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Miami’s Bam Adebayo wants in on the NBA’s list of elite big men

AS BAM ADEBAYO entered the Chicago hotel lobby from the team bus, he had a conversation with himself about mind over matter. It was just after noon on gameday and a frigid opponent was waiting upstairs.

“I’m trying to get my heart rate up,” the Miami Heat All-Star center told ESPN, nervously eyeing the elevator as he prepared for his ice bath. “So when I do get there, it’s not as much of a shocker.”

In June 2023, Adebayo left the floor at the end of Game 5 of the NBA Finals in Denver as blue, yellow, white and red confetti rained down on him and his defeated teammates. As the party started for the new NBA champion Nuggets, a bit of clarity struck him.

He had battled a sore hamstring during the playoffs, then a right shoulder injury during the Finals amid a grueling struggle against the Nuggets’ rugged star, Nikola Jokic. Numerous teammates had been alongside him in the training room. Gabe Vincent had a bad ankle. Cody Zeller had a broken nose. Tyler Herro missed nearly the entire postseason with a broken hand. Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler were banged up.

The Nuggets’ injury report, meanwhile, was empty. As he was feeling frustration, exhaustion and acceptance, this detail blared in his head.

“That’s what really hit home when that buzzer went off,” said Adebayo, whose Heat face the Los Angeles Lakers on Wednesday (ESPN, 10 p.m. ET). “When you get to the Finals, those are the two things that matter: who’s going make the least amount of mistakes and who’s going to be the team that’s less injured. I was like, ‘Damn, a lot of stuff is factored into why we lost.'”

In a reality where a run back to the Finals might mean long series against Eastern Conference giants such as Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo or Kristaps Porzingis (and perhaps all three) before a possible rematch with Jokic, Adebayo has found himself adopting a refined approach as he works through his seventh NBA season — one that is looking like it could be the best of his career.

With that in mind, Adebayo got into his midday ice bath after that morning shootaround. He could’ve been having lunch, napping or doing anything else, but he has committed himself to doing more body maintenance this season because, he believes, all of it makes a difference.

IF AN UNPLEASANT 15- or 20-minute ice water plunge in November incrementally improves the chances of being healthier in April, May and June, Adebayo is invested in it. If he can get in two sessions of Pilates per week instead of one, he’s going to try.

“One of the things I’ve learned: You have to take care of the little muscles,” Adebayo said. “It’s the little things that can matter.”

The big things do too. In late November, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra came to Adebayo to discuss the left hip injury that had been bothering him for more than a month. In the second week of the season, he fell hard on it during a game in Minnesota. His instinct afterward was to do what he’d always done: fight through it.

Adebayo had missed three games at different times when the hip issue flared up. On Nov. 30, the hip got slammed in the first half of a game against the Indiana Pacers, and he felt a pain spike that forced him to the sideline. He was determined to grind his way through it with more ice and more treatment. He was putting up huge offensive numbers — Adebayo is having the most prolific scoring season of his career with 22 points a game, a badly needed influx as the Heat have dealt with long stretches without primary scorers Herro and Butler early in the season.

“Coach kinda took it out of my hands. He was like ‘You’ve got to sit,'” Adebayo said. “Throughout my whole career, I’ve tried to play through stuff, take your mind off of it and once you get into competition you seem to forget about it.”

But that was Adebayo’s old thinking. The new Adebayo, now 26 and trying to live each day with that eye toward the postseason, reluctantly shut himself down for seven games.

Spoelstra stitched together the Heat as he dealt with injuries to several starters — Miami used 14 different starting lineups in its first 22 games — and the team went 5-5 in the games without Adebayo.

When Adebayo plays, the Heat are 14-9, including a Christmas Day win over the Philadelphia 76ers in which Adebayo put up 26 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks (Embiid was out with an ankle injury).

In addition to his career-best scoring, Adebayo’s rebounds, assists and blocks are up from last season. Over the past five games, during one of the toughest schedule stretches of the Heat’s season, Adebayo is averaging 22 points and 14 rebounds as Butler has missed time with two different leg injuries.



Bam Adebayo makes a sweet pass

Bam Adebayo makes a sweet pass

The scoring has been key not just with current teammates missing stretches because of injury, but also with Vincent (Los Angeles Lakers) and shooting specialist Max Strus (Cleveland Cavaliers) leaving in free agency. Adebayo has boosted his midrange scoring as he shows off an ever-improving jumper while also drawing more fouls. (He has boosted his trips to the line by two per game.)

Adebayo, a two-time All-Star and four-time All-Defensive selection, is already known for his defensive versatility and skilled ballhandling for a big man. The ability to force a stop, grab the rebound and then initiate the offense is highly prized in the modern game, and he’s one of the few who can do it at an elite level.

But thinking back to his epiphany during the Finals, Adebayo is pushing for more.

“I’m looking at my stat line and being like, ‘How can I be better?'” Adebayo said. “Instead of averaging 20 [points per game], how do I average 23? Instead of averaging nine rebounds, how do I average 11? Instead of averaging three assists, how do I average five? Instead of averaging 0.8 blocks, how do I average 1.4?

“And you start calculating that. You start really honing in on preparation … how many times you go to the gym, how many times you work on consistency. And then it goes to taking care of your body while you’re beating yourself up in the summer, trying to obviously put more weight on, getting stronger.”

LATE AT NIGHT, particularly after losses, Adebayo has found himself watching film and taking notes on his phone to discuss with the coaching staff the next day.

“My coach is an insomniac,” Adebayo said. “I know he’s up watching [film] too. But I save the texts for the morning.”

“That’s the life of great players in this league. You shoulder a lot of responsibilities,” Spoelstra, the noted insomniac, said of Adebayo. “People haven’t really noticed how he’s improved each year and it really started in the playoffs four years ago how he was being guarded and he went to work in the offseason on really developing a go-to shot right in the middle of the paint.”

That dotted-line jumper — the pull-up in the middle of the paint — has become an Adebayo staple, but he’s pushing his range out more. This season, Adebayo is taking more of his shots from 10 to 16 feet than at any time in his career and making them at nearly a 50% rate. It’s a midcareer wrinkle that has expanded a tool in his game.

“Our scouting report on Bam was, if he gets the ball at the elbow you have to keep him there. Don’t let him drive to get to that dotted line, get fouled or draw help defense so he can kick it to a shooter,” one Eastern Conference scout whose team played the Heat in the playoffs last season told ESPN. “But now that might be evolving after watching him this year some.”

This gets to the core of what Adebayo wants. Last season, the Heat’s scouting report on Jokic was painfully basic: Pick your poison, do your best to not let him be comfortable, and hope for the best. For elite big men such as Jokic and Embiid, there are no guarantees in stopping them.

Adebayo wants on this list.

“That’s what I want everybody in the league to respect about my game at this point,” Adebayo said. “Where they say: ‘We just got to hope he misses.’ And that’s what you work for.”

There’s another list Adebayo has his eye on: All-NBA. He thought he was on his way there last year but lost some rhythm after the All-Star break. His scoring average dropped about four points, with three fewer rebounds per game, and the Heat were playing .500 basketball.

Then came his monster postseason. The 20-point, 10-rebound, 10-assist triple-double in the close-out game against the Milwaukee Bucks to finish a stunning upset of the top seed. The 22-point, 17-rebound statement against the Boston Celtics in the conference finals. The 21-point, nine-rebound Game 2 in Denver in the Finals. Just to name a few.

His strong start is notable, but this season Adebayo wants a strong finish to get himself in position for that high honor. Yes, if Adebayo makes All-NBA (and plays in 65 games) he can qualify for a supermax contract extension of up to $245 million next summer — a factor he’s absolutely thinking about.

“You can’t run from those type of numbers,” Adebayo said “The money we make now is ridiculous. Coming from the background where I come from, where me and my mom made it out of a single-wide trailer in a rural area. You think about how many lives you can change. So it does play a part, it does matter, but that’s not the only reason why I’m chasing it.”

For a player entering his prime years with expanding aspirations and demands of himself, there’s something else, too.

“I’m [also] chasing it because I feel like I’m going to get to that point where people are going to be like, ‘It’s guaranteed it’s going to be All-NBA. [I’m] one of them,'” he said. “It’s not mainly for the money, it’s mainly because [of] the respect of your peers and obviously the respect of everybody else.”


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