After an unexpected run to the 2020 NBA Finals, the Miami Heat have been a disappointment to start the 2021 season. They’re currently 9-14, good enough for just 12th in the eastern conference. But Miami has had a few bright spots. Among them is the improvement of young center Bam Adebayo.
In 2019-20, Adebayo grew from a role player to an all-star and played a vital role in Miami’s playoff run. And after a shortened rest in the offseason, it didn’t seem likely that he would suddenly get much better again in 2021. He already had his breakout season, and there wasn’t nearly as much room for improvement.
But ironically, Adebayo has improved, which has already been evident just 23 games into the 2020-21 season. Overshadowed by the early MVP-caliber campaigns of fellow centers Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid, Adebayo is quietly having an All-NBA worthy season himself.
What’s Changed Since Last Year?
Adebayo’s secret to success stems from his somewhat surprising scoring improvement. While he provided good value on offense in 2020, Adebayo lacked the high-volume scoring touch of other dominant bigs. That has changed in 2021.
With teammate Jimmy Butler missing 12 games, Adebayo has taken on more responsibilities within the offense as an on-ball creator. In this expanded role, Adebayo hasn’t disappointed at all, averaging over 20 points for the first time in his career.
He’s creating more of his own offense and taking an increased number of isolation shots that he rarely utilized in his arsenal last season. Adebayo currently ranks in the 88th percentile of isolation efficiency, per NBA.com, scoring a solid 3.4 points per game on pull-up shots. In contrast, Adebayo, in 2019-20, ranked in just the 39th percentile of isolation efficiency (on lower volume) and scored only 0.7 points per game on pull-ups (on worse efficiency).
But the numbers don’t quite do it justice by themselves. The eye test also shows that Adebayo is far more comfortable taking difficult shots from all over the place. This was evident against the Brooklyn Nets on January 23. Adebayo exploded for a career-high 41 points, making shots while shooting off the dribble and fading away with hands in his face. This aggressive, score-first version of Adebayo was almost nonexistent in the past.
Best of all, the 23-year old center is among the league leaders in true shooting percentage at 65.1%, up from 59.8% last season. One would typically expect Adebayo’s efficiency to decrease as his shot difficulty increases, but it’s been quite the opposite and alludes to his growth as a scorer.
Is There Room for Even More Improvement?
With these improvements, Adebayo’s game is nearly without weakness. He’s evolved into a capable shot creator and has still maintained the playmaking (5.2 assists per game) and prowess as a roll man (88th percentile in pick-and-roll efficiency) that made him such an impactful weapon in 2020. He’s, without a doubt, one of the most valuable and portable offensive bigs in the NBA.
And on defense, Adebayo can do just about everything too. He protects the rim, defends the pick-and-roll, and guards almost every position on the court with unrivaled defensive versatility.
As good as he is, Adebayo still has a ways to go. He’s an undisputed top-5 center, but not on the same tier as the very best bigs in the league. But fortunately, he can eventually reach that level if he improves in one main category: 3-point shooting. With a consistent 3-pointer, Adebayo would have no flaw and become the ideal modern center.
On the surface, there isn’t much reason to expect Adebayo’s 3-ball to drastically improve overnight. Adebayo is a career 17% 3-point shooter and has made only four 3-pointers over the last two seasons.
But luckily, there’s hope. In 2021, Adebayo has made significant strides as an outside shooter. Compared to last year, he’s nearly doubled his field goal percentage on mid-range jumpers outside 16 feet (22.7% to 43.2%) and has been more efficient from every distance on the court. As aforementioned, this is even more impressive when considering that a larger amount of these shots are self-created and difficult to make. Adebayo’s also converting his free throws at a much better rate.
But whether or not he grows into a 3-point shooter, Adebayo’s current improvements are profound and deserve the utmost recognition. He’s established himself as a bonafide star and continues to get better by the day. And at this rate, Adebayo is on his way to being the Heat’s next superstar and a top-10 player.