On the morning of Nov. 27, Bam Adebayo was told, from the very first moment of that night’s game against the Houston Rockets, his primary defensive assignment would be Russell Westbrook.
Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra delivered the news during the team’s shootaround at the Toyota Center. The decision was unorthodox but astute, and it didn’t take long for Adebayo’s initial shock to dissolve. He’s officially listed as a forward-center — 6’9 without sneakers, 255 pounds — with long, meddlesome arms, muscles stacked on top of muscles, and small jet engines implanted in each calf. It’s the perfect body in an era of NBA basketball defined by defensive versatility.
But still … this was Russell Westbrook, two-time scoring champ and Rottweiler who attacks the rim like its juicy brisket. For most players, the mere thought of trying to stay in front of him is traumatic. Adebayo loved everything about it.
“Your head coach having that much trust in you to guard a well-known all-star is a big, big ups to you,” he said. “Your coach telling the starting ‘center’ to guard a primetime guard like Russell Westbrook is kind of crazy.”
Questioning Spoelstra never crossed Adebayo’s mind. As a senior in high school he was regularly tapped to guard the opposing team’s best player — among them De’Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball, and Jayson Tatum — whenever his team needed a stop. The coverages came on a possession-by-possession basis, but Adebayo held his own.
Westbrook — from the opening tip, for an entire game — was a different type of challenge. Study the box score from that night in Houston and it’s easy to think Spoelstra’s decision failed. Westbrook finished with 27 points, seven assists, and nine rebounds, and the Heat lost by nine.
But the Heat don’t regret it. When they look at Adebayo they don’t see a position, and even before they took him 14th overall in the 2017 draft they didn’t see a prospect who should be boxed into a role. Adebayo is an original, one-of-one — a jittery ball of unselfish, peerlessly athletic energy whose lone hobby is discovering new ways to dismantle traditional norms on a basketball court.
He’s a thrill ride with no precedent, both humble and supernaturally driven, supported by an organization that believes his mistakes in the short term will sprout into sustained, unwavering success. That showdown against Westbrook was a golden opportunity for Adebayo to test his potential.
“You can’t just be one of those guys where the whole league knows what you are and categorizes you as that and you accept that,” Adebayo said a few days after the Rockets game. “I want to be one of those guys who expands his zone. Kind of like what Kawhi did.”
In what has become a breakout season, Adebayo’s peak is an enticing question. Instead of tracking towards an established archetype, he may be something altogether more intriguing: an evolutionary frolic into basketball’s next frontier.
Back in July, when he first heard the Heat had included Hassan Whiteside in the four-team trade that brought Jimmy Butler to Miami, Adebayo knew he was about to take on a much bigger role. He sat down with Spoelstra several times to discuss how it would look, and in one meeting disclosed that his top personal goal was to win Most Improved Player. Chasing individual accolades doesn’t jibe with Heat culture, but in this case Adebayo’s ambition could be mutually beneficial.
The Heat had no serious doubts about Adebayo becoming a major part of their next great team—after last year’s All-Star break, he held his own in Miami’s starting lineup — but they were nonetheless unsure how he’d handle nearly 10 more minutes of playing time per game, especially as a greater focal point in opposing scouting reports.
John Calipari, Adebayo’s head coach at Kentucky, remembers a conversation he had with Heat president Pat Riley over the summer. “I need more from Bam,” Riley told him.
So far this season, the Heat couldn’t ask for more. At 22, with his first All-Defensive team around the corner, Adebayo is averaging 15.3 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. (He recorded his first triple-double against the Atlanta Hawks on Dec. 10.) On a per-minute basis, all those numbers are up from last season, along with his usage rate and field goal percentage. The only players in NBA history to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, and four assists while making more than 59 percent of their shots are Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Charles Barkley.
Adebayo also draws more fouls per game than LeBron James, Ben Simmons, and Andre Drummond, and ranks in the NBA’s top-20 in free-throw attempts, rebound rate, steals, blocks, field-goal percentage, Value Over Replacement Player, Win Shares, and several other metrics, advanced and remedial, that suggest he’s made the leap.
Adebayo’s candidacy for Most Improved Player is valid in a crowded field. More important than that, he will make the All-Star team if the Heat continue to win. Right now they’re 18-6, with the point differential of a 54-win team, per Cleaning the Glass. Adebayo never expected this type of attention so early in his career, but he’s embracing it.
“I’m a person, and everybody wants to be an all-star. Nobody wants to just be a role-player,” he said. “I’ve thought about it. But the number one goal is to keep winning, so I’m more focused on that than being an all-star, honestly.”
As one of the most impactful young bigs in the league, Adebayo’s defense is a literal game changer. In a recent overtime win against the Toronto Raptors, he wiped Pascal Siakam off the face of the Earth, holding the defending champ to zero made baskets while covering him.
Not only does Adebayo stand out as one of a select few who can actually switch 1-through-5 without embarrassing himself, but his nimble yet violent offensive skillset blurs the lines of what a center can be. He personifies positionless basketball with moves that don’t need context to make your jaw drop.
Heat point guard Goran Dragic had to stop and think when asked if Adebayo reminds him of any other player, before landing on Draymond Green.
“But Bam is bigger,” Dragic said. “He can pass, he can score, he can defend. There’s not a lot of big guys in this league who can do that.”
Aside from volcanic superstars like Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic, and Karl-Anthony Towns, nearly every starting center in today’s NBA slots into a cookie-cutter role. On offense, they’re off the ball, rebounding, rim running, setting screens, and either rolling to the basket or popping behind the three-point line. They exist to simultaneously complement and rely upon the wings and guards who have a greater impact on wins and losses. Very few have the bandwidth to handle more responsibilities, and most are glued to the paint on defense because venturing outside out of it would expose their stiff vulnerabilities.
Adebayo has no defensive weaknesses. He can rumble in from the weakside to two-hand smash a layup against the backboard, or slide on a switch to stop shifty ball-handlers before they get downhill.
“[The next time we play] Bam’s gonna try and switch on me,” childhood friend and New York Knicks point guard Dennis Smith Jr. said. “That’s all he’s gonna want to do.”
Adebayo avoids unnecessary fouls and grabs every loose ball, too. On offense, he rolls to the rim, stalks the baseline, and initiates offense from the perimeter. Despite being trapped in a center’s body, he doesn’t think, move, or act like one very often.
“He’s carving out a new position for himself,” said Brandon Clifford, Adebayo’s coach as a high school senior at High Point Christian Academy. “He’s really just kind of blossoming into the perfect basketball player.”
Adebayo is cerebral, adaptive, and can turn a basketball court into a personal bouncy castle. Last season, he would regularly challenge Heat wing Derrick Jones Jr. — whose nickname, for good reason, is Airplane Mode — to dunk contests right after the Heat finished grueling two-hour practices. “A lot of people don’t know, but Bam is as athletic as me, if not more,” Jones Jr. said. “He’s one of the most athletic people I’ve ever seen in my life.”
The physical advantages come naturally for Adebayo, but it’s his eagerness to explore their application, combined with his playmaking ability, that could turn him into a big unlike many we’ve ever seen.
There are several ways to explain Adebayo’s rise and why he has been able to distinguish himself from homogenous big men across the league. But to have that conversation, we first need to acknowledge how the Heat have encouraged Adebayo to buck convention.
Adebayo could’ve been Clint Capela, locked into a role he’d capably dominate but with a much lower ceiling. Instead, he was drafted by a franchise that thinks outside the box. It’s any prospect’s best-case scenario, the coach, roster, system, and organization’s philosophical principles all fitting snugly together.
At Kentucky, Adebayo exhibited a selflessness that Calipari remembers fondly. He let Fox and Malik Monk operate with the ball and averaged just 0.8 assists per game, a surprisingly low number given who he is today. Kentucky’s coaches saw tantalizing ball skills, but they didn’t have much time to nurture them. As important as player development is for every college program, team success still rules.
“You won’t believe this,” Calipari said. “We have to win games here! So our practice time is based on, yes, I’m going to say 20 percent of it is individually, but most of that is defense. The rest of it is, ‘We have to get together as a team, we gotta figure this out.’ We’ve got five new guys who’ve never played together.
“[The Heat] are still figuring out exactly what he can do. Now, they’ve had him how many years? This his third year there? OK. I had him eight months. You know what I’m saying?”
Before college, Adebayo’s AAU and high school coaches saw a player who was good at making coast-to-coast, on-the-fly decisions in an open gym. But in the structural confines of an actual game, Adebayo was required to score before anything else.
“I used to hate being put in that role because I wanted to share the wealth with my teammates,” he said. “I want everybody to eat, basically. And right now I’m helping everybody eat. This is the role that fits me.”
Smith and Adebayo were teammates on several AAU teams growing up in North Carolina, one of which was coached by Smith’s father. Adebayo’s polymorphism doesn’t surprise Smith, but he doubted whether the world would ever get to see it.
“My dad was always telling him, ‘When you come out and play with us, show them your game. Shoot the jumper. You can push the ball up the court because you can make the right play,’” Smith said. “You see him throwing lobs and stuff now? He’s been capable of doing that. It’s good that he’s in a system that allows him to do it.”
In Miami’s offense, Adebayo is a vertical spacer and put-back machine, but he is also entrusted to be a traffic cop on the perimeter, a job he handles with the confidence of someone who knows he won’t get benched for a mistake. Right now, Jokic and Towns are the only two centers who average more assists per game, and Jokic is the only player who logs more elbow touches.
Adebayo takes advantage of the space that Miami’s three-point shooters create by hitting cutters as they dart through the paint. The passes are bold, and come from his own reads.
The Heat don’t want Adebayo to be robotic. The passes he whips around the floor are high risk, high reward. But the green light to throw them is attached to a responsibility Adebayo is still grasping. He turns the ball over a lot.
“A lot of passes that I throw, some of them are kind of thread-the-needle type of passes, and I know Year 1 or Year 2 Bam wouldn’t have done that,” Adebayo said. “But you’ve gotta take the leash off the dog. What’s scarier, a dog with a leash walking with a person or a dog with nobody around him?”
When Adebayo is on the court, Miami outscores opponents by 7.5 points per 100 possessions—a top-five point differential—with an offense that’s slightly above league average. But they’d be even more threatening if his turnover rate wasn’t one of the league’s worst. Still, Miami’s coaches aren’t too concerned.
“I don’t want to put handcuffs on him. He’ll get better with it,” Spoelstra said. “And then hopefully on the other end of this we’re going to be a better offensive team because of that.”
Adebayo’s upward trajectory is steep. He was once an uncoordinated 15-year-old who couldn’t catch the ball, let alone finish at the basket.
“You’re talking All-Defensive, Defensive Player of the Year, an all-star,” Calipari said. “There were teams that passed on him [in the draft] and I tried to tell them: ‘You have no idea what you’re passing on.’”
Every so often Adebayo will do something he couldn’t weeks prior, be it a tight left-handed in-and-out dribble that propels him into the paint …
… or various floaters he was afraid to test when he first entered the league.
“In the first Milwaukee game we played this season, I was like, ‘Bro, two years ago, first of all I wouldn’t have shot this shot. Second of all, I don’t think I would’ve made it.’ That’s just honesty,” Adebayo said. “Just thinking about it, going through your head in the game, you really start to see how hard work pays off.”
A self-described visual learner and sponge, Adebayo pays attention when teammates offer pointers. Heat forward Kelly Olynyk recently gave him a good tip: When initiating a dribble hand-off, always be on the lookout for defenders who go through the motions. “Kelly was like ‘Hey bro, do it three times and then just keep it, see what happens.’”
Adebayo has the freedom to use his imagination on the fly. At least once a week he pulls off something in a game that makes one wonder just how high his ceiling could be.
It’s clear what his rough spots are. Adebayo can put the ball on the floor and blow by his man, but his post moves are jagged, and he has only made one three all season. (“Threes might end up being apart of my arsenal,” he said. “It’s a work in progress.”) He’s still far from being a self-reliant scorer, too, with 78 percent of his baskets coming off assists.
But based on how he has handled a critical role on a successful team, it’s hard not to be optimistic that Adebayo may someday turn those weaknesses into strengths.
“Obviously he’s turning it over a little bit but that’s what you want. You want him to build that experience and that growth so he can understand what passes work, what doesn’t work, what options to go off,” Olynyk said. “You’re not seeing a finished product.”
When asked if he was willing to answer a few questions about Adebayo for this story, Philadelphia 76ers guard Josh Richardson lit up. As teammates for two years with the Heat, they hung out constantly, unwinding after road trips at each other’s apartments and playing arcade games at Dave and Buster’s. Richardson smiled through every memory, calling Adebayo his best friend.
“He’s very positive,” Richardson said.
For players who spend eight or nine months away from their families, wading through the monotony of an NBA season, Adebayo’s personality is appreciated. Moments that don’t have to be serious usually aren’t when he’s around. It’s how he’s been for as long as he can remember, going back to the bus rides his AAU team took across North Carolina when he was in middle school.
“He’s playful as hell, man,” Smith said. “When we was little, like seventh grade, everybody was way smaller. He was 6’7 at the time. He’s still sitting there trying to wrestle everybody.”
Adebayo has perspective, too. He’s sensitive and caring, aware that he may not know what a teammate is going through on any given day. Round-the-clock empathy matters, and it comes to him naturally.
On the home screen of his phone is the green trailer where Adebayo and his mother, Marilyn, lived from the time he was seven years old until his senior year in high school; a reminder of where he comes from.
Adebayo is still learning about himself. But despite his youth, the Heat believe he’s ready to embrace responsibilities that are typically handled by veterans. Miami’s 39-year-old bedrock Udonis Haslem wants Adebayo to vocalize what his teammates need to hear. During timeouts, Haslem will motion towards the empty coach’s chair and instruct Adebayo to take a seat.
“I’m trying to restrain from [sitting in the chair]. I’m not gonna lie. I’m trying to, because it’s hard for me,” Adebayo said. “I’ve done it a couple times. Just to get out of my comfort zone. It feels weird when you have all the eyes on you. But I’m getting used to my teammates hearing my voice. They’re listening. I feel like I’ve got one of those voices where, all right, if he’s saying something, something’s wrong.”
When it comes to holding teammates accountable in an individual setting, Adebayo is less bashful, even with Butler, who has so far been a seamless fit on and off the floor for the Heat.
“Everybody just assumed he was an asshole,” Adebayo said. “Every once in a while I’ve gotta go up to Jimmy and say, ‘Hey man, it’s go time, you need to wake up a little bit,’ and there’s been times where he’s told me that. But to know that your teammates care enough to actually hold you to a standard, I feel like that just defines what kind of person you really are. You care. You want your teammates to do good. You want them to become what you envision them to be.”
Adebayo never expected to shut Westbrook down, but the film from that loss reveals a brilliant performance that just about no other defender could even approach.
His plan was to force long twos, contest everything, and set every fast twitch muscle in his body on fire when it came time to race back in transition. Easier said than done, but Adebayo checked every box.
Westbrook got his points, but not like he wanted to. He only drove the ball 10 times in 36 minutes. Not including that night, Westbrook drives the ball about 17 times per game. Against the Heat, 16 of his 21 shots were launched at least 10 feet from the rim.
Attempting to dribble around Adebayo can be a confidence-crusher; he’s already cemented himself as one of the best isolation defenders in the league.
“Sometimes I think that we look at vertical athleticism and ability to play way above the rim and we automatically think that translates to lateral athleticism and the ability to stay in front of people. And it often doesn’t,” Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens said. “But he’s got both.”
For those who value process over results, Adebayo’s individual defense on Westbrook was a roaring success. Here’s how it looked:
This was just one matchup — albeit an unusual one — in one game that was decided by several different factors besides one player making life difficult for another. But it symbolizes why Adebayo is as unique as he is effective. He turns challenges into opportunities, treating them as a step on his way to fully realizing an upside that can’t yet be understood by anyone, including himself.
In an alternate universe, Adebayo could be having a fine career on a franchise that doesn’t have the means, need, or foresight to use every dimension of his game. Instead, he’s being cast in an ideal role that lets him impact winning and still learn about everything else he can do.
“People who have a strong sense of determination about themselves, I feel like the sky is the limit for those types of people,” Adebayo said. “Shoot, Jimmy — 30th pick and ended up being an all-star because he had that determination and that drive and that vision with himself to be what he wanted to be. I feel like I’m one of those people.”
Adebayo’s offense is still volatile, with learning moments that don’t match the monstrous impact he has on defense. But his innate talent, tireless work ethic, and enthusiasm make genuine, two-way greatness possible someday.
Not every player reaches their potential, but Adebayo is a sound bet. He and Miami can’t wait for that day to come. In the meantime, they’re both enjoying the journey there.