Each season, a number of players “break out.” For some, that means making the transition from good to great. For others, they go from not playing to becoming a significant contributor on their team. At the end of the day, breaking out is when a player clearly takes their game to the next level.
Last season, Portland Trail Blazers shooting guard C.J. McCollum was perhaps the best example of a breakout player. He went from averaging 6.8 points in 2014-15 to 20.8 points last season. His point total increased by 305 percent, and he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award after helping Portland surprisingly make the playoffs and advance to the second round.
Which players could be poised for a breakout campaign in the 2016-17 season?
We asked a number of our Basketball Insiders writers to pick a player they believe will have a breakout season and explain why. Check out the picks below and add your thoughts in the comment section:
Alex Kennedy: Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Myles Turner got better and better throughout his rookie year with the Indiana Pacers, culminating in his excellent first-round playoff series against the Toronto Raptors. In seven games, the 20-year-old center averaged 10.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.3 blocks in 28.1 minutes.
I expect him to pick up right where he left off when his sophomore campaign begins. Turner recently shined as a member of USA Basketball’s Select Team, an experience that allowed him to receive instruction from Gregg Popovich, learn from some of the best players in the NBA and – most importantly – increase his confidence. I recently interviewed Turner and he predicted that he’d make big strides next season, and I completely agree with him.
(By the way, I was tempted to go with Angry Russell Westbrook here since we all expect him to have a monster year following the departure of Kevin Durant. But I figured we’re focusing more on younger guys who have yet to really emerge so I went with Turner. Still, it’s fair to say that Angry Westbrook is going to break out since he will almost certainly take his game to another level. And I can’t freakin’ wait).
Ben Dowsett: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
Jokic may already have broken out on some level in his rookie season, but he flew mostly under the radar for a Denver team not good enough to challenge for the playoffs but not bad enough to inspire much attention.
At just 20 years old most of the year, Jokic already showcased many of the skills needed for an offensive fulcrum in the frontcourt: the shooting chops to keep defenders honest, the height to see the floor and the sort of passing touch rarely seen in guys his size. He became one of just four rookies in league history listed at 6’10 or taller to assist on at least 18 percent of team baskets while on the floor, joining only Blake Griffin, Tony Kukoc and Lamar Odom on that prestigious list.
With a three-point stroke that should improve along with the margins of his game and his overall strength, Jokic is primed to bust out and gain national recognition as one of the top young bigs in the game.
Eric Pincus: D’Angelo Russell, Los Angeles Lakers
D’Angelo Russell should have a big year with the Los Angeles Lakers. He’ll have a lot more freedom playing for head coach Luke Walton than he did under Byron Scott last year. Russell has clearly grown as a player over the past year. His first Summer League was a disaster, but in Las Vegas this past month, Russell was one of the better players on the court. With the gravity of Kobe Bryant off the court, Russell will make big strides this season.
Oliver Maroney: Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns
Devin Booker’s breakout may have already started if we count his showing at the Las Vegas Summer League, where he averaged 26 points, 6.5 assists and five rebounds. Booker is clearly feeling very confident and this could be an indication of what’s to come in his sophomore season.
Mid-way through last season, Booker moved from the bench to the starting lineup on the Suns and he performed extremely well. Everyone around the Suns organization has positive things to say about Booker, who possesses incredible physical tools as well as a great work ethic.
“[He doesn’t seem] like a 19-year-old,” said Irving Roland, one of his player development coaches from last season. “I see him being an All-Star in the next few years. Definitely going to be one of the best two-guards in this league for a while.”
As a rookie, Booker averaged 13.8 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists and he’ll be looking to improve those numbers this season. With his maturity, skill set and desire to be great, Booker seems to have star potential.
Moke Hamilton: Justise Winslow, Miami HEAT
Without Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson and Luol Deng, the Miami HEAT have likely gone from Eastern Conference contender to lottery team. In it all, though, there will be immense opportunity for many of the team’s younger pieces and players. Mainly, all eyes should be on Justise Winslow.
Selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Winslow was believed by many to be the latest prize stolen by Pat Riley. Last season, with the aforementioned veterans above him on the depth chart and in terms of touchs, Winslow’s numbers belied the intangibles that he brought to the game. In May, Winslow was quoted as saying that he wanted the HEAT to eventually be “his” team and now, as the expected starter at small forward, he will lead the youth movement that is unfolding in Miami. With Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson and Hassan Whiteside, Winslow has been working meticulously during the offseason with the goal of emerging as Erik Spoelstra’s new rock.
Based on what we have seen, it’s easy to imagine that Winslow will improve upon his pedestrian output from his rookie season. In 28.6 minutes, he scored 6.4 points, grabbed 5.2 rebounds and dished out 1.5 assists. In all likelihood, the minutes and production will increase dramatically this coming season and he is certainly a player who appears in line for a breakout campaign.
Jabari Davis: Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz
Rodney Hood had a spectacular second year with the Utah Jazz. The 23rd pick in the 2014 NBA Draft almost doubled his scoring total from his rookie campaign, jumping from 8.7 points to 14.5 points per game – while improving his field goal percentage.
Hood’s big emergence came after the All-Star break, when he scored 20 or more points seven times. But it’s not just his scoring that makes Hood so impressive. Rodney’s ability to drive and create off the dribble is also underrated. While his defense needs improving, his creativity and vision are solid.
The Jazz need Hood to continue his development and produce on the perimeter if they’re going to make the playoffs next season. Hood has obviously been impressive as he’s progressed in each of the first two years, but I think he still has another level he can reach.
A breakout campaign from Hood would be excellent for Utah, not only because they hope to make the playoffs next year but also because the team has big decisions to make next summer. With Gordon Hayward, George Hill and Shelvin Mack all becoming free agents after this upcoming season, Hood improving would show the Jazz that they can rely on him more if one or more of those players decide to leave.
Lang Greene: Nikola Mirotic, Chicago Bulls
The third season will be the charm for Mirotic with the Bulls. The frontcourt was a crowded place for big men in Chicago last season, but the departures of Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol in free agency this summer will undoubtedly open up minutes for Mirotic.
The forward improved his three-point accuracy from 32 percent as a rookie to 39 percent last season. The addition of slashing guards Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade in free agency should lead to even more opportunities on the perimeter for Mirotic to thrive, especially now that the logjam has been cleared up.
Jesse Blancarte: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte Hornets
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was taken with the second pick in the 2012 NBA Draft and has established himself as one of the NBA’s best wing-defenders. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Kidd-Gilchrist to just 62 total games over the last two seasons.
If Kidd-Gilchrist is close to 100 percent healthy entering the upcoming season and has worked out some of the kinks in his jump shot, I expect him to have his best season yet. He is already a strong slasher, finishes well around the rim and, of course, is a monster on defense. With some added range and experience, Kidd-Gilchrist has the chance to be this year’s breakout player.
Tommy Beer: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Amazingly, the Greek Freak is still just 21 years old and has only started to scratch the surface of his vast potential. In the second half of last season, when Milwaukee began to lean on him heavily, Giannis posted some incredibly impressive numbers.
Over the final 29 games he played in, Antetokounmpo averaged 18.7 points (while shooting over 50 percent from the floor), 8.8 rebounds and seven assists per game. He also chipped in 1.4 steals and 1.9 blocks per game during the season-closing stretch. Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has said Giannis will handle point guard duties for Milwaukee next season, and the sky is the limit for this kid.
Cody Taylor: Dennis Schroder, Atlanta Hawks
With Jeff Teague out of the picture, Schroder becomes the man tasked with running the Atlanta Hawks’ offense. The writing had been on the wall now for some time for Teague, and Schroder will finally get his chance to prove himself as a starter. Schroder started just six games last season for the Hawks during the regular season, but still averaged a career-high 11 points, 4.4 assists and 2.6 rebounds per game. Now that he’ll become the full-time starter, those numbers figure to climb even higher. The timing couldn’t be better for Schroder, as he’s set to become a restricted free agent next summer.
Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
With Orlando parting ways with Scott Skiles and adding Frank Vogel, Gordon could have a big year. Vogel has talked about using Gordon more and putting him in situations to succeed in the open court.
His athletic ability and versatile skill set make him very intriguing. His outside shooting, fundamentals and decision-making must continue to improve, but he’s an incredible athlete who can make plays on both ends of the court. Last season, Gordon averaged 9.2 points and 6.5 rebounds in 23.9 minutes per game as a rookie. In his 37 games as a starter, those numbers increased to 11.1 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
It’ll be interesting to see what Gordon can do in his third season, especially since Orlando has added Serge Ibaka, Bismack Biyombo and Jeff Green to their front court. Still, at 20 years old and with so much talent, Gordon has to be mentioned when discussing potential breakout players.
Clint Capela, Houston Rockets
Capela is undeniably going to see more time on the floor with Dwight Howard and Terrence Jones no longer in Houston. Capela has progressed in many ways since entering the league in 2014.
Last season, the 22-year-old’s progression was on display as he averaged seven points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in just 19.1 minutes per game. This year, he has a chance to become a starter and take his game to the next level.
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.”