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The Steven Adams effect

Memphis loves Stevo.

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Cleveland Cavaliers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Steven Adams’s game-winning tip against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday might have been the pinnacle moment of his Memphis Grizzlies’ tenure, but his importance to the franchise can not be defined by one shot.

Adams has been a steady force for the Grizzlies since arriving in Memphis in July 2021. He played 75 games a year ago and has played 40 of 44 games this season. Looking at the box score of a game will not show what Adams brings to Memphis. His excellence is in the details and can only be fully appreciated by the eye test. Whether it is his forceful screens or his interior dominance, Adams is affecting the game at all times.

The acquisition of Adams was questioned. After all, Jonas Valančiūnas had been dominant during his time in Memphis. At the time, Adams was undervalued, marred by what many thought to be a pricy contract for a non-shooting big. The Grizzlies were going from a center who had averaged 17.1 points and 12.5 rebounds to Adams who had averaged 7.6 points and 8.9 rebounds. For the Grizzlies, however, the move was not about stats. It was about team fit and elevating Memphis’s franchise players. No one, not even Zach Kleiman and the Grizzlies’ front office, could have predicted the extent of Adams’s impact.

When the Grizzlies traded for Adams, the team emphasized that Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. would benefit from playing with a center that does not need the ball to be effective. Unlike Valančiūnas, Adams does not rely on post-up opportunities and pick-and-pops to help the offense. Rather than clog the paint, Adams is able to clear the lane for Morant in pick-and-roll action or through smooth seal screens. Many players have gone out of their way to say Adams is the strongest player in the NBA and that is evident in his screening and relentless rebounding. After Wednesday’s game, Jackson said “He’s [Adams] the best screener in NBA history and probably the best offensive rebounder ever. When you do those things, it just saves us time and time again.”

While the Grizzlies as a whole are a team that feeds off of each other and demonstrates phenomenal chemistry on the court, Adams in particular has built specific connections with each of his teammates. Fans that watch the team nightly see how Adams has unlocked aspects of Morant’s game, helping him become a superstar. They also see the smooth chemistry he has with Desmond Bane that allows them to orchestrate offensive possessions interchangeably. They see the dominant frontcourt of Adams and Jackson, two big men that can outmuscle the opponent at any time. Adams has the ability to find JJJ whether he is throwing him an alley-oop or tossing it to him for a corner three. After Wednesday’s game-winner, Grizzlies’ head coach Taylor Jenkins commented on what Adams brings to the team.

Adams’s shooting has reached new levels this season. Last year, his effective field goal percentage was 55.1, this year it is 60.6. A year ago he shot 60% at the rim, this year he is shooting 64%. The most startling improvement is in the short and mid-range areas. Last year he shot 39% on short mid-range attempts. This season he is up to 51%. While his free throw shooting is at a career-low, Adams has improved his shooting in every other area. The Grizzlies have also worked to get Adams more involved on offense, early in games. This often comes in the form of pick-and-rolls with Morant or passes deep in the paint where Adams is able to use his body to create space and get an easy bucket. With his improved touch around the rim, he has become a much more reliable offensive option for the Grizzlies.

Last year, Adams averaged 10 rebounds which was a new career high. This year, “Aquamane” has averaged 11.4 boards a game, including a league-leading five offensive rebounds. Mitchell Robinson is second in the category with 4.3 offensive rebounds and several players are tied for third with 3.4. That is a vast margin, unparalleled among nearly all stat categories. This dominance on the boards is why the Grizzlies are top five in second-chance points. Adams is tied for fourth in points per game from putbacks. Adams’s elite rebounding, especially on offense, has allowed his teammates to get easy offensive rebounds. The pull Adams has on the glass allows players like Jackson to get easy boards.

Adams averages 2.3 assists, down from last year, when he averaged 3.4 assists per game. Very few big men in the league possess the ability to make passes like Adams. Nikola Jokic and Domantas Sabonis are two of the top passing centers and “Stevo” is right behind them. On a nightly basis, Adams makes savvy passes to cutters, almost as if he is Morant. Whether it is Bane, John Konchar, Dillon Brooks, or another Grizzly, Adams uses his size to see over the defense and find his teammates. His passing has been a revelation over the last two seasons.

Only 29, Adams is the team’s veteran. He is tasked with mentoring the Grizzlies’ young talent and deferring to them on the court so they can earn reps. Outside of Memphis’s stars, Adams has had a particular effect on Santi Aldama. The two often share minutes, with Aldama as a stretch four and Adams as the dominant five. Aldama, who has already shown tremendous upside, gets to learn from a true professional, further developing his game.

For the first time in franchise history, the Grizzlies are truly primed to win an NBA championship. Their stars are the ones that get the attention, and rightfully so. Morant is one of the league’s most gifted scorers and a maestro with the ball in his hands. Bane has become a three-level scorer who can do everything on both ends of the floor. Jackson is having a career season and is in line to win defensive player of the year. However, Memphis’s big three is not nearly as good without Adams there to offer support. At times, Adams is the heartbeat of the team. He is one of the few players the Grizzlies have traded for and he immediately adapted to the culture of the team. He is a beloved teammate and one of the league’s most under-appreciated centers. If the team is able to make a deep postseason run, Adams will play a significant part, and while his contributions may fly under the radar, Grizzlies fans know what Stevo brings to Memphis.

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