Before rookie Bam Adebayo came off the bench and played vitally important minutes in Monday night’s win over the slumping Grizzlies at FedEx Forum, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he wasn’t sure if Hassan Whiteside would be ready to rejoin the team when it returns home to host the Portland Trail Blazers on Wednesday.
Spoelstra said it’s all going to depend ultimately on how his starting center’s left knee feels, and if he’s able to play with the kind of mobility necessary to help the Heat (13-13). Whiteside has now missed six consecutive games because of a bone bruise in his left knee and 11 games overall.
“A bone bruise is a bone bruise and it’s all individual and they’re all different,” Spoelstra said. “[Whiteside] was clearly not as mobile as he was in the beginning of the year and that’s why we’re taking the time now to get him healthy. He’s making progress. He’s doing a lot of conditioning. It will be good to see him when we get back.”
If Whiteside is still unavailable, Adebayo (6-10, 255) will continue to see valuable minutes behind Kelly Olynyk. The question, though, is what happens once Whiteside returns.
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In the 15 games Whiteside has played, Adebayo, 20, has only made eight appearances, averaged just over eight minutes in those games. In the 11 games Whiteside has missed, meanwhile, the rookie has looked better than a serviceable fill-in — especially of late.
In Monday’s win, Adebayo had 14 points (including one thunderous dunk on an alley-oop feed from Goran Dragic), four rebounds, two assists, two steals and two blocks. He also came off the bench when starting center Kelly Olynyk got into foul trouble (twice) and helped hold Grizzlies All-Star center Marc Gasol to 19 points on 5 of 14 shooting, six rebounds and four turnovers.
Olynyk, who was limited to 18 minutes of work Monday, was grateful to have Adebayo backing him up against the Grizzlies.
“He was huge for us,” Olynyk said. “He just comes in and changes the whole dynamic of the game with his athletic ability on the court, his ability to get to the rim, make plays offensively and defensively. He was locked in and ready to go. He definitely carried us through that stretch in the first half. And then in the second half he helped blow that game open.”
Said Dragic: “Bam was amazing. You can see what he can do, he can defend, he can catch those lobs. He was amazing. He’s only 20 years old, and he can do all this stuff. He can really help this team.”
The first time Whiteside was out, Adebayo started three games and averaged 7.7 points and 8.0 rebounds in 25 minutes a game.
In this latest six-game stint with Whiteside out, he’s averaged 6.8 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and shot 73.1 percent from the field over 21.5 minutes, but also a lot more of “the little things” the Heat loves.
He’s done a phenomenal job setting screens, an area where Whiteside has struggled and been called out by his teammates in the past.
“I just try to set good screens so my teammates get open, I get open and that gets our offense gets going,” Adebayo said. “Shoot, as long as we score, I don’t really care how the screen ends.”
Adebayo had a team-leading nine screen assists in Saturday’s win over the Brooklyn Nets and five more in Monday’s victory. He ranks second among all rookies in screen assists with an average of 2.5 per game.
What Spoelstra likes most about the rookie is his motor and his unselfishness. Adebayo has more screen assists (43) than he has alley oop feeds (15) — and he doesn’t complain about it.
“A lot of young players just want the ball for themselves. He’s a giving player and that’s why we think he’s a winning player,” Spoelstra said. “He does a lot of things to help you win and a lot of them right now don’t show up in a box score — whether its screen assists, pick-and-rolls, fundamentals, extra efforts on the glass, being in the right spot defensively, communicating. He does a lot of those things and he’s just scratching the surface right now. He’s learning the league and our system. He still has a long way to go in those areas.”
Olynyk, who said he’s been helping Adebayo with his screen setting, said he’s seen growth in the rookie every day. The same for Dragic.
“There’s plays in practice all the time when you’re like ‘Damn this guy is a freak. Where did that even come from?’” Olynyk said. “He’s starting to string more of those plays together every day. He can really impact a game in a lot of different ways — and it doesn’t have to be scoring, and that’s a pretty valuable tool.”
Still, as good as the rookie has looked at times with Whiteside out, Spoelstra said Monday he isn’t sure how the Heat’s rotation is going to shake out once Whiteside returns. The good news, Spoelstra said, is confidence is growing in Adebayo every day.
“When you lose 34 minutes a game with Hassan, somebody else has to step up,” Spoelstra said. “But you have to be prepared for those minutes, and Bam has left some kind of impression on the staff and his teammates. He does consistent work every day. His approach to get better and help the team, people tend to notice that after a while.”