Basketball Insiders continues its series of ranking the top 10 players at each position. So far this week, we’ve looked at the top 10 point guards and top 10 shooting guards. Without further delay, here are our top 10 small forwards entering the 2016-17 season:
1. LeBron James – Cleveland Cavaliers
You may love LeBron James or you may hate him, but there’s no debate: he is currently the top small forward in the NBA. Nearing the age of 32, James has a ton of miles on his body. With some nagging injuries over the years, some suggested that he has lost a step, isn’t the same player he once was or can’t dominate the way he used to. Well, James sent a big statement to his doubters in the 2015-16 NBA Finals, when he averaged an incredible 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game over the seven-game series. James led his team back from a 3-1 deficit and in Game 7, he logged 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists, three blocks and two steals to become just the third player in history to post a triple-double in a Finals Game 7. He also had a key block on Andre Iguodala with less than two minutes to go and the game tied that was instrumental in the Cavaliers pulling out the win.
It’s true that James can’t put out the same level of physical dominance as consistently as he could earlier in his career. But James proved that when his team needs him to be the best and most dominant basketball player on the planet, he can still deliver. Whether he is chasing down a block on the break, locking down a perimeter scorer, guarding someone in the post, working as a top-level playmaker or zoning in as a scorer, James is still a one-man force and the best small forward, if not the best basketball player, on the planet.
2. Kevin Durant – Golden State Warriors
Yes, Kevin Durant now has to share the ball with three other All-Stars, which could bring down his box score averages. It doesn’t matter; he is still the second-best small forward in the NBA. Durant is probably the still the best pure scorer in the NBA and is a matchup nightmare. The question now becomes how well he fits with the Golden State Warriors.
Under head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors run a pass-happy, motion-based offense where players consistently pass up open looks for even better scoring opportunities for teammates. Durant now steps into the starting small forward position in place of Harrison Barnes, who mostly was looked to for spot-up shooting and the occasional drive to the basket. Durant is capable of much more in terms of scoring, shooting and playmaking. Durant may ultimately score less in isolation and rack up more assists with elite shooters around him. Whatever Durant’s role ends up being, he will still be the most talented small forward in the league aside from James and will make an already dominant Warriors team even better. This is especially likely if he can build off of his impressive defensive performance throughout the playoffs last season, where he looked like a light version Draymond Green.
3. Kawhi Leonard – San Antonio Spurs
Over his five seasons in the NBA, Kawhi Leonard has turned himself into one of the most well-rounded and best players in the NBA. Leonard has earned back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards, edging out defensive savant Draymond Green and the league’s elite defensive centers. Leonard’s dominant defense is instrumental for his team’s success, and he is eager to lock down the best opposing scorer each and every night. Whether it’s jumping a passing lane that leads to an open layup in transition, forcing an elite scorer into a poor shooting night or guarding bigger players in the post, Leonard is the most versatile defender in the league aside from Green.
In addition to his defense, Leonard is a handful on offense and last season turned himself into an elite shooter from three-point range. Leonard had never shot better than 37.9 percent from distance until last season, when he shot an impressive 44.3 percent from beyond the arc. The Spurs’ offense generates open looks from deep consistently, so Leonard surely benefits from getting plenty of open catch-and-shoot opportunities every night. However, Leonard has also improved his ability to score off the dribble and is now a threat to take the ball into the midrange area and do damage from there as well. The next step for Leonard is becoming a better playmaker for his teammates, which may happen now that the Spurs will need to adjust their offense with the retirement of Tim Duncan. If Leonard improves that area of his game this season, he will take another significant step forward and could start pushing Durant and James for one of the top two spots in these rankings.
4. Paul George – Indiana Pacers
NBA fans were happy to have Paul George back on the court last season after he battled back from his devastating leg injury in 2014. Then, not only were they thrilled just to see him healthy, they were amazed to see him playing the best ball of his career. Over 81 regular season games, George averaged 23.9 points, 7.2 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.9 steals, while shooting 37.1 percent from distance and 41.8 percent from the field. George’s efficiency dropped in some areas, but that’s partially because he had to shoulder so much of the responsibility on offense, acting both as a primary scorer and playmaker.
George took things to another level in the playoffs against the Toronto Raptors, where he averaged 27.3 points, 7.6 rebounds, 4.3 assists and two steals, shooting 45.5 percent from the field and 41.9 percent from three-point range. George couldn’t lead the Pacers to a series victory, but he proved that he is still one of the best overall players in the game. Additionally, his defensive impact continues to be one of the best of any player as he consistently locks down opposing scorers. George may not be on Leonard’s level as a defender, but he isn’t too far off either. With more talent around him for this upcoming season, George may be able to lead the Pacers to a deep playoff run in the Eastern Conference.
5. Carmelo Anthony – New York Knicks
Carmelo Anthony has been one of the best scorers in the NBA since entering the league in the 2003. However, last season Anthony focused less on scoring and became a better playmaker, averaging a career-high 4.2 assists per game. This is a significant development for Anthony and the New York Knicks, especially now that he will be surrounded by several talented teammates like Derrick Rose, Courtney Lee, Kristaps Porzingis, Joakim Noah and Brandon Jennings. Anthony may never be a LeBron James- or Paul George-level playmaker, but it is important for him to continue expanding his game as he enters his 15th NBA season at 32 years old.
However, despite his age and the miles on his body, Anthony can still produce in a big way. Last season he averaged 21.8 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.2 assists and almost one block per game, while shooting 33.9 percent from deep and 43.4 percent from the field. Anthony will need to bring his shooting percentages up, which seems likely to happen considering he generally shoots better after playing with Team USA (as detailed by Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal) and he now has more talent around him.
It should be noted that Anthony has played significant minutes at power forward and could continue to do so. However, the league continues to move toward position-less basketball and small forwards are playing power forward in certain situations more often than ever before. Anthony may be better-suited to play at power forward at this point in his career, but he will still play significant minutes at small forward this season and he’s still one of the best all-around players at the position in the NBA.
6. Gordon Hayward – Utah Jazz
Over his six seasons in the NBA, Gordon Hayward has established himself as one of the best all-around small forwards in the NBA. He may not be the defender that Leonard is, the shooter Durant is or the physical specimen Giannis Antetokounmpo is, but he does everything really well and has no glaring weaknesses in his game. Last season, Hayward averaged 19.7 points, five rebounds, 3.7 assists and 1.2 steals per game and shot 34.9 percent from beyond the arc and 43.3 percent from the field. Like Paul George, Hayward’s shooting percentages and efficiency stand to improve, but that deficiency comes as a result of shouldering such a big responsibility for running his team’s offense. A strong ball-handler, underrated passer and skilled scorer, Hayward is arguably the Jazz’s most important player.
Hayward is primed for a big season as he has reportedly spent the offseason working hard to improve his conditioning, strength and overall game. If the Jazz have some better luck with health this season, they could surprise a lot of people and make some noise in the Western Conference. If they do, it will likely be in large part because of Hayward’s considerable nightly impact.
7. Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
Giannis Antetokounmpo is only 21 years old, but is already one of the most talented, versatile and unique players in the league. Entering just his fourth season, we have only seen glimpses of what ‘The Greek Freak’ is fully capable of. Last season, Antetokounmpo averaged 16.9 points, 7.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game, while shooting 25.7 percent from three-point range and 50.6 percent from the field. Antetokounmpo clearly needs to significantly improve his shooting to take another step in his development, but don’t let that shortcoming overshadow the other impressive parts of his game.
As I detailed in this article, Antetokounmpo has already become a very good playmaker from the small forward position. Antetokounmpo was particularly good after the All-Star break and registered several triple doubles throughout the season. Milwaukee Bucks head coach Jason Kidd reportedly plans on using Antetokounmpo as a primary playmaker even more this season, so we should see him continue to run his team’s offense from the small forward position. If Antetokounmpo can continue improving as a playmaker, shooter and all-around team defender, he could become of the best overall players in the league sooner rather than later.
8. Nicolas Batum – Charlotte Hornets
There’s a reason why the Charlotte Hornets agreed to give Batum a five-year, $120 million contract this offseason. Like Gordon Hayward, Batum isn’t particularly elite in any single facet of the game, but he is a strong all-around contributor who can impact both ends of the court. Last season, Batum averaged 14.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 5.8 assists and nearly one steal per game, while shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 34.8 percent from three-point range. Batum became only the fourth player in the franchise’s history to notch over 1,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a single season (Baron Davis and Jamal Mashburn did so in 2000-01 and Anthony Mason did so in 1996-97).
Batum may be somewhat overrated as a perimeter defender at this point, but he is still a very good defender. His length and defensive instincts make him a tough matchup for most wing scorers in the NBA and provides Charlotte with a go-to defender for the toughest opponents. Now Batum can share that duty with all-world defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who missed the vast majority of last season with shoulder injuries. Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum should make a dynamic defensive duo for the Hornets, though Batum will have a bigger load to carry on offense since Kidd-Gilchrist is still working on his shaky shooting mechanics.
9. Andrew Wiggins – Minnesota Timberwolves
Andrew Wiggins is oozing with natural talent, but needs to make the move from volume scorer to all-around contributor. Wiggins averaged 20.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and one steal last season, while shooting 45.9 percent from the field and 30 percent from three-point range. Wiggins’ averages are solid for a 21-year-old, second-year player and they are likely to improve moving forward. Specifically, Wiggins needs to hone in on his shooting percentage from three-point range.
With Karl-Anthony Towns likely to draw double-teams consistently, Wiggins will need to knock down catch-and-shoot three-pointers consistently. He also will need to continue improving his game off the dribble. While Wiggins has the athletic ability to execute impressive plays going to the basket, too often he plays out of control and throws up difficult shots. Despite these criticisms, Wiggins has shown an evolving game over his short NBA career, including the ability to score in isolation, in the post, in transition and in cutting to the basket. He also was elite at drawing fouls last season, as he averaged seven free throw attempts per game.
Wiggins also has all the physical tools to be an elite wing-defender. However, Wiggins too often loses focus on defense, misses rotations or looks to make a home run play rather than focusing on smaller things like proper footwork or properly funneling his opponent into a weak side defender. That should change this upcoming season with Tom Thibodeau taking over as the team’s head coach. Thibodeau demands top-level effort and execution from his players, so Wiggins should make strides on the defensive end moving forward.
Once Wiggins adds some more experience and polish to his game and couples that with his elite athleticism, he should become one of the toughest matchups in the NBA.
10. Jae Crowder – Boston Celtics
Jae Crowder makes his way into this top 10 list after putting together a strong 2015-16 season for the Boston Celtics. Crowder averaged a career-best 14.2 points, 5.8 rebounds. 1.8 assists and 1.7 steals last season and was instrumental in the Celtics earning a 48-34 regular season record. Crowder only shot 33.6 percent from beyond the arc last season, but defenses respected him enough to close in on him when he had an open look on the perimeter.
Where Crowder makes his biggest impact is on defense. Crowder is able to hold his own against the best scorers in the league and isn’t afraid to mix it up with opposing big men either. He is the quintessential Celtic as he does everything he can to help his team win, even if that means playing out of position or playing within a limited role. Celtics head coach Brad Stevens has created a culture of discipline and effort in Boston and no one embodies those things quite like Crowder. Crowder may never overtake some of the more naturally talented players on this list, but he certainly deserves recognition for the significant impact he’s had for the Celtics over the last two seasons. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s locked into a bargain five-year, $35 million contract.
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.”