25-under-25: Bam Adebayo at No. 6

25-under-25, Miami Heat

Bam Adebayo has quickly become one of the most dynamic centers in basketball, and the 24-year-old’s growth will be key to Miami’s pursuit of an NBA title.

A full appreciation of Bam Adebayo begins with the understanding that he isn’t a first option. The Heat’s 24-year-old Swiss-Army knife center doesn’t singlehandedly lift his team into the top 10 in offensive or defensive efficiency, nor is he currently built to carry the night-to-night burden of leading an NBA offense. Get past those shortcomings — both of which he shares with 99 percent of NBA players — and there’s little not to like about the way Adebayo affects winning on both ends of the floor.

The power of his game is best seen as a complementary player on a team with another star in place, which makes his current situation a comfortable one. He doesn’t have to handle primary scoring or playmaking duties, which frees him to live in both worlds as a secondary option. Dumping the ball to Adebayo in the post or isolating him at the elbow probably won’t translate to efficient team offense, but using him as a release valve in pick-and-roll or decision-maker in dribble handoffs will maximize everyone involved.

Though he came into the league a nuclear athlete (and remains one at age 24), the propellants of Adebayo’s success are his versatility and ability to read the game on the fly. He has not just the athleticism and dexterity to overwhelm, but the intelligence to outthink them. He spots advantages quickly, then assertively capitalizes with speed and ferocity. That, coupled with his indefatigable motor, makes him one of the most dynamic offensive fulcrums in the league — a channel through which offense can flow in any direction.

Bam Adebayo makes everything the Miami Heat do work better

Because the Miami Heat lack a traditional primary ball-handler, Adebayo’s ability to pivot smoothly from one action to the next is crucial to the Heat’s read-and-react system. That value could come in the form of a simple, decisive ball reversal or backdoor pass, or a more complex maneuver in which the ball flows from one side of the floor to the other. He’s one of the NBA’s preeminent dribble-handoff practitioners, simultaneously reading where and when a teammate will break and hammering that teammate’s defender with a screen:

The arrival of Kyle Lowry, an elite pull-up shooter, should only augment Adebayo’s ability to make plays as a roll man, where he can finish over powerless defenders or kick out to open shooters:

At times, he functionally plays point guard, bringing the ball up the floor, attacking off the dribble and creating opportunity:

Last season was Adebayo’s best to date as both a scorer and passer, and he was one of just three centers to eclipse 25 percent usage and assist rates on at least 60 percent true shooting. That combination of scoring and playmaking is rare among centers, and it’s part of what gives Erik Spoelstra the flexibility to get the most out of different lineup combinations around Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. The lack of a reliable jumpshot limits his off-ball value, which, when paired with Butler’s shooting limitations, constrains Miami’s offense a bit. But on the whole, Adebayo’s overall combination of skills opens up far more space than it takes away.

His versatility is just as important on the other end of the floor, where Adebayo is both a back-line defender and perimeter stopper. NBA bigs often find themselves guarding in space as a result of switches, scrambles or bad matchups, and many hold their own in those settings. Miami, however, will put Adebayo on the perimeter by design. Getting a center switched onto the ball is often the easiest way for ball-handlers to get separation; against the Heat, it’s the fastest route to a dead end. He’s one of few players in the league with the lateral quickness to stay in front of most point guards and the strength to contain physical wings and post-up centers, all while maintaining one of the lowest foul rates in the league for his position.

His next step will be improving his rim protection, which hasn’t caught up to the level of his perimeter containment. Adebayo has been an important part of above-average defenses every year of his career, but his ability to anchor an entire unit still leaves something to be desired. He occasionally misses rotations or fails to identify an inbound paint scorer, while other times he’s guilty of overhelping.

That lack of consistency has produced only marginal improvements to Miami’s team rim protection and defensive efficiency with Adebayo on the floor throughout his career. As much as any young big man in the NBA, however, there’s reason to believe Adebayo will make meaningful strides as a rim protector. His athleticism and instincts are simply too exceptional for him to plateau at this age, and playing in an improved defensive environment next season with another year of experience under his belt could help sharpen his decision-making. The same fast-twitch movements that make him a tireless on-ball defender also make him one of the fastest help-side reactors in basketball. He takes less time than most to get into position and off the floor, and expertly pinpoints the ball in midair without fouling:

The Heat’s roster is built to win right away, and much of their fate next season rests upon how soon their center ascends to a new level. The glimpses of defensive brilliance Adebayo showed through his first four seasons are convincing evidence that greater heights await him, and he has already proven an essential two-way cog in a machine that once blitzed its way to the NBA Finals. Miami has changed some of the surrounding parts, but Adebayo remains one of the central forces that keeps it moving.

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