Miami Heat

A case for Bam Adebayo, the starter

Bam Adebayo needs representation. He’s earned his spot as the Miami Heat’s starting center. All that’s left is for someone to advocate for him and convince the mythological jury. There aren’t any lawyers in the room so this will have to suffice.

Two years ago, the notion that someone other than Hassan Whiteside would have a case to suit up as Miami’s anchor in the middle would have drawn scowls from the Heat faithful. Whiteside had just turned 27, was coming off a season in which he averaged 14.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and a league-high 3.7 blocks, earned All-Defensive second team and was third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. His journey from the NBA’s D-League (now G League) to starting-caliber big man was one of the best feel-good stories of the year.

Now, though, after two seasons of regression, a seemingly fractured relationship with head coach Erik Spoelstra and the emergence of Adebayo, sliding the former Kentucky big man into the starting five might induce approving head nods (cue the Jack Nicholson GIF) from Heat faithful.

Whiteside and the organization are reportedly in a better place now but on-court results are the only way to truly quell these concerns.  No longer the defensive force of 2016 — in part because of the league’s newfound emphasis on switch-heavy schemes — Whiteside’s mercurial attitude and desire for an expanded offensive role have clashed with the coaching staff, reaching a breaking point in the 2017-18 playoffs when he averaged just 5.2 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in 15.4 minutes per game.

Whiteside is still a more talented player than Adebayo right now. That much is clear. But what the second-year center lacks in skill, he makes up for with fluid athleticism and bounce, a clear understanding of his role and an unwavering motor. As a rookie, Adebayo previewed the skills of a dominant rim protector. Among the 198 players to defend at least 150 shots within six feet of the basket last season, he ranked 15th in defensive field goal percentage at 52.2 percent.

While Whiteside trailed just behind in 23rd at 53.7 percent on increased volume (315 shots defended at the rim to Adebayo’s 178), his lead feet and a dearth of versatility nullify any composite defensive advantage. Against less polished bigs, Adebayo boasts the quickness to be deployed as a free safety, roaming the floor with one eye always on the rim.

At times last season, Adebayo struggled with quick decision-making, particularly in the pick-and-roll against snappy passing or twitchy forays to the rim. That’s normal for rookies, though. NCAA basketball is often played in sticky molasses compared to the NBA and first-year players struggle to adapt. You hear guys say the game slows down for them after their rookie season and while it’s a cliche, it rings true. Adebayo is no different.

“First year, I was in a real high pace running around and I couldn’t pace myself,” Adebayo told Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel during NBA Summer League. “Now it’s kind of calm and the game has slowed down for me.”

The momentary defensive lapses that left Spoelstra with his jaw agape and brow furrowed, perhaps forgetting it was a 20-year-old rookie he’d handed prominent minutes to, aren’t going to fade into obscurity but they should be less frequent next year.

Beyond that, Adebayo’s malleable tendencies allow Miami to juice up their defensive schemes based on opposing personnel. Whereas Whiteside’s lack of mobility in space handicaps their pick-and-roll and dribble-handoff coverage, his athleticism and agility enable the Heat to tinker with the puzzle pieces. If necessary, he can drop back and defend the rim. Other times, he can dart out to the perimeter to trap ball-handlers. Or, he can hedge in the pick-and-roll before zipping back to the roll man.

The Heat were a top-10 defense last season, buoyed by versatile wing stoppers Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and James Johnson. Adebayo isn’t a wing and he might not even be a power forward. Yet, his switchability — a gene Miami can and should feature in its pick-and-roll defense — was rare for a rookie, hinting at Clint Capela-esque chops, and he embeds another layer into Miami’s potential on that end.

Adebayo is a special defensive prospect because of his ability to pair that perimeter potential with a hulking 6-foot-10, 255-pound frame, capable of bruising on the interior. It wasn’t often he got punked by opponents, even the 7-foot behemoths.

While Whiteside’s offensive dynamicity outpaces Adebayo’s, his perception of those skills work against him. Whiteside has yet to embrace his vocation as a pick-and-roll big who can bulldoze defenses. He meanders to the rim, sets half-hearted screens and screams disengagement. Instead, he longs to cast mid-range jumpers and 3s.

This is where the simplicity in Adebayo’s offensive weaponry proves useful. There’s nothing complicated about his duties. He’s going to be the poster boy for low-usage centers, whizzing inside with ferocity as a roll man — a stark contrast to Whiteside — and feasting on putbacks, having displayed a knack for high-pointing rebounds on both ends of the floor.

Part of that clearly defined role is rooted in Adebayo’s unrefined skill set, though marginal improvements should elevate his impact. Miami isn’t expecting a leap like the one Jaylen Brown made. Rather, a better understanding of when to slip screens — Adebayo overindulged here — and when to bludgeon opponents, and having the game no longer move at warp speed should do the trick.

Last season, Adebayo was a split-second late on numerous reads out of the short roll. If he’s closer to mastering his surroundings as a sophomore, his potential as a facilitator will shine brightly. The franchise clearly has confidence, as he was the fulcrum of sets at times, executing dimes from the elbows and low post.

Too often, though, Adebayo floated on offense, glued to the dunker’s spot along the baseline, paralyzed by the threat of a potential blunder. However, errors of commission project as part of Adebayo’s repertoire next season.

“My expectation, as a goal for the next season, would be being more comfortable, not being afraid to make mistakes during the game,” Adebayo said during an interview with the Heat back in July.

During Adebayo’s two Summer League stints, the Heat toyed with the Point Bam experiment, letting him direct the offense and bring the ball up the floor. He sports a guard-like handle and even flashed some off-the-bounce mid-range shooting. Not the passer of Nikola Jokic, Adebayo’s backcourt traits are intriguing because of his rim protection and defensive versatility. A center who alters shots in the paint and spearheads buckets on the other end defies conventional basketball. That’s who Adebayo could be if he approaches his ceiling.

Nonetheless, he’s good enough now to warrant a starting spot without sacrificing short-term value. Behind its current core, Miami’s window for playoff success is dwindling. Led by Adebayo, Richardson and Winslow, the Heat are primed to enter their next phase of existence with some semblance of a vision. Meanwhile, Adebayo holds the most upside of the trio and is also the best center on the roster.

Next: The Whiteboard: Context is everything when it comes to NBA rankings

The opportunity to raise a team’s short- and long-term ceiling by featuring a raw 21-year-old doesn’t come around all that often. But with Adebayo, that’s exactly what Miami is staring at. As the jury heads to deliberation, the case for Bam Adebayo, the starter, bids adieu.

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