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Steven Adams elevates the Grizzlies from the trenches

The work Steven Adams does may go unnoticed, but what he does in trenches is pivotal for this team. It’s time to recognize it.

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Sacramento Kings v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Steven Adams often slides under the radar when it comes to crediting the Memphis Grizzlies’ success. It’s fair to see why as other elements of it are simply flashier, or better talking points to most people — Ja Morant leveraging his playmaking and scoring with his elite athleticism, Desmond Bane torching nets from deep, Jaren Jackson Jr. emerging as one of the NBA’s shot-blockers, or Dillon Brooks checking everybody’s favorite star players.

While those factors do hold significant weight in the Grizzlies success, you can’t ignore how vital Steven Adams is to their system. And if anyone couldn’t see it before, that reality shined the brightest over the past 3 games. He took advantage of a shorter Toronto Raptors lineup, and then dominated in a back-to-back against other rebounding gladiators Jonas Valanciunas (who has been incredibly mid against Memphis since trading him) and Domantas Sabonis. In this 3-game span, he’s averaging 11.7 points, 20.3 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks — another sample that captures how vital he is to the team’s success.

Steven Adams’ force inside the trenches has helped elevate the Grizzlies towards the top of the Western Conference this season.

“I don’t think anybody else wants to go down there and battle,” Ja Morant said of his center. “It’s just a man amongst boys at that point.”

There are two elements of Adams’ work inside the trenches that catches my eye, and it’d be remiss of me to not mention his elite rebounding first.

You’d be hard-pressed to find better rebounders than Steven Adams. When combining prowess on both the offensive and defensive glass, he’s nearly second-to-none.

Adams is 6th in total rebounds per game (11.2), but he really makes his mark on the offensive glass. He’s leading the league at offensive rebounds at 5.1 per game. If he holds that pace, Adams will join Dennis Rodman, Charles Barkley, Andre Drummond, Moses Malone, and Larry Smith as the only players to average 5+ offensive rebounds in multiple seasons.

In Sunday’s win over the Kings, Adams hauled in a career-high 13 offensive rebounds — and he attributed his success on the offensive glass in hilarious, Adams-esque fashion:

Adams’ offensive rebounds provides a staggering impact for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies offensive rebounding percentage is 10.2% better with him on the floor, which falls in the 99th percentile — per Cleaning the Glass. While rebounding is a team effort, Adams sets the tone for their excellence on the glass, helping the Grizzlies rank 2nd in offensive rebounds per game (13.4) and 1st in total rebounds per game (49.0). He also allows them to generate a possessions advantage, as the Grizzlies are 6th in PACE (103.6 per game).

Adams’ size, force, and timing collectively make him a premier rebounder and a crucial component to the Grizzlies’ success.

“It’s very crucial for this team’s success,” rookie David Roddy said of Adams’ work down low. “He’s super, super smart on how to get positioning — using his strength and using his length to get all the rebounds, all of them are crucial. Late-game, extending the clock, and helping us win.”

The other standout element in his work inside the trenches is his defensive activity. The defensive struggles that shined bright in the Timberwolves series against Karl-Anthony Towns are still valid. He doesn’t do too well guarding big men with perimeter gravity, and it could open up advantage creation opportunities for that matchup as well.

However, his defense has been rock solid this season. I wrote about Adams’ defense earlier this season, and how he helped them hold down the fort in Jaren Jackson’s absence. His prowess as a rim protector has continued with Jackson’s return. Now, the Grizzlies have a stout frontline with him and Jackson to form one of the league’s best defenses.

He’s averaging a career-high in blocks per game (1.2), and he’s also 13th in the league in block percentage (4.0). Opponents are also shooting 12.5% worse at the rim with him as the protector — which fall in the 99th percentile among bigs, per The B-Ball Index.

“He’s blocking shots, he’s altering shots, [and] he takes up a significant amount of space the way he moves laterally,” Taylor Jenkins said of his defense.

His presence and activity in screen-and-roll coverage has stood out thus far. He isn’t a big man that can full on switch in pick-and-roll situations. He excels more when he gets to the level of the screen, help as the perimeter defender is recovering, but revert to a drop to offer rim protection. It’s yielding good results for Adams and the Grizzlies, as he’s in the 98th percentile in Screener Rim Defense — per The B-Ball Index.

That technique was on display in his matchup against De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis, as Taylor Jenkins praised his gameplan execution on the matchup:

What he does in a pick-and-roll knowing that [De’Aaron] Fox was a big priority coming into the game plan tonight. On top of the [Domantas] Sabonis lethal pick-and-roll combination, being able to guard both of those guys, I thought it was really impressive how he was up at the level of the screen. He was pressuring Sabonis, he was able to control Fox while [Dillon Brooks] was busting his tail to get back in front and do an amazing job there.

Adams remained at the level of the screen and helped contain Fox, while Morant recovered from the screen. Then, he simply stayed big and didn’t allow the spin move to generate the necessary separation to get to the basket — and ultimately swatting his shot away.

The Grizzlies also utilized Steven Adams in their gameplan to slow down Zion Williamson the other night. They stuck Dillon Brooks or David Roddy on him, providing physicality when he gets downhill from the perimeter. Those two guys would funnel him towards Adams and Jaren Jackson at the rim, giving him difficult looks at the rim with their size and shot-blocking prowess. It paid off — Zion Williamson was 6-16 from the field and coughed up 9 turnovers, Jackson and Adams combined for 13 stocks (8 blocks and 5 steals), and the Grizzlies secured the win.

Adams got to the level of the Jaxson Hayes screen. As Hayes popped out to the perimeter, Adams positioned himself in help defense. Once Zion changes direction, Adams slides and almost creates a pinch with Brooks to form an air-tight window for him to spin into a layup. Then, Jackson rotates over for the block.

Adams also displayed great rotation techniques when Zion sought opportunities to utilize his brute force in the post. He slid over to double him and bait him into making hasty decisions — often leading to turnovers.

There isn’t anything flashy with his screen defense. He simply remains active and nimble. With his activity with his footwork and his arms, he covers space in drop with preparation for either the ball-handler or the screener inside the paint.

Adams’ surge defensively comes with learning the system more. Often under the radar, there is an adjustment period for learning a system, especially for centers serving as the backline of the defense. They’re counted on for communication towards the perimeter players for screen actions and other coverage points. With Adams growing more acclimated in the system, he’s putting together the best shot-blocking numbers of his career.

“I think I’m more comfortable in the system, getting more calm,” Adams said. “Last year was a bit of a learning curve on how players move and if they were in front or not; it’s kind of weird reads on the body language, but I’m getting used to just reading the players a bit better when they need help and when not to.”

Adams’ goal in these defensive coverages and efforts: to not play defense anymore.

“We enjoy just getting a stop, so we don’t have to play any more defense. That’s the main thing,” Adams said. “The less defense we could play, the better. That’s why we try and emphasize the defensive rebounding, that’s why it is such a demoralizing thing if you give out offensive rebounds, then you have a 14-second shot clock while you have to play defensive again.”

While his rebounding and screening hold the most weight in Adams’ impact, his defense has been an underrated component of the team’s success thus far.

New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Steven Adams’ work often slides under the radar in the Memphis Grizzlies’ success, and that’s expected. Most work in the trenches — similar to great work from the line in football — is appreciated yet usually unrecognized. Nonetheless, it’s become a vital component to the Grizzlies’ system and their goals of owning the paint, corralling extra possessions, and starting offense in transition.

“Steve-O, man ... he’s incredible,” Ja Morant said in walk-off postgame interview Sunday night. “I know opposing teams, when Memphis [is] on their schedule, the bigs say ‘aw, man’ because of what he does on the floor. He’s a big piece to our team. ... His fight, the energy he brings to get us going, and he also gets extra possessions for us. I just feel like a lot of the stuff he does for us goes unnoticed… it’s time for people to start watching.”

Steven Adams is a force in the trenches, and it’s helped elevate this Grizzlies squad in their trek towards the top of the Western Conference.

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