January 19, 2018

On Monday night, the Miami Heat capped off a three-game road trip by defeating the Memphis Grizzlies, 107-82. It was one of their most balanced efforts of the year. Miami was hot from three (14-of-27) and spread the wealth offensively; seven players scored in double digits, though only two of them took more than ten shots (Goran Dragic with 12, Tyler Johnson with 10). Defensively, they contested virtually everything inside, kept Memphis out of the corners (only five attempts), and turned them over 14 times, leading to a defensive rating of 88.3.

On a night where everyone got in on the action, rookie big man Bam Adebayo shined the brightest. In 22 minutes off the bench, he finished with 14 points (5-of-6 shooting), four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. This was one of his better statistical games, but the how of his performance was more important than the numbers he put up.

On offense, he set screens with his usual oomph; his spatial awareness allowed him to find creases to exploit with timely runs to the rim. Defensively, he rotated well, kept his hands high (which led to the pair of steals), and generally made life uncomfortable against star center Marc Gasol.

It only took 46 seconds for Adebayo to make an impact on both ends of the floor. Beyond the athleticism (and Dwight Howard comparisons), Adebayo’s understanding of positioning is beyond his years.

Johnson and Dragic set up to run an inverted pick-and-roll. Johnson drove away from the screen and got into the teeth of the defense, forcing a rotation. Adebayo found a crease in the defense, cut hard, and was rewarded with a lob. On the following possession, he defended a Tyreke Evans-Marc Gasol pick-and-roll to near-perfection, coming up with a steal that led to a fast break bucket from Dragic.

Here, watch how Adebayo refuses to give up positioning to Gasol. Once Gasol goes to his patented turnaround, Adebayo steps up and contests the shot without fouling.

Starting center Hassan Whiteside has been out with a bone bruise for the last six games. During that stretch, Adebayo has filled in nicely, averaging 6.8 points (61.5 percent from the field), 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals, 1.2 blocks in 21.5 minutes. Those aren’t All-Star numbers by any stretch, but he’s made enough head-turning plays to generate excitement for his future. Considering how murky Miami’s situation is right now, that excitement is more than welcome.

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Halfway through last season, the Heat (11-30) were in prime position to punt on the season, blow up the roster, and hitch their wagon to a prospect in the top five of the draft. Instead, the Heat went on an absurd 30-11 run, coming a tiebreaker shy of a playoff berth.

After swinging and missing on Gordon Hayward in free agency, the Heat doubled down on their roster. They doled out four-year deals to James Johnson and Dion Waiters, two key figures to their late season run. Wayne Ellington’s team option was accepted thanks to some gold medal-level cap gymnastics. The only “splash” Miami made was the signing of Kelly Olynyk, another four-year deal.

The bet was simple: hope continuity and internal improvement from the pups — Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, and Tyler Johnson — would allow them to compete in the East while simultaneously waiting out Golden State’s reign. As of now, the Heat (13-13) have been as hot and cold as they were last year. A franchise that prides itself on striking while the iron is hot via trade, or making The Splash in free agency now find themselves capped out with limited assets to flip.

Miami is in the dreaded middle right now, a place the Heat have never found themselves in for an extended period of time. If they can’t trade for a disgruntled star now — hello, Paul George — they’re going to need to hit on a young prospect to eventually take over, or at least become intriguing enough to serve as the golden ticket in a trade down the line.

It’s too early to give up on Winslow, but the question marks about his shot and his best role haven’t gone away. He’ll be eligible for an extension this summer, and there’s no telling what that figure will look like right now.

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Richardson has taken a leap defensively, showcasing the ability to guard all three perimeter positions. He’s not a reliable shot creator, and his three-point shot hasn’t come close to being the flamethrower it was during the second half of his rookie season. 3ish-and-D players have value, but they aren’t franchise changes.

The younger Johnson has never had star potential. Even though he’s proven to be a plus-shooter and defender off the bench, his poison-pill contract (owed $38 million in the next two season) compromises his trade value a bit.

Tanking would appear to be the best option, but Miami’s pick situation makes that complicated. Their first round pick goes to the Phoenix Suns this year if it doesn’t fall within the top seven, thanks to the Dragic trade a few seasons ago. If that pick doesn’t transfer this year, it’ll go to the Suns (unprotected) next year. They also owe Phoenix an unprotected first rounder in 2021. Due to these obligations, it’s nearly impossible for Miami to grease the wheels of a trade until the next presidential election, nor can they afford to have two or three bad seasons in a row for a total rebuild.

Miami is going to need a young guy to pop. That guy may just be Adebayo, another Kentucky product whose skill-set was likely compressed on a loaded roster.

Adebayo is already Miami’s second best screener (behind Olynyk) and lob threat (behind Whiteside). A vertical spacer has always been an important cog to an Erik Spoelstra offense. Adebayo’s athleticism, finishing ability and willingness to lay the lumber makes him an ideal fit today. In a limited sample, Adebayo is generating 1.44 points per possession as the roll-man in pick-and-roll.

The fact that he’s also shown flashes of making short-roll reads is encouraging. Below, watch how he reads the trap. slips the pick, then finds James Johnson for the and-one:

Moving forward, we’ll need to see if his ball skills and jumper will be real threats or something of a novelty. In preseason, Adebayo routinely pushed the ball up the floor, often drawing fouls in the process.

He also showed nice touch and form on his jumper. The fact that he isn’t an awful free throw shooter (65.3 percent in college, 61 percent this season) means it isn’t far-fetched that he could become a reliable pick-and-pop threat from 17 feet or so. Being able to create his own jumper is another story; this is against Channing Frye, not the best defender, but look at how fluid this is:

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Adebayo’s defensive upside may be the most exciting thing about him. He isn’t particularly big at 6’9, but he makes up for it with a 7’3 wingspan. He uses every bit of his length to contest shots and disrupt the passing lane. His hands are always up and active; errant passes and loose dribbles will be picked clean.

Big men aren’t supposed to move their feet as well as Adebayo. That allows him to hang on the perimeter and not get burned. Now, forcing a guy like Jodie Meeks into a long two off a switch is one thing; forcing misses against three of the 12 or so best players in the league is another.

Adebayo still has his faults. He’ll force the issue after offensive rebounds. He’ll get a little too aggressive off-ball and pick up loose ball fouls. Though he’s strong for his age, he’s been bullied by LaMarcus Aldridge and Enes Kanter on the block. Statistically, Miami is a much worse team with him on the floor, though that’s expected of rookies.

Still, the encouraging thing is he knows what he’s doing out there. He doesn’t play outside of his skill-set, and his motor never sputters. As he gains more strength, experience, and expands his game, he could join Utah’s Donovan Mitchell as one of the steals of this year’s draft. Adebayo could be the key, as a player or an asset, to getting Miami out of the middle.

For their sake, they better hope so.

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Nekias Duncan

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