With the 2016-17 NBA regular season less than a week from starting, Basketball Insiders has been look at the race for each of the league’s annual awards. We’ve analyzed the race for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year thus far.
Today, let’s forecast the NBA’s 2016-17 Most Improved Player race. This particular award is always fun to monitor (and the hardest the predict) since it generally revolves around players taking the next step in their development or surprising everyone with a breakout season that few saw coming.
Last year’s well-deserved winner C.J. McCollum saw his playing time more than double from 2014-15 (15.7 MPG) to 2015-16 (34.8 MPG), and he clearly made the most of his increased role as he posted career-highs in just about every statistical (and advanced) category. As a result, the Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard ran away with the award. Guards and swingmen have dominated the award over the past 15 years, winning 10 of the last 15 years (even if you count Ryan Anderson and Kevin Love exclusively as big men) due to the shift to more perimeter-oriented play.
With so many players changing teams or walking away from the game altogether in the offseason, there are plenty of minutes and touches up for grabs entering this season. The players who can make the most of their expanded opportunity will certainly be in the mix for this award.
It is important to note this list isn’t necessarily ranking the players in a best-to-worst order, but rather by the likelihood of them winning the award. Here is a look at some of the names to keep an eye on throughout the regular season (which tips off on Oct. 25):
- Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns – 13.8 PPG, 2.6 APG, 2.5 RPG, 42.3%/34.3%/84% shooting in 2015-16
After impressing as a rookie, the sky is the limit with Booker moving forward. He’s already one of Phoenix’s best players even though he’s still just 19 years old, and there are more and more people around the NBA who feel that Booker could continue to develop into a potential star at this level. It will be interesting to see if the front office ultimately looks to move last year’s starter, Brandon Knight, in order to open even more playing time for Booker (who played 27.7 minutes per game as a rookie). Either way, it’s clear that Booker is going to be a major part of the Suns’ present and future plans. This preseason, Booker has played very well, averaging 21.5 points (on 50 percent shooting from field), four assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 25.3 minutes per game. Keep an eye on the core of Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss and Alex Len (among others) over the next several years.
- D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers – 13.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 41%/35.1%/73.7% shooting in 2015-16
Not only is an increased opportunity there for the taking, Russell also seems to be jelling with the new coaching staff. That’s a great sign, and it appears Luke Walton’s system is a much better fit for what Russell brings to the table, at least offensively. The key for Russell will be consistency, as is the case for any young guard. This not only goes for his offensive production, but on the defensive end as well. His overall effort has been much better throughout the preseason and, by all accounts, he’s continuing to improve as a young leader. The Lakers may not win a ton of games this year, but they should be far more exciting to watch and Russell’s potential emergence as a cornerstone is definitely something for fans to look forward to this season.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks – 16.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 4.3 APG, 50.6%/25.7%/72.4% shooting in 2015-16
Why is the “Greek Freak” still on a list like this, you ask? The craziest thing about him and his potential is that he’s still just 21 years old. Khris Middleton’s injury was a huge disappointment and it may limit how much damage the Bucks can do in the Eastern Conference, but there’s still plenty to be intrigued about in Milwaukee and Antetokounmpo will be at the center of the action. Regardless of where head coach Jason Kidd plays Antetokounmpo, he’s going to exciting to watch and fill the stat sheet. The more you watch Antetokounmpo, the more you’ll appreciate his unique game because he is going to amaze you with some of the freakishly athletic stuff he can do on the court. If he’s able to add a three-point shot to his arsenal (as he reportedly wants to do, despite shooting just 28 percent from long distance for his career), the rest of the league needs to watch out. General managers across the league recently voted him the NBA’s top international player and it is hard to disagree if you’ve taken the time to watch him play. With another season of experience under his belt, it’s not hard to imagine Antetokounmpo being increasingly comfortable this season and putting up even better numbers. In 28 games after last year’s All-Star break, he averaged 18.8 points, 8.6 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals while shooting 50.9 percent from the field. If he can produce at (or near) that level for the entire season, he will certainly be in the mix for this award.
- Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers – 10.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 49.8%/72.7% shooting in 2015-16
Turner’s 2015-16 numbers may not have jumped off the page if you didn’t pay much attention to him as a rookie, but we can assure you the former Texas big man was truly impressive in his 22.8 minutes of action per game. Now, locked in as the team’s starting center from the beginning of the season, we love that Indiana also brought veteran Al Jefferson in to back him up and mentor him. Turner worked really hard to expand his game this summer and told my colleague Alex Kennedy that he expects to have a breakout 2016-17 campaign. “I’m looking forward to making a big jump forward next year,” Turner said. “I know I did some good things last year, and I want to build off of that.” In that same interview, he also predicted that he’ll be “a very dominant player in this league” in the near future. Turner certainly doesn’t lack confidence, and it seems that the next step in his development is extending his range. He has attempted a three-pointer in all four preseason games thus far (shooting just 1-4, but it’s a very small sample size), and it will be interesting to see if he takes more as we get into the season. Either way, he’s someone who will be playing more minutes this year and could post some monster numbers if he continues to progress as expected.
- Jusef Nurkic, Denver Nuggets – 8.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 41.7%/61.6% shooting in 2015-16
We could have easily thrown another two or three Nuggets players onto this list, but Nurkic, in particular, has looked really solid in the preseason. Through six games, the 22-year-old big man is averaging 13.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, two assists and 1.2 steals in just 24.5 minutes per contest. He seems to be developing good chemistry with second-year point guard Emmanuel Mudiay and he actually works well alongside fellow big man Nikola Jokic, providing twin towers for head coach Mike Malone. Not that preseason statistics and productivity should be taken as any sort of basketball gospel, but Nurkic looks like even more of a load in the post, has displayed a soft touch by the basket and has proven to be a willing and able passer from the center position. Big men may not get as much love as they once did, but keep an eye on year three from Nurkic in Denver.
- Dennis Schröder, Atlanta Hawks – 11 PPG, 4.4 APG, 2.6 RPG, 42.1%/32.2%/79.1% shooting in 2015-16
After three years as a backup, Schröder now finds himself running Atlanta’s offense as the starting floor general following the departure of two longtime pillars (Jeff Teague and Al Horford) this offseason. Schröder averaged just 20.3 minutes per game last year and that was actually his career-high, so this will be the first time he’s playing such a big role. The 23-year-old did enough in his relatively limited minutes to prove to Mike Budenholzer, the team’s head coach and president of basketball operations, that he could handle running things on a permanent basis. Now, Schröder will play a crucial role in getting Dwight Howard acclimated; Atlanta needs the point guard and center to develop chemistry in order for the team to play to its full potential. Major tests could come if the Hawks get off to a slow start, but there should still be enough talent on the roster for the team to remain competitive in the Eastern Conference and potentially keep their nine-year postseason streak. Schröder’s numbers and production should increase with his added playing time and responsibilities, but he could really help his case for this award if he can also lead the Hawks to another high seed in the East.
- Clint Capela, Houston Rockets – 7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG, 58.2%/37.9% shooting in 2015-16
Capela is another one of those players who should benefit from a drastic increase in playing time. With Dwight Howard moving on to Atlanta and Donatas Motiejunas’ status (and future with the team) remaining an uncertainty, all eyes will be on Capela. The 22-year-old was strong in a reserve role last season, but he’s actually a better fit for what the Rockets are trying to do this year and is a slightly more versatile defender than Howard at this stage in his career. Plus, you don’t have to worry about keeping Capela happy with post touches and you won’t hear him complain about primarily being used as the “roll” man in any two-man action. The Rockets should show improvement under new head coach Mike D’Antoni, at least offensively, but Capela should really make his greatest impact on the defensive end and on the glass. Couple his increased minutes with his internal development, and it seems inevitable that Capela’s numbers and efficiency will improve this year.
- Harrison Barnes, Dallas Mavericks – 11.7 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.8 APG, 46.6%/38.3%/76.1% shooting in 2015-16
Not to pile on, but if anyone still had questions about whether Barnes can be the No. 1 option (or even No. 2 option) for a team on a consistent basis, let’s just say the preseason hasn’t exactly eliminated all doubts. So far, Barnes is shooting just 12-51 (23.5 percent) from the field and 3-16 (18.8 percent) from three-point range. Not to mention, he has just three assists and 20 boards in 120 minutes of action. But that isn’t necessarily a sign that it’s time for Dallas to panic. The Mavericks essentially made a four-year, $94 million bet that Barnes can settle in and be a viable offensive option alongside veterans Dirk Nowitzki and Wes Matthews among others. Again, this is just the preseason and a transition period is always expected after a player changes scenery and has to adjust to a new system, team, coaching staff and role. It’s not all that surprising that Barnes has gotten off to a slow start with this in mind. The contract will make more sense as he grows increasingly comfortable in head coach Rick Carlisle’s system and gains chemistry with his new teammates. It would be nice to see Barnes ultimately flourish with the new opportunity. Dallas sure seems to be counting on it.
- Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic – 9.2 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 47.3%/29.6%/66.8% shooting in 2015-16
As is always the case with Gordon, he’s in phenomenal shape. Sore ankles have slowed him a bit this preseason, but expectations are high for him as he adjusts to playing at the small forward position with head coach Frank Vogel now running the show in Orlando. Gordon has mainly played power forward since being drafted by the Magic, but with Serge Ibaka taking over the power forward spot, Vogel appears comfortable with the idea of Gordon moving to the three and working from the perimeter when not attacking or slashing off-ball. He shot just 29.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but the floor would absolutely open up for him (and his teammates) if he were able to consistently hit the corner three this year. He has been working on his three-point shot and told Basketball Insiders’ Alex Kennedy over the summer that he’s ready to have a breakout year by doing a little bit of everything (which is what Coach Vogel has asked of him).
- Justise Winslow, Miami Heat – 6.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.5 APG, 42.2%/27.6%/68.4% shooting in 2015-16
With Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng departing and Chris Bosh’s stint with Miami coming to an unfortunate end due to his health issues, there will be plenty of room for Winslow to take a step forward and embrace new responsibilities. Winslow showed glimpses last season, but struggled to consistently produce on the offensive end. But with that said, he wasn’t very high on the list of guys being asked to assert themselves on that end. He won’t necessarily be propelled into the “go-to” player role just yet (that may be Hassan Whiteside, who inked a max deal in July), but there will certainly be more opportunities for Winslow and touches seem largely up for grabs at this stage. Don’t be surprised if head coach Erik Spoelstra leans on Winslow as a multi-purpose or hybrid player this season. If that happens, Winslow’s numbers could see a significant spike.
Honorable Mentions: Jabari Parker (Milwaukee Bucks), Zach LaVine (Minnesota Timberwolves), Marcus Smart (Boston Celtics), Tyler Johnson (Miami Heat), Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets), Emmanuel Mudiay (Denver Nuggets), Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Detroit Pistons)
Again, these are just some of the players to keep an eye on this season, and you can always count on one or two surprise contenders for this award emerging once the regular season gets underway. If you think we left anyone off who has a legitimate chance at competing for the award, leave a comment below!
2017-18 NBA Report Card: Third-Year Players
Among the third-year players a few budding superstars have emerged, along with some role players who are helping their teams in the 2017-18 NBA Playoffs.
The 2015 NBA Draft has provided the league with a limited quantity of talent so far. After Terry Rozier (at 16th), it’s unlikely that anyone remaining has All-Star potential. Despite the lack of depth, the highest draft slot traded was at number 15, when the Atlanta Hawks moved down to enable the Washington Wizards to select Kelly Oubre Jr.
But placing a definitive “boom” or “bust” label on these athletes might be premature as the rookie contract is standardized at four seasons with an option for a fifth. If their employers are given a fourth year to decide whether a draftee is worth keeping, it seems reasonable to earmark the NBA Juniors’ progress for now and see how they’ve fared after next season’s campaign before making their letter grades official.
The Top Dogs
Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota Timberwolves: Given the dearth of premier choices and their glaring need up front, it’s hard to envision the T-Wolves drafting anyone but KAT if they had to do it again. Although his scoring average is down from last season (21.3 vs. 25.1 PPG), that trend could be explained by the addition of Jimmy Butler and the team’s deliberate pace (24th out of 30 teams).
To his credit, Towns had career highs in three-point percentage (42.1 percent) and free throws (85.8 percent), while finishing second overall in offensive rating (126.7). His continued improvement in these areas could explain why the Timberwolves ended their 14-year playoff drought.
Nikola Jokić, Denver Nuggets: Although he was a 2014 draft pick, Jokić’s NBA debut was delayed due to his last year of commitment to the Adriatic League. His productivity as a rookie was limited by both foul trouble and a logjam at the center position, but he still managed 10.0 PPG.
With Joffrey Lauvergne and Jusuf Nurkic off the depth chart, Jokić became the clear-cut starter this season and rewarded Denver’s confidence by averaging 18.5 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. And by chipping in 6.1 APG, he provides rare value as a center with triple-double potential.
Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks: Although he has never played a full season since joining the league, Porzingis has provided enough evidence that he can be a force when healthy. Before his junior campaign was derailed, the Latvian was enjoying career highs of 22.7 PPG and 39.5 percent shooting from behind the arc.
Unfortunately, the Knicks haven’t provided much support at point guard to help with Porzingis’ development. Trey Burke looked impressive down the stretch in Zinger’s absence, but that was in a score-first capacity. Meanwhile, both Frank Ntilikina and Emmanuel Mudiay have underwhelmed. On the plus side, Porzingis’ outside ability paired nicely in the frontcourt with Enes Kanter, who prefers to bully his way underneath.
Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns: Like Porzingis, Booker’s third year in the NBA was cut short by injuries, but that didn’t stop him from achieving career highs in points (24.9 per game), assists (4.7) and three-pointers (38.3 percent) on an otherwise moribund Suns team. Indeed, cracking the 40-point barrier three times in 54 contests was an achievement in and of itself.
While his short-term prospects would’ve been far better on a team like the Philadelphia Sixers (who might have taken him instead of Jahlil Okafor in a re-draft), Booker can still become a franchise cornerstone for the Suns if they are able to build around a young core that also includes T.J. Warren and Josh Jackson.
Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers: Despite an inconsistent freshman season at Texas, Turner has become a stabilizing influence at center for the Pacers, whose blueprint consists of surrounding a go-to scorer with role players. While he hasn’t shown drastic improvement in any particular area, he has produced double-digit PPG averages all three years as a pro.
Although Turner’s shot-blocking ability fuels his reputation as a defensive maven, the reality is his 104.8 defensive rating (which is just OK) was skewed by his 110.9 d-rating in losses (it was 100.8 in wins). In order to merit consideration for the NBA’s all-defensive team, he will need to bridge the gap in this discrepancy and impact his team’s ability to win more games in the process.
D’Angelo Russell, Brooklyn Nets: Following their respective trades, Russell has fared better in the Big Apple than his 2015 lottery counterpart Emmanuel Mudiay, as the Los Angeles Lakers were forced to cut bait to draft Lonzo Ball. While Ball has shown promise as a rookie, the Lakers’ perception of Russell may have been premature, as the former Buckeye has stabilized a Nets backcourt that had been characterized more by athleticism than consistency.
Despite missing a significant stretch of mid-season games, Russell provided similar numbers for Brooklyn to that of his sophomore season; but without a pick until number 29 in the upcoming NBA Draft, the Nets will have to bank on improved production from DLo and his raw teammates to contend for the eight-seed in the East.
Terry Rozier, Boston Celtics: Injuries have paved the way for Rozier to showcase his talent, most recently with a 23-point, 8-assist effort in game two against the Milwaukee Bucks. But Rozier was already making headlines as a fill-in for Kyrie Irving whenever he was injured. Now that the starting point guard reins have been handed to the former mid-round pick, he has become one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2017-18 NBA season.
The biggest impediment to Rozier’s success might be the regression to limited playing time once Irving returns. While the Celtics could “sell high” and trade Rozier on the basis of his recent performances, they may opt to retain him as insurance while he is still cap-friendly.
Best of the Rest
Larry Nance Jr., Cleveland Cavaliers: Following the trade deadline, Nance has provided a spark for a Cavs frontcourt that has been bereft of viable options aside from Kevin Love.
Josh Richardson, Miami HEAT: A jack-of-all-trades at the small forward position, Richardson has evolved into a three-and-D player that has meshed well with the HEAT’s shut-down focus.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Sacramento Kings: Thrust into the starting center role after the trade of DeMarcus Cousins, WCS has provided serviceable (albeit unspectacular) play as the next man up.
Delon Wright, Toronto Raptors: A key contributor for the East’s top seed, Wright was instrumental in the Raptors’ game one victory over the Washington Wizards with 18 points off the bench.
Bobby Portis, Chicago Bulls: The former Razorback has flashed double-double potential, but playing time at his true position (power forward) has been limited by the emergence of rookie Lauri Markkanen.
NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers
The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.
Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers
While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.
It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.
So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.
Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.
So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.
The Potential Future All-Stars
DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters
Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs
Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players
Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs
The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust
Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs
Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.
If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.
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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years
CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.
Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.
Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.
Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.
But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.
Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.
After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.
From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.
“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.
“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”
Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.
Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.
The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.
But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.
“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.
“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”
And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.
Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.
“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”
The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.
To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.
Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.
But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.
“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”
It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.
“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”
Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.
“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”
In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.
If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.
“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”
But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.
Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.
“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.
“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”
Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?
Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.
And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.
“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.
“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”