On Thursday, the NBA announced the All-Star reserves for its startlingly convoluted February showcase, and among the familiar names—Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, and Kyle Lowry, for example—was a new one by way of South Florida. Miami’s Bam Adebayo will be making his first appearance at the All-Star Game this season, officially confirming what anyone who has watched the Heat during this pleasant surprise of a season has known for a while: the 22-year-old big man is already a star, and his team’s most important player, if not its best.
So far this year, Adebayo has started all 47 of Miami’s games—exactly as many starts as he had in his first two seasons, when he was stuck behind, don’t laugh, Hassan Whiteside—and has served as the team’s focal point on both offense and defense, albeit splitting duties on the former with his fellow All-Star Jimmy Butler. He had his coming out party of sorts on December 10, exploding on the hapless Hawks for his first career triple-double (30 points, 11 boards, 11 assists):
Every element of Adebayo’s game has leapt forward this year, but his offensive improvement has been the more remarkable. Though he’s short and a little slight for a center at 6-foot-9, Adebayo makes up for that deficit with a plethora of on- and off-ball skills, some of which he’s showing this year for the first time. His proficiency as a roll man has always been there, as has his ability to finish through traffic: he’s hitting just over 60 percent with a defender guarding him either “tightly” (two to four feet away) or “very tightly” (less than two feet away). He’s strong and knows what he’s doing, and for most of his first two years in the league that was what Adebayo had going for him.
It’s the other stuff that’s made him into a star. Despite his status as a legitimate center, Adebayo is able to torture slower big men with a smooth handle and understanding of space in the open court. He’s taking about a quarter of his shots after two or more dribbles, and he’s still hitting over half of those attempts (weirdly, his worst split there is for shots he takes after just one dribble; he’s only hitting 43.7 percent of those).
Part of what helps open up the floor, for the Heat and Adebayo himself, is that he’s developed a solid jumper with range out to 18 feet. His touch on the shot isn’t the best, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s enough to keep defenses honest enough that they can’t sag into the paint; combined with his ability to take a man off the dribble, Adebayo turns every time he gets the ball into a high-intensity puzzle for opponents. And that’s if he even chooses to finish possessions himself.
He might be more dangerous when he doesn’t. The most exciting new addition to his game this season has been the development of a keen eye for the open man, one that has turned him from a pure finisher into a world-class center facilitator. Among centers, as defined by NBA.com, only Nikola Jokic is averaging more assists per game this season than Adebayo’s 4.7, and the Doughy King is a special case when it comes to centers anyway.
Adebayo’s ability to pick out the open man makes it harder for teams to double him in the post, and his strength makes him a struggle even for bigger players in one-on-one matchups. Few players at Adebayo’s position do more things well than he does, and strain that puts on opponents shows in his team’s numbers with him on the court: the Heat are six points better with their center in the game than they are when he’s riding the bench. For the season, Adebayo’s usage rate has shot up to a career high 19.9 percent, and though his turnovers have in turn shot up in turn, from 1.5 per game to 2.8 this year, that’s understandable for a third-year center who’s showing off more creativity than ever before.
And then there’s the defense. Adebayo projected as the type of modern NBA big man defender that every team covets, and it was why the Heat grabbed him at 14th overall after just one uneven season at Kentucky. His offense would come along or it wouldn’t, but his defensive potential was evident from the start. It played from the start, too, and while his numbers weren’t particularly eye-popping before this year, Adebayo did grasp Miami’s complex systems rather quickly. He’s taken that comfort to the next level this year. With Adebayo on the court, Miami is giving up 106.4 points per 100 possessions, a number that would be tied with the Clippers for sixth best in the league; Miami as a whole is giving up 108.2 points per 100 possessions, good for 14th.
Adebayo’s role as the post linchpin of the team’s 2-3 zone defense puts him in the position to wall off the paint at all costs, while his ability to switch on pick-and-rolls and pick up much faster guards makes him an exhausting, multitalented challenge for most offenses. (Here, he stays with James Harden in transition, walling him off and forcing him to take a contested lay-up that bricks out, all while not fouling the most foul-attracting player in the league.)
Perhaps even more than Butler’s addition, as good as the Ass Man has been, Adebayo’s ascension to honest-to-goodness All-Star status has helped key up Miami’s surge up the East standings a year after missing the playoffs. Sure, you could credit the 32-15 record to the Heat Culture, or Erik Spoelstra’s long-confirmed rotational wizardry, or even the fact that plenty of Miami’s role players are balling out; special shout-outs here to Tyler Herro, who has been exactly as good as anyone could have hoped for in his rookie year, and to Duncan Robinson, who has suddenly become one of the best shooters in the league.
But the most exciting part of the team’s success has been seeing the formerly limited Adebayo transform himself into a more complete offensive weapon while continuing to evolve into a juggernaut on defense. Perhaps the most intriguing part of all of this is that he can still get better; just as he added an excellent passing game this summer, Adebayo can still work on his jumper and ball security. These are complicated skills that take most players years to learn, but Adebayo seems capable of picking vexingly difficult things up over the course of a summer.
It’s scary to imagine what Adebayo could become if he adds a corner three to his repertoire, but even hitting mid-range shots at a higher clip would turn him into an even more valuable part of the Heat’s plans. In his first season as a full-time starter, Adebayo has already shown he’s worth the investment. The All-Star nod is more confirmation than revelation.