Basketball: Steven Adams - $60 million man

By Ben Stanley

Even a crushing migraine couldn't stop Steven Adams from propelling his team to more success in the NBA yesterday. Ben Stanley catches up with the Rotorua lad made good in Oklahoma.

It sits on the middle shelf of the locker; an object anonymous to most - but unmistakable to any Kiwi eye.

It sits there above a tray of size-19 white adidas sneakers. Above a shelf of sweaty, game-worn clothes. Next to a post-match protein shake and a bottle of cologne.

A small, unopened bottle of L&P.

Earlier this season, a fan from New Zealand attended an Oklahoma City Thunder home game at Chesapeake Energy Arena, and passed the bottle on to a security guard.

Their instructions? Give it to Steven Adams; the Thunder's seven-foot, barbarian-looking, cult-hero Kiwi centre.

It got to Adams, and the Rotorua lad has kept it in his locker - wedged between Serge Ibaka's and Nick Collison's - ever since.

"I probably won't drink it. Too much sugar, to be honest with you," Adams says.

A sugary rush isn't why Adams is keeping it there, though. "I like seeing it. It reminds me of home."

"watch any big, signature play of Oklahoma City's win and you're likely to find Adams off to the side and nearly out of frame, having set the screen or triggered the roll that made it all possible," Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney wrote of the Kiwi's Game 4 performance against the San Antonio Spurs on Sunday (Monday NZT).

They are words that could be applied to every appearance by Adams this NBA play-off series, in a season that has seen the 22-year-old move forward in leaps and bounds.

In Sunday's 111-97 win, Adams notched a double-double with 16 points and 11 rebounds. He repeated the act in Game 5 on Tuesday (Wednesday NZT), notching 12 points and 11 rebounds as the Thunder beat the Spurs again.

That win, coupled with two further victories on Wednesday and yesterday against the Spurs, propelled the Thunder into the Western Conference finals, and a date with Steph Curry and the fearsome Golden State Warriors. And that's despite Adams suffering a migraine before yesterday's game.

Steven Adams goes up for a dunk. Photo / AP
Steven Adams goes up for a dunk. Photo / AP

The stats also don't tell you how well he linked up with superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, and how his absolute physicality and back court anticipation removed future Hall-of-Famer Tim Duncan from making any meaningful impact.

"He's finishing. He's defending. He's rebounding," Durant said of Adams this week.

"The coaches told him what his role is, and he's just embracing it and taking the challenge every night."

Has it really been just three years since Adams went from a raw "one-and-done" college draft flyer with some Rotorua grit in his background, to a key player with 70s-style facial furniture on a title challenger, who is now being recognised as one of the best big men in the NBA?

You'd better believe it.

Highly respected American basketball writer Chris Mannix described Adams as a "top-10(ish), 10-year starter at centre" earlier this week, while ESPN correspondent Royce Young told RadioSport that the Kiwi should be in line for a four-year, US$60 million ($88 million) contract when he re-signs with the Thunder - or tests free agency after next season. Such a salary would put Adams among the top 30 NBA earners.

While talk of a big money deal makes Adams uncomfortable - "I don't even think about it, bro" - the figure would easily make him NZ's highest-paid sportsperson.

Spurs point guard Patty Mills has watched Adams' growth from across the court, and believes the Kiwi is worth the praise.

"His presence as a big man has been great," Mills told the Weekend Herald. "He's been a force to consider, for every team that comes up against him - especially us. He's done so well against us, over his time developing. Certainly in this play-off series, he's been able to be almost that quarterback once he catches the ball in the paint and make great decisions.

"You just keep seeing him develop as time goes. It's exciting to know a Kiwi is representing his country well."

Steven Adams with sister Valerie Adams. Photo / Twitter
Steven Adams with sister Valerie Adams. Photo / Twitter

The first thing you notice when you see Adams on the court is the sheer length of his body.

Though he's renowned at the Thunder for his unbelievable appetite, he is a lean, long human being whose on-court movements look like exaggerations due to his size.

The size belies Adams' eagerness to enjoy himself. He's still the lad, in that respect; joking around with fellow players, coaches, media or basically anyone who cares to talk.

He's a natural kidder with a deep streak of the ironic in the way he phrases things; a trait that has come through in the media and impressed his superstar teammates.

Westbrook even went as far as dressing like Adams - Funaki tattoo and all - at the club's Halloween party last year. At training the morning before Game 4, Adams joked with Nazr Mohammed and Enes Kantner as they practised defensive drills.

But as soon as Mohammed - an 18-season NBA veteran - wanted to draw attention to a particular way of screening, Adams shut up and watched intently. Thirty minutes later, Adams was the last player on the practice court, still working on his free throw - easily the weakest aspect of his game - as the bulging play-off media pack waited for him.

Though the play-offs bring a heightened level of media attention, Adams has a constant profile in Oklahoma City, who lack any other pro sports teams.

Ask anyone in the sports bars or on the street about Adams, and you'll get the same comments. "We love him." "We don't want him to leave." "He's such a funny guy."

Ours is a pride of seeing one of our own carving it up on the Big Stage. But in Oklahoma City, his character is really woven into the fabric and feeling of the city.

It's a heavy gig, all that attention, but Adams takes it in his stride. "You get used to it, bro," he says. "I had to step back a little my first year, my rookie season, because I wasn't used to it. But you get used to it."

Steven Adams wears an All Blacks jersey he was given at a media and fan signing session. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Steven Adams wears an All Blacks jersey he was given at a media and fan signing session. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The main thing you pick up from Adams, be it on the practice courts, in a game or in front of a media scrum: he isn't drawn into the hype or swagger of the NBA.

To him, he's just doing his job, as are the blokes around him. Asked if watching Durant play out of this world - as he did with his 17 points in the final quarter of Game 4 - impressed him at all, Adams just shrugged in return. "Nah, bro - been around him too long," he says.

Durant and Westbrook might be superstars to the rest of the world, but to Adams, they're just workmates - and the hubris is just hubris.

"I think I've matured," Adams says. "And that's just because of my teammates. Like old mate Nick Collison there just constantly guiding me through life. Yep, through life's troubles and all that. On and off the court, bro, we have a good group of guys who make sure that we're all good."

Adams remains in regular contact with his Olympic shot-put champion sister Val, though admits theirs is more of a "normal sister-brother banter" relationship than two top-level athletes leaning on each other for guidance.

"That's all it is - nothing crazy, like no life-changing advice if that's what you want to know. I wouldn't want it from her, anyway."

That's Steve Adams for you; the rising NBA superstar with a bottle of L&P in his locker room, having a friendly dig at his Olympic champion sister.

World famous in New Zealand, and a few other places too, it seems.

The rise of Adams

Born in Rotorua on July 20, 1993

2.13m tall and weighs 116kg

Is the half-brother of double Olympic shot-put champion Valerie Adams

Hung out with Rotorua street gangs before being taken under older brother and former Tall Black Warren Adams' wing and moving to Wellington

Educated at Wellington's Scots College before moving to America to study at Notre Dame Prep

Picked in the 2013 draft by Oklahoma City Thunder, becoming the first Kiwi to be selected in the draft's first round

Helped OKC to the 2013 Orlando Summer League title

Was named in the 2013-14 NBA All-Rookie second team

On Tuesday, ESPN wrote: "He's massive and immovable, symbolic of the Thunder's belief that even as the NBA gets smaller and faster, the right sort of size at every position can trump everything."

- NZ Herald

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