Since joining Oklahoma City Thunder in 2013, Steven Adams has become one of the most productive centres in the NBA. Christopher Reive speaks with basketball legend Hakeem Olajuwon about the landscape of the league and the big Kiwi’s development.

In a league where three-point shooters and floor stretchers dominate the hardwood, Kiwi big man Steven Adams is one of few who buck the trend.

Since the Oklahoma City Thunder selected him with the 12th overall pick in the 2013 NBA draft, he's been toiling away – working hard to develop and improve his game.
Now, the 24-year old Kiwi is being noticed.

Adams is on track to have the best year of his short career, and NBA Hall of Famer Hakeem Olajuwon told the Herald on Sunday he believed Adams was now one of the league's elite centres.

"He's an ideal big guy," the 1994 NBA Most Valuable Player said. "He's traditional, but has all these fundamentals and is very effective.

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"I've seen him improve every year and now he's developed respect on the court."

Hakeem Olajuwon, right, is considered one of the best centres to ever play in the NBA. Photo / Getty Images
Hakeem Olajuwon, right, is considered one of the best centres to ever play in the NBA. Photo / Getty Images

Olajuwon played in the NBA from 1984-2002, leading the Houston Rockets to back-to-back championships in 1994 and '95 and is considered as one of the best centres to have ever played the game.

Now a member of the staff with the Rockets, the 55-year-old was impressed with Adams' development. While Adams showed flashes of his game at college, he declared for the draft as an incredibly raw prospect.

Adams entered the league after one year at the University of Pittsburgh. He started in all 32 games the side played in the 2012-13 NCAA season, averaging about seven points and six rebounds in 23 minutes per game on his way to making the Big East conference's all-rookie team.

It was his 7ft, 116kg frame and mobility on the court that made the then 19-year-old an interesting option for teams; however the interest his physical assets attracted came with the risk his almost non-existent offensive game posed.

Steven Adams was a raw prospect after one year at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo / Photosport
Steven Adams was a raw prospect after one year at the University of Pittsburgh. Photo / Photosport

At college, Adams was responsible for just 11 per cent of Pittsburgh's possessions, with most of his touches coming on the offensive glass. He was a poor free throw shooter and his post game needed work.

But the benefits outweighed the risks, and the Thunder made him the first Kiwi to be drafted in the first round.

Like many, Olajuwon wasn't sure what the Thunder were getting.

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"I didn't really know what to expect when I first saw him," Olajuwon said. "I knew he ran the floor very well and was very physical, but I didn't know he'd develop to be more mobile…but you could see from the beginning his work ethic.

Hakeem Olajuwon now works with the Houston Rockets. Photo / Getty Images
Hakeem Olajuwon now works with the Houston Rockets. Photo / Getty Images

"Any time you have a big guy that can move, is very agile, can move very well, block shots, rebound and finish, that's not going anywhere – that's always in demand."

The tools were there, but it was up to Adams to develop and learn how to use them effectively. In his first three seasons in the league, it was clear he was beginning to find his way. His scoring had increased, his offensive rating (team's points per 100 possessions) climbed and he continued to make a name for himself as a physical presence in the paint.

Read more: Steven Adams in a category of his own for Oklahoma City Thunder

In his fourth year, he was rewarded for his growth with a four-year contract extension worth NZ$140million.

As big as the extension was in terms of monetary value, Olajuwon said there was no question Adams was worth it.

Detroit centre Andre Drummond is the only active player to have averaged five or more offensive rebounds per game in an NBA season. Photo / Getty Images
Detroit centre Andre Drummond is the only active player to have averaged five or more offensive rebounds per game in an NBA season. Photo / Getty Images

"He's a big man – they're rare. If you don't sign him, all the teams would be begging to take him. So it's well deserved. He's a hard worker, he wants to win, and a big man with those characteristics and all the intangibles he's proven – the rebounding, the scoring, the physicality – all those things he brings to the table."

Of course there were doubters when the contract was confirmed, but the big Kiwi has made strides in silencing them in his fifth year in the league. Through 59 games this season before the NBA All-Star break, of which he played 54, Adams led the league in offensive rebounds with an average of 5.2 per game.

If he keeps that pace up, he'll become just the 12th player in NBA history to average five or more offensive rebounds per game over a season, joining Olajuwon in the exclusive club.

Read more: Healthy Steven Adams a massive lift for OKC Thunder

"He's so active on the boards, very physical, and now that he knows he's close to doing it, I think he'll maintain that pace. It'll be nice for him to have that kind of a milestone and to accomplish that," Olajuwon said.

Offensive rebounding can often be a statistic that goes under the radar when looking at the box score of a match, but it's one that can be a game changer. Gathering an offensive rebound means earning your team another opportunity to score and, in a close game, that extra opportunity could be the difference maker.

And while Adams' frame and strength help his cause, a lot of work still has to be done to secure a rebound when up to five defenders are trying to stop you from doing so.

Steven Adams collects on offensive rebound under heavy pressure. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Adams collects on offensive rebound under heavy pressure. Photo / Getty Images

"They still have to box you out," Olajuwon pointed out. "He's very strong. He has that desire to be able to fight for it and also, fundamentally, good position and timing. It takes a lot. Defensive rebounds, everyone knows he should get them, no problem. But offensive is more difficult…the other team is trying to keep you off the glass. So to average more than five, that's very impressive.

"The offensive rebound, really, is not yours – they're supposed to get it…It's always important with big guys that can give teams, over and over and over, second chances to put the ball back – either put it out or to go up to the basket."

Adams put his name into the Thunder's record books this season, putting his offensive rebounding prowess on full display against the Cleveland Cavaliers in February to pull in 12 – a new franchise single-game record.

As well as having a career year on the glass, Adams has proved he's developed into a quality scoring option – working the pick and roll with point guard Russell Westbrook, putting the ball back from the offensive glass or utilizing his much improved touch away from the basket.

Steven Adams has added a quality floater to his offensive arsenal. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Adams has added a quality floater to his offensive arsenal. Photo / Getty Images

He's been able to make that next step in the league this season despite the Thunder bringing in All-Star caliber forwards Carmelo Anthony and Paul George – two high-volume scoring options - to play alongside Westbrook who averages over 18 shot attempts per game through his career. Combined, the trio takes 62 per cent of the team's total shot attempts per game.

"He has managed to still be relevant with three big-name players that demand the ball," Olajuwon said of Adams' production. "He's playing with three players that demand the ball and he's managed to maintain his presence…that's very tough to do."

As a result, Adams is no longer the Thunder's secret weapon and has been praised by opposition players and coaches alike.

When asked if he thought Adams was one of the game's elite, Olajuwon replied: "Oh, definitely", but noted with Adams still just 24-years-old, he had plenty of time to further improve his game.

"There are a few big men that have that place, but Adams and (Houston Rockets centre) Clint Capela really, really stand out…both of them are more outstanding than the other big guys in the league.

"(Adams) is a hard worker, runs the floor, and is very physical and mobile - if you have all those qualities you can be as good as you want to be."

Players to average five or more offensive rebounds per game for a season
Charles Barkley (twice)
Elton Brand (2001-02)
Michael Cage (1987-88)
Andre Drummond (twice)
Moses Malone (nine times)
Hakeem Olajuwon (1984-85)
Dennis Rodman (seven times)
Larry Smith (three times)
Anderson Varejao* (2012-13)
Jayson Williams (twice)
Kevin Willis (twice)

*Anderson Varejao only played 25 of a possible 82 games in the 2012-13 NBA season
Steven Adams' per game season points and rebounding averages to date
2013-14 (81 games played): 3.3 points, 4.1 rebounds (1.8 offensive) in 14.8 minutes
2014-15 (70 games played): 7.7 points, 7.5 rebounds (2.8 offensive) in 25.3 minutes
2015-16 (80 games played): 8 points, 6.7 rebounds (2.7 offensive) in 25.2 minutes
2016-17 (80 games played): 11.3 points, 7.7 rebounds (3.5 offensive) in 29.9 minutes
2017-18 (54 games played): 13.9 points, 9.1 rebounds (5.2 offensive) in 32.4 minutes

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