Heat eventually won it in convincing fashion. Nunn led Miami in scoring. Butler paved the way, as he has so often done this season, for his teammates with 13 assists. Adebayo merely put 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting, to go along with 13 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 3 blocks.
Perhaps fans had been somewhat disappointed they had not seen Williamson or Ball or Ingram but still they smiled as they put on their rarely used sweaters to face the cool downtown air. What they saw was different, not quite a unicorn but a combination of parts, science and magic and more, that mysteriously fit so well that you’re not quite sure how to describe the feeling.
Only that it was special.