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Steven Adams is holding down the fort

Steven Adams is off to a strong start defensively, putting up the best block rates of his career thus far, and it’s coming at the right time.

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Brooklyn Nets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

There are so many details that go into being an anchor of a defense in the NBA.

The backline is responsible for calling out screens and for being the second line of defense if guards get beat. They play a big role in pick-and-roll coverage and have to make split-second decisions on how to defend the screen. Do you switch? Do you have to drop? Do you stunt the ball handler and try to force the knock away? Do you tag the roller? Or do you just blitz the ball-handler straight into a trap?

(Note: And I’m probably not diving into a quarter of these responsibilities).

Any slip-up in the coverage from the anchor could result in an easy basket — perhaps even a dunk-shot.

Within all of that, whenever there are new coverages for a rim protector to learn, there could be an adjustment period. For Steven Adams, he had a whole new defensive scheme to learn, leading to a bit of a learning curve in the early portion of last season. It leveled out, as the Memphis Grizzlies held opponents to 110.2 points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor (71st percentile, per Cleaning the Glass).

The defensive rating hasn’t been great for the team as a whole, ranking 25th in that category — coughing up 114.8 points per 100 possessions. With that, there are never many positives for individual net rating; in this example, the Grizzlies have a defensive rating of 117.9 when Adams is on the floor (16th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass).

Nonetheless, Adams is still making a profound impact defensively.

While the defensive rating hasn’t been good, there has been a formula that has worked for the Grizzlies and with Adams. Taylor Jenkins is continuing to deploy a 2-big system, as he did last season with Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. Though Santi Aldama is more of a forward than a big man, his size helps give the Grizzlies an advantage defending the interior. Thus far, the Grizzlies are giving up 105.9 points per 100 possessions (86th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) — for reference, lineups with Adams and Jackson surrendered 109.5 points per 100 possessions.

Because of their 2-big structure, the Grizzlies are able to deploy a successful strategy when defending the paint.

Taylor Jenkins looks to funnel drivers into their bigs in the paint, forcing paint scorers to try scoring in the midst of the trees inside. As a result, Steven Adams is off to a strong start as the team’s defensive anchor. He’s averaging career-highs in blocks per game (1.4) and in block percentage (3.0%, 81st percentile among centers).

Though these are still his primary responsibilities with a healthy roster, Adams’ rim protection has been important for the Grizzlies to weather the storm without Jaren Jackson. This stretch just highlights how the coaching staff and players empower Adams to be a force defensively and block shots.

“We do instill the confidence in him to go and unleash himself with blocking shots,” Dillon Brooks said of Adams. “I feel like with our defense and our coverages, he’s understanding where to go on block shots, where to wall up.”

His surge as a rim protector has also been a byproduct of Adams growing more comfortable with the system. It’s more evident when defending pick-and-rolls.

“There’s just something understanding the system more and especially with the guards, how they play the pick-and-roll and the late reads. There’s more of a comfort with that aspect of it,” Steven Adams said. “Last year, I was either helping too early or too late, and I think now I’m starting to get a better feel for when to go.”

This situation is usually a dead spot for traditional centers. Guard initiates the pick-and-roll, draws the switch on the big man, and it’s usually an easy drive or a semi-difficult pull-up 3. Adams sets up enough separation from Dinwiddie where a drive wouldn’t create an overwhelming offensive advantage. As a result, Adams has a much easier time recovering to swat the shot on his way to the basket.

Recovery was a sore spot for Adams in the Minnesota series last season — especially as Karl-Anthony Towns stretched him out of the perimeter. While Jusuf Nurkic doesn’t possess the same perimeter prowess, Adams’ recovery out of the pick-and-roll was strong here. Adams stunts the screen, offering a potential contest on Anfernee Simons as John Konchar recovers from the screen. Once the bounce pass slips through, Adams recovers and stonewalls Nurkic on the drive to force an uncomfortable shot into a block.

Though it resulted in a steal rather than a block, this sequence highlights elements within the team’s scheme. The screen came off the inbound pass — as his man, Jarred Vanderbilt, initiates the DHO off the delivery to the inbounds passer. Vanderbilt doesn’t possess much pick-and-roll gravity, so Adams stays in drop coverage to add a layer of protection at the basket — either a pass or a basket. In the process, he deflects the ball handler’s pass to a cutter and hustles his way to a steal.

Adams has also swatted shots as a result of his good help defense, another domino effect of easing into the system more and more.

“Last year, I was either helping too early or too late, and I think now I’m starting to get a better feel for when to go,” Adams said. “The timing on the blocks or timing on the stunt to get a hand in deflection for a steal. That is where most of my steals have been coming from in the pick-and-roll action and they try to make a dump off.”

There are multiple screen instances here — the off-ball screen and then the ghost screen both from Nurkic. Though the ghost screen isn’t as forceful, it’s enough for Hart to have his man in the rear-view mirror. While defending the drive, Adams helps to also cut off any outlet to the roll man as well. He gives himself enough room to alter the shot, which leads to the rejection of Josh Hart’s layup.

Again, Adams knew his personnel and sagged off his man on the perimeter. He helps to double Lauri Markkanen off of the slip screen-and-roll. He lingers around the paint for the reset pass to Sexton, who then wins the first step over his defender. Adams is now in the perfect position to help and swat the shot to the Utah bench.

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

Adams has grown more comfortable, and it’s leading to the most productive shot-blocking numbers of his career in the early sample.

“This is his 2nd year with us, so he’s figuring out the defense and seeing where he can make his mark,” Dillon Brooks said of Adams. “And he’s making his mark each and every game and getting better and better at it.”

He’s making his mark at the right time in the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr., a First Team All-Defense big man. What’s encouraging with his stretch of play defensively is how it applies to when Jackson returns.

“I wouldn’t say it’s in [Jaren Jackson Jr.]’s absence,” Taylor Jenkins said. “We expect that of him when [Jackson Jr.] is in the lineup too. So, just being a guy that can execute the gameplan. We funnel teams in the paint at times and we want him to just unleash himself to be active.”

Adams will still be a key part of the team’s pick-and-roll and help defense schemes. As someone who’s often guarding 5’s and non-shooters, Adams will be thrown into a ton of pick-and-rolls and will be in a position to help more often than not. So, his timing on rotations and on blocks remains a vital element of the team’s goal of taking away shots in the paint. The return of Jackson though amplifies and strengthens that strategy, while also creating a considerable size advantage in the interior.

“Once Trip gets back, we’re going to have 2 guys down there that can block shots, so we can get back to being a top defense in the NBA,” Brooks said.

It hasn’t been the most ideal start for the Grizzlies’ defense, but there have been some bright spots. One of them is how Steven Adams is holding down the fort in the paint in the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. His strong start on that side of the floor should only make them more formidable in their efforts in climbing up the ranks for the league’s best defenses and in the Western Conference.

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