Spoelstra: “This season without question would be the growth of our young players”
When did Bam Adebayo realize he needed to take a more aggressive approach on offense?
“When your teammates start yelling at you a lot, you start to listen,” Adebayo said matter-of-factly Friday during the Heat’s season-ending interviews. “You start to see ways you can score and you see how much it helps the team and you as an individual.”
Adebayo, 21, averaged 8.9 points on 57.6 percent shooting, 7.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists in 23.3 minutes while playing in all 82 of the Heat’s games this season.
In his rookie season, Adebayo stuck to his role in the Heat’s system and helped facilitate the offense on the elbows as the hand-off man or by setting solid screens. But toward the end of his second NBA season, he was used in an expanded offensive role that led to the best stretch of his NBA career.
Adebayo became the starting center in late February when Hassan Whiteside went out with a strained hip, and he ended up starting 22 of the Heat’s final 23 games. Adebayo averaged 11.6 points on 59.7 percent shooting, 9.1 rebounds, three assists, 1.1 steals and one block in that 23-game span, and Miami outscored opponents by 45 points in that time.
While Adebayo averaged 34.5 touches per game for the season, his touches jumped to 43.5 during the final 23 games as the Heat ran the offense through him at times.
“Really measured out as one of the top centers in the league, particularly after the new year,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We had a winning record when he was in the starting lineup, and the growth of his game was notable just from even summer league last year to the impact he had on our team this year and how he improved.”
One of the areas of Adebayo’s game that continued to grow was his playmaking ability. He averaged 2.2 assists for the season, but recorded five or more assists in 14 games.
The only NBA centers who finished with five or more assists in more games than Adebayo this past season were Denver’s Nikola Jokic (61 times), Toronto’s Marc Gasol (35), Boston’s Al Horford (26), Orlando’s Nikola Vucevic (24), Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (20), Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic (20), New Orleans’ Anthony Davis (19) and Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (19).
And during the final weeks of the regular season, Adebayo — due $3.5 million for 2019-20 in the third season of his rookie-scale contract — provided a glimpse at another aspect of his potential on offense. Although most of his points still came from around the basket, Adebayo made two of the four above-the-break threes he attempted after the start of March, which is a shot (along with corner threes) he works on often before, during and after practices.
Adebayo also made 16 of 45 (35.6 percent) midrange shots in his second NBA season, which is a solid percentage considering Embiid made 36.1 percent and Towns made 39.9 percent of their midrange shots (at a much higher volume, of course).
“Bam will continue to improve all aspects of his game,” Spoelstra said of Adebayo’s evolving offensive game. “He doesn’t need to come in next year thinking that he needs to be Dirk Nowitzki and knocking down five threes a game. I think he will be an 80 percent free-throw shooter. I think he’s going to get fouled more.
“I think he’ll knock down enough shots to keep defenses honest and really be able to utilize his quickness and speed and power off the dribble and off of pocket passes where he catches it in the middle of the paint. I’ve already noticed his corner three just in all of the practices and drill sessions, and part of the confidence will be just shooting that in a game without losing what really makes him dynamic.”
Adebayo’s teammates keep pushing him to expand his offensive skill set because they know he still has plenty of room to grow.
“I’m going to keep working on my mechanics, keep working on my footwork and keep expanding,” said Adebayo, who is not expected to be part of the Heat’s summer league team this year after participating in the summer circuit in each of the past two offseasons. “My teammates keep pushing me to expand my game. You can’t deny your teammates, and I’m not of those guys who gets complacent. I want more. I want to get better. I want to be a leader and help this team make the playoffs.”
Veteran forward Udonis Haslem said he believes Adebayo will eventually be used “as a power forward or even a stretch forward.”
“I love Bam like a little brother, man. I really do,” Haslem said. “He’s one of the guys who I FaceTime at like 2:30 a.m. for no apparent reason at all. I really do. He’s that guy to me. I’ve just seen so much growth in his game, more so offensively. On defense, he’s always had a Heat mentality defensively. He’s always been a take everything away, get the nasty rebound, get the hard block, chase-every-rebound type guy. He’s always been that guy. But offensively, man, just to see his maturation.”
While Adebayo ended the season as the Heat’s starting center, there’s no guarantee he will have the same role next season. Whiteside, who holds a $27.1 million player option for 2019-20, started at center in his first 53 appearances of the season before Adebayo stepped into that role.
“Who knows? You never know,” Adebayo said when asked if he now views himself as a starting center. “I’ve been in and out of the starting lineup this year and you never know. I feel like everybody has to go with that mentality of you have to earn it. We preach that in our locker room, you have to earn certain things and next year you never know. So I’m going to come out and earn my spot again and be a starter or I might be a reserve.”