Steven Adams' first NBA mentor has given him the thumbs up as the league's next great defensive enforcer.

Kendrick Perkins is regarded as one of the most bruising and successful veterans in the NBA and was assigned to assisting in developing Adams when the wide-eyed Kiwi first showed up in Oklahoma more than three years ago.

It was well before Adams had grown his impressive beard and long hair, and even before he started at center for the Thunder. And back then in 2013 he was Perkins' doormat at practice.

In his rookie season, Adams bore the brunt of Perkins' elbows to the ribs and "I'm the only silverback" proclamations.


But even after relegating Perkins to the bench, Adams didn't want his education to stop, asking his bruising mentor to teach him how to play post defence, continuing the pick the brain of the NBA champion veteran.

"After all was said and done, he always reached out to me," Perkins told American website The Vertical while gushing about Adams.

"You have your select few that come in and (are) willing to listen."

Perkins, whose career began with the Memphis Grizzlies before he joined the Thunder in 2011, eventually moved on from Oklahoma to the Cleveland Cavaliers in early 2015 and is now with the New Orleans Pelicans.

Adams himself says he's not quite at Perkins' level of directing the Thunder defensively. But he accepts that in a new-look Thunder line-up, he will inherit the role of defensive leader in his fourth season with the club.

"If I'm close to what Perk is, that's still a long ways away," Adams said. "He's on another level with the defensive stuff. I've still got to do a lot of study. Read some books.

"I've made some progress. That's what you strive for, no matter how big or small it is. Just whatever progress it is."

Thunder coach Billy Donovan has also lauded Adams' ability to lift players around him.
"The way he plugs up gaps and holes on the defensive end of the floor, his size and length at the basket," said Donovan.

Oklahoma media noted those attributes were noticeably missing in Spain when Adams left the Thunder's preseason game against Real Madrid with an ankle injury.

With Serge Ibaka traded to Orlando (Adams and Ibaka played 1,635 regular-season minutes together last season, more than any center-power forward combination in the NBA), Adams will now be the main rim protector next to whoever lines up next to him at power forward.

Local media pointed out that while Ibaka was a much-appreciated partner for Adams, the Thunder's defence last season suffered more when the Kiwi was off the court than Ibaka. With Adams off the court, the Thunder gave up 8.1 more points per 100 possessions to 1.4 more with Ibaka off the court.

In November of last season, the Thunder was leading the league in shots blocked, becoming a play-saver on defence.

In game two of the Western Conference semi-finals against San Antonio, Adams covered 4.2 kilometres (2.62 miles) per Sport VU tracking, more than any Thunder player other than Kevin Durant. Adams guarded Dirk Nowitzki in the post and on the perimeter the series before against Dallas. In the Western Conference finals, Adams was isolated against Stephen Curry and blocked the reigning MVP's 3-point attempt.

Thunder general manager Sam Presti signed off on Adams as a key reason the team was able to move Ibaka.

"The reason why I think we're in the position to make that choice (Ibaka for Oladipo) is because we've got another one in Steven Adams," Presti said the day Ibaka was traded. "His emergence as I think an impact defensive player is allowing us to look to continue to add to the team and make it deeper, more robust, more skilled."

Meanwhile, Adams is on track for a return from injury, bolstering the Thunder right when they need it.

In a reflection of how important the Kiwi star has become to the Thunder since the departure of Kevin Durant, local media have been covering Adams' recovery from an injured ankle with a host of updated stories.

The latest was Adams' strong practice sessions over the weekend.

Coach Billy Donovan told reporters Adams was easing his way back into practice after suffering a sprained right ankle in OKC's pre-season opening game against Spanish club Real Madrid last week.

"He got up and down the floor," Donovan said, adding Adams had participated in some "controlled" drills.

Adams missed the team's second game against another Spanish side, FC Barcelona Lassa, and his status for Wednesday's preseason game against the Mavericks in Dallas is to be determined. The medical staff has been evaluating Adams "day by day," Donovan said.

"I don't think that they feel like he's close to playing right now, so I don't want to rule him out for Dallas because I don't know," Donovan said "It's kind of been, see what happens the next day (and) how he's feeling. But clearly he's done more today than he has the last couple days, which is good."