The Thunder centre is poised to become New Zealand’s highest-paid sports star.

Steven Adams' third season in the NBA appears unlikely to bring his first title but the Kiwi can console himself in the knowledge he will soon become this country's highest paid athlete.

The Thunder centre was yesterday unable to prevent his side from falling to a game-three defeat to the Spurs, with San Antonio leading for much of the game to win 100-96 and take a 2-1 advantage in their Western Conference semifinal.

After playing a pivotal role in the Thunder's game-two win in San Antonio - scoring 12 points and pulling down a career playoff-high 17 rebounds - Adams yesterday scored two points and grabbed 11 boards while playing generally sound defence.

He also spent 41 minutes on the floor, a level of usage that was more than All Star guard Russell Westbrook and exemplified just how crucial the Kiwi is becoming to the Thunder's cause.


And that importance will next year be rewarded with increased remuneration, when Adams' rookie contract ends and he becomes eligible to sign an extension with Oklahoma City or test the open market.

With the NBA salary cap set to rise substantially in the next two seasons, ESPN's Thunder correspondent Royce Young estimated Adams would sign a four-year contract in the region of US$15 million a year ($22 million).

Such a salary would be a significant rise, given the 22-year-old will next season earn $4.6 million.

Even without endorsements it will be well above the highest estimates of the annual totals earned by Scott Dixon ($11 million), Winston Reid ($12 million) and Russell Coutts ($13 million).

It's an unfathomable amount in the context of New Zealand sport, where even our best-paid All Blacks receive around $1 million a year. Adams' rise up the sporting rich list could be even bigger.

"It just depends on how much he develops and what his market may be, but he's going to get well paid," Young told Veitch on Sport on Newstalk ZB.

"They may have to give him close to maximum-level money, because he's that unique and that good."

A maximum-level contract for players with fewer than six years' experience is 25 per cent of the salary cap, which for the 2017-18 season is projected at US$108 million. Max deals are handed to only the game's elite.

But barring a catastrophic loss of form, Adams is guaranteed to command an eight-figure salary from some team - and the Thunder are determined it will be them.

Oklahoma City have the small matter of locking down star duo Kevin Durant (a free agent this off-season) and Westbrook (free agent in 2017), but Young insisted Adams' signature was almost as prized.

"They see Adams as a Thunder player for life. They want to keep him for forever because they love his demeanour and mentality," Young said. "He doesn't care about stats, he doesn't care about recognition, he only truly cares about doing his job and helping his team-mates. And that's a rare and difficult thing to find in today's NBA, especially for a young player. He fits the Thunder's identity and culture, and they love having him."

Adams' ability on the court has grown as rapidly as his hair. The hirsute centre has developed into one of the best players in his position, adding an improved finishing touch around the rim and better anticipation on defence.

"You can make the case that he's in the top five or six starting centres in the league," Young said. "When the Thunder took him at 12 [in the 2013 NBA draft] they had visions that he would be their long-term starting centre, but I think he's even accelerated past their projections."

Given he is still 22, there's no reason to think this contract will be Adams' only big payday.