OKLAHOMA CITY — Steven Adams is particular with his offseason workout regimen.
Many players head into summers concentrating on specific parts of their games. Maybe they had a poor shooting season, so they want to focus on their shot. Maybe they zero in more specifically on a problem, like trying to improve vision in the pick-and-roll from the right side of the floor or enhancing certain types of dribble moves.
Adams doesn’t subscribe to that strategy.
Instead, he goes through a similar workout each summer. Sure, he makes adjustments depending on what he’s learned and how he needs to change. But the general blueprint remains the same.
When Adams started consistently shooting a floater last season, tossing up one-handed lofts consistently from four-to-eight feet, it wasn’t because he made a point to integrate that type of shot into his game over the previous offseason. He had been going through floater drills ever since the Thunder drafted him back in 2013. He just finally felt comfortable enough to bust it out in a competitive setting.
It’s that sort of mentality which leaves some to believe the Thunder center will one day take his offensive game away from the paint. He goes through jump-shooting drills every day. He’s improved notably since his arrival in OKC four years ago. His analytical mind, which tells him shooting from mid-range isn’t an efficient shot, prevents him from hoisting such looks during actual games. They’re confined to practice drills for now.
But it’s those practice drills which helped the Thunder reinforce exactly how high they believe Adams can climb, a reason they gave him a $100 million extension which kicked in this season. And now, at just 24 years old, Adams has become one of the NBA’s best two-way centers — and the last three games, all wins, have accentuated that.
“That’s the whole point of doing the repetition,” Adams said. “It’s what you see in the game that can happen.”
Adams went for a career-high 27 points while sinking all 11 of his field-goal attempts Friday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He followed that up with 19 points on 8 of 13 shooting Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs. He churned out another massive performance Tuesday, going for 20 points on 9 of 10 shooting against the Utah Jazz.
The first two games were impressive but with an asterisk. Adams has always been one of the NBA’s best screen setters. And with pick-and-roll partners like Russell Westbrook and Paul George, with whom he’s developing obvious chemistry, he can find buckets against vulnerable defenses. Minnesota has been weak guarding the pick-and-roll all year. San Antonio, meanwhile, sat many of its best defenders, leaving Adams to feast on non-rim protectors and slow-footed big men.
But Tuesday was different.
It was Utah center Rudy Gobert’s second game back from injury, but Adams feasted on a man who finished second in Defensive Player of the Year voting a season ago. And it wasn't just because he was able to flick floaters with Gobert dropping as close to the basket as he does. Adams grabbed six offensive rebounds. He landed put-backs. He stymied pick-and-rolls on the other end, as he always does, perfecting the middle ground between defending the rim and disrupting passing lanes. And he took advantage as a screener, setting 10 screen assists (a pick that directly leads to a basket) during the win.
For reference, Washington Wizards center Marcin Gortat leads the NBA in screen assists per game at just 5.5. Adams is fourth in the league at 4.5.
“He’s been great all year,” Westbrook said. “He’s done a good job of just holding down the paint, using his size.”
Coach Billy Donovan credits the “great summer” Adams had. It’s not that Adams changed everything he was doing before. He values the consistency too much. But he was able to emphasize what he needed to improve on a bit more.
“Going through what he went through last year allowed him to prepare better for this year, because he was more of a focal point last year, there were more of those floaters he had to take. There were different things he was being asked to do that maybe he wasn’t asked to do early in his career,” Donovan said. “I think the more experience you get when you go into a summer, you have a clear direction of what to work on.”
Adams didn’t have the spacing last year he has now. Defenders were constantly leaving shooters on the perimeter when he dove to the rim. But even if the Thunder boast more 3-point shooting today than they did a season ago, the recent performance goes beyond spacing, considering they often play at least one non-shooter alongside Adams, whether it's Andre Roberson or someone else.
This is Steven Adams getting better. This is players like George and Westbrook realizing that and feeding him more. He has, after all, finished a fifth of OKC's plays with one of his own shots, turnovers or drawn fouls over the past three games, an evident uptick from his previous workload. This is the natural progression of a 24-year-old whose game is starting to complete.
“He’s kind of figured out the ins and outs of the games with the guys and with the refs. It’s just only going to continue to grow in my opinion,” Roberson said. “He’s definitely becoming one of the biggest forces in the game right now.”
Fred Katz is the Thunder beat writer for the Norman Transcript and CNHI Oklahoma as well as the host of the postgame show, Thunder After Dark, and the OKC Dream Team, a weekly Thunder podcast that runs every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.