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The balancing force of Steven Adams

The Grizzlies are finding their way of utilizing and activating Steven Adams’ skillsets, and it’s helping the team soar in the process.

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Los Angeles Lakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Steven Adams’ role within the offense is fascinating.

He doesn’t take a lot of shots, as Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and Desmond Bane carry the offensive load in that regard. Even with Morant out, it’s led to more responsibility for Jackson, Brooks, and Bane — not more shots for Adams.

His responsibilities within the offense are pretty simple: set hard screens, crash the offensive glass, and create from the high post — whether that be off dribble hand-offs, or finding cutters.

And that’s what’s so interesting about his fit with the Memphis Grizzlieswell, at least interesting to me. He isn’t asked to do a lot, but it also allows them to empower their younger guys (Morant, Jackson, Brooks, and Bane) and expand the horizons of their games. Through doing that, he’s playing to his offensive strengths — screening and offensive rebounding — but also maximizing his passing abilities.

“That was something we talked about when we acquired him in the summer — and got to know him a little bit, and study the film, got him in early in preseason as he was building chemistry with his teammates,” head coach Taylor Jenkins said. He also praised his ability to screen, roll, and pass — both in terms of creation and dribble hand-off.

Let’s start with some of his more obvious skills he’s brought to the table thus far. He’s an elite screener. I know the conversation on screen assists are pretty tricky, because it’s a valuable tracking stat, but it may not — nor should not — be something that correlates to accolades (see: Gobert, Rudy). However, the elite screeners do an impeccable job of creating space for the ball-handlers to pick and choose their spots from wherever on the floor.

And that’s just what Steven Adams does for this offense.

“Oh my god, he opens up our offense so much,” Dillon Brooks said.

Adams is currently among the top in the leaderboards when it comes to screen assists. He’s 4th in total screen assists (143), 7th in screen assists per game (4.8), and 6th in screen assists per 36 minutes (6.8). His big build and physicality play a huge role in his success as a screener — ask Austin Reaves, who recently told The Ringer’s Mirin Fader, that his jaw still hurts to this day from an Adams screen. Probably one of the biggest factors in the team’s success with Adams as a screener is his love for setting picks.

“He’s a huge body, and he loves to screen,” Desmond Bane said. “It’s my first time playing with a big man that loves to screen, and he’s good at screening.”

We’ve seen players such as Bane and Ja Morant expand their games a bit and incorporate more of a mid-range game. They’re put in a ton of work to add that skill to their bag, and Adams is giving them the extra benefit of more space through a pick.

And it’s also been beneficial in Ja Morant’s evolution into a pull-up threat from 3. He’s hitting some sweet jumpers in isolation situations, but Adams is also doing a great job of setting him up with extra spacing for more open 3’s.

“That’s a guard’s dream,” Bane added.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Steven Adams has also been a killer on the glass. He’s hauling in 8.9 rebounds per game, a few decimal points below his career-best, but he’s grabbing 12.7 rebounds per 36 minutes. Where he truly shines on the glass is on the offensive end. He’s leading the league in total offensive rebounds (118), and he also possesses an Offensive Rebound Percentage of 16.5% — 2nd in the league, and only only 3 decimal points behind the league leader Andre Drummond.

Adams is setting a tone for the Grizzlies in that department, as Memphis is leading the league in second-chance points per game (16.8). While he’s getting 45% of his points off second-chance chances, his playmaking has shined in these instances. After hauling in an offensive rebound, you could find him hitting cutters or shooters for easier scoring opportunities.

“A lot of times, he’ll get offensive rebounds, and I’m screaming his name at the top of my lungs,” Bane said. “He tells me, keep yelling for me.”

Adams is coupling his bruising rebounding abilities with the most eye-popping skill he’s brought to the table, his passing. He showed some playmaking chops in his final season with the Oklahoma City Thunder (2.3 assists per game), but his usage tailed off quite a bit when arriving in New Orleans. In this new environment, he’s producing well as a playmaking hub around the high post.

He has the highest Assist Percentage of his career right now (13.8%), and he’s also in the 91st percentile in Assist-to-Usage ratio (0.95) — per Cleaning the Glass. He’s also 10th among all centers that have played 15 or more games in Assists per 36 minutes (3.9) — and the players above him are great company too.

I’ve tied this playmaking concept when it comes to tallying assists. There are players that generate assists through connective passing — dribble hand-offs, swing passes, regular passes through the flow of the offense — and there are those that create looks for others through passing. Adams is doing this through simple dribble hand-offs, but he’s also dropping absolutely wicked dimes to his teammates.

“We just say go out there and play. Here are the actions we want to play out of. More often than not, he’s making the right read,” Taylor Jenkins said of Adams. “As teams are pressuring us, he’s always making the right read —whether it’s a setting screen and getting out and slipping, or finding late passes — so it definitely diversifies our offense.”

Similar with his screening, Adams does a great job of using his body to allow the receiver to have enough space to attack at any 3 levels.

Where he’s showing some pizzazz on his dimes is when he’s finding cutters. After all, he’s goggle certified.

He has these nifty bounce passes that he drops down to his teammates as they look for the right opening for Adams to get them the ball. It’s just an excellent illustration of how well Adams is making these reads.

Probably one of the coolest developments from Steven Adams’ passing breakout is his connection with Desmond Bane. The “Adams assist to Bane” combination has the most assists among any duo on the team, per PBPStats.com, at 37 assists.

“The fact that he’s unselfish and wants to pass makes it a really good match for me,” Bane said. The two have also deployed this cool little sequence out of DHO actions where they fake the handoff, and as Bane cuts to the basket, Adams slings over a little Patrick Mahomes-esque sidearm pass to him for the bucket.

The screening and rebounding were obvious positives Adams was going to bring to the table upon his arrival in Memphis. However, the passing has been a wonderful development to follow. The assist quality is pretty cool, dropping some neat dimes to balance with his DHO action ones. In the process, he’s adding an interesting wrinkle to the Grizzlies’ offense with his facilitation skill. His teammates are active moving without the ball with the expectation that Adams is going to find him.

Memphis Grizzlies v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Steven Adams isn’t expected to go out and fill up the scoring column. With everything that he provides, that’s okay.

Jaren Jackson Jr. put it quite well that Adams does a great job of complementing anyone around him. He does that through setting hard screens, crashing the glass hard, and finding opportunities to set up his teammates.

And through that, his chemistry with his teammates is growing, and we’re starting to see a more clear fit.

“I’m so grateful to have him on our team, and the coaching staff and players are grateful,” Dillon Brooks said. “He’s a dangerous player, and he’s our man in the middle, and he’s our anchor. We put a lot on him, and he’s ready for the challenge every single night. He’s a warrior. We need that every single day, and here we are getting it every single night.”

There are some areas that need improvement — defending in space can be challenging, and his offensive movements can be a bit awkward at times. Nonetheless, he’s doing the dirty work of battling on the glass and setting hard screens. The Grizzlies are also finding a way to utilize Steven Adams as an offensive hub in the middle of the floor where his teammates can orbit around him for clean looks. In the process, it’s maximizing his best traits, while also empowering his teammates to grow their games with added offensive responsibilities.

It’s perfectly balanced, as all things should be.

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