Hassan Whiteside's recent four-game absence provided Bam Adebayo with another opportunity to learn and grow – and the 20-year-old rookie took advantage of it in the eyes of coach Erik Spoelstra even if it wasn’t always pretty.
“He was ferocious, on both ends,” Spoelstra said of Adebayo’s performance Friday against the Lakers when he finished with 11 points, eight rebounds, two assists in 35 energy-packed minutes. “We played him the whole 12 minutes straight [in the third quarter]. We just couldn’t get him out of the game. That’s what you want to do with your minutes.
“It’s not going to guarantee that the coaching staff will keep you in there, but you want to make the coaching staff have to make tough decisions. He was defending both positions. So he was guarding [Brook] Lopez but also guarding [Julius] Randle. When they went small, that usually is a tough lineup to handle for teams. Bam allows you to play big but also match the speed and quickness that they have. But he earned it. At the end, in the closing moments, the team trusts him to be out there and that's growth.”
Adebayo’s role this season has fluctuated. He’s gone from being a player Spoelstra thought might have to spend some time down in the G-League in training camp to getting playing time at the start of the season to being thrown into the starting lineup because of Whiteside’s injuries before going back to the bench to serve as a role player.
In this last four-game stretch with Whiteside out, Adebayo started all four games, with his minutes increasing in each of them. Against the Wizards on March 10, Adebayo played only 18 minutes, but had six points, eight rebounds and finished plus-19. Monday against the Trail Blazers, he had a horrific 1 for 10 shooting night and got dominated in the paint by 7-foot, 290-pound center Jusuf Nurkic before posting a career-high 16 rebounds in a loss to Sacramento on Wednesday.
Friday, he had a more well-rounded game offensively against the Lakers and stepped up at the end of regulation to get a hand in the face of Isaiah Thomas on a 15-foot jumper that Thomas missed. Adebayo didn’t do a good job of that in a similar situation Wednesday against the Kings’ De’Aaron Fox at the end of regulation, Spoelstra said. But Adebayo learned from that and made a winning play at the end of the Lakers game.
“The previous game, [it was] the same situation,” Adebayo said. “They went left and coach said ‘You’ve got to jump.’ So I was like ‘Man, just jump and live with the result.’ I contested and it turned out to be our ball. I’m glad it did. I’m glad [Spoelstra] told me that.”
What the Heat clearly lack when Whiteside is out is an established rim protector. Adebayo (0.6 blocks per game) simply isn’t there yet when it comes to that. But in the eyes of his coach and teammates, Adebayo’s quick feet and athleticism give the Heat a unique weapon on that end of the floor.
“He’s different. He’s more mobile and I think he’s better with the blitzes because he’ll get up on the ballhandler,” Dragic said of the differences as a defender between Adebayo and Whiteside. “They have different games. You cannot expect the same things from Bam that you do from Whitey. It’s the same as it is for any player. Every player gives us a different scheme or different attributes. Whiteside can dominate the paint, close the paint with blocked shots and rebounds. Bam can do the same thing in a different way.”
Said Spoelstra: “Hassan is one of the most unique players in the league because of his size, his wingspan, his block shot instincts. Really you don’t see players like that nightly. That’s why I like the differences in what we have. Hassan protects the rim, the paint. Bam loves to put a little bit more pressure on the defense, trap a little bit more. KO brings a little bit of savviness and instincts that are innate.”
Adebayo’s defensive metrics have been stellar all season. Entering Friday’s game, he was the Heat’s best defender in terms of overall field goal differential (-5.2 percent) as well as field goal differential within six feet of the basket (-10.2 percent).
Eventually, Spoelstra said, the blocks and better rim protection numbers will come.
“He’ll continue to get better,” Spoelstra said. “He does it in a different way than Hassan. He does it with his speed, his quickness, his anticipation. A lot of his work often times is done early, but if he’s caught late and he’s the one protecting the rim, we saw in the last Lakers game [in Miami] he was there to protect the rim. On the very few times were able to protect the rim against the Lakers [that first time] it was because of Bam. He’ll continue to get better as he starts to sniff out NBA systems and game plans, things of that nature.”
Either way, for now, he’s earned his teammates trust regardless of his age and experience.
“For a young guy like that, he has a ton of great habits,” James Johnson said. “Again not surprising behind a guy like [assistant coach] Juwan Howard, with UD always in his ear, always letting him know, always watching film with him. You put that with his work ethic, and the sky’s the limit.”