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In a season fast going sideways, Steven Adams remains as reliable as ever for the Pelicans

Moving forward, one can envision a significant role for the current New Orleans starting center

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Washington Wizards
Steven Adams palms a ball, guarded by a Wizards player, as he waits to pass it to his teammate.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

After coming to New Orleans as part of the 4-team Jrue Holiday trade package, center Steven Adams has taken on a role of veteran leader and defensive menace for a young Pelicans team. His production night in and night out may not show on the stat sheet, but many opponents feel his presence.

Adams is not the most ideal paint defender, lacking the athleticism and quick-twitch muscles to race in and thwart attempts at the rim in a moment’s notice, and opponents forcing him to guard on the perimeter can be an adventure, but he makes many an adversary think twice about driving the ball into the lane and he’s always good for giving maximum grit and grind.

He’s been a reliable contributor all season, controlling the paint, owning the glass, setting hard screens and the like, but a number of his efforts have stood out of late, especially on a team that continues to struggle with making headway in the standings.

Bordering a consistent double-double threat provided the minutes are there, Adams posted one in each of the first two games following the break. Adams put up solid figures against both the Minnesota Timberwolves (13 points, 12 rebounds) and Cleveland Cavaliers (10 points, 17 rebounds). While most players came out of the break seeming sluggish, Adams proved he was ready to come out and play.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at New Orleans Pelicans Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

His best game since the break may have been one where his stats do not tell the entire story: the win against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 9th. Adams held MVP candidate Joel Embiid to just 14 points and 9 rebounds in 31 minutes of play.

Adams was interviewed after this game and asked about his defensive performance, saying, “He settled for a lot of jump shots. I mean, I didn’t do much apart from just staying in his shot pocket. Now, whether that does anything or not, I don’t know, but he was settling a lot.”

The New Orleans center stayed true to himself, taking a humble route after a stellar showing against someone who is widely regarded as one of the best centers in the league. In fact, Adams frustrated Embiid so much that the Philly big man went back out onto to the court after the game to get shots up after his lackluster performance. Adams’s defensive prowess is one area of his game that many have come to consistently expect from him.

Another thing that Adams brings to the table besides his steadying presence is his ability to mentor young players. The Pelicans have seen exponential growth in both Jaxson Hayes and Willy Hernangomez in the latter half of this shortened season. With limited time for practices and no real preseason, much of the development shown throughout the 2020-21 campaign has been self-growth on their part. Watching Adams and following his lead has likely been invaluable.

A 7-year veteran of the NBA, Steven Adams has been around the league long enough to know exactly what he needs to tell young talent on what they can do to succeed. Seeing that New Orleans has such a young roster, Adams is the perfect fit to coach up Hayes and Hernangomez on the do’s and don’ts of an ever-changing league.

An issue often brought up with Adams’ game is his lack of ability to space the floor. Adams is more of a “typical center” in the sense that he is on the court for defense and rebounds. Adams can post up and make shots from in close, but anything outside of the paint is likely not going in — or even getting attempted.

New Orleans Pelicans v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With a player like Zion Williamson who is known for occupying the paint to work his magic, having someone who plays in the paint can be a hindrance in some instances. That’s okay. There’s a reason why rosters possess a lot of versatility. If there’s a pressing need to go small, than Adams shouldn’t be out on the floor. Overall, however, the Adams-Zion pairing has worked in large part because Adams thinks the game well. He puts himself in key positions, like setting an unsuspecting screen or dominating the offensive glass when opponents crowd Zion.

Adams has been a positive pickup for the Pelicans, but he’s looked even better as this season winds down and New Orleans’ backs are up against the wall in trying to grab a play-in spot. He’s currently enjoying his best month defensively near the rim and remains steadfast in giving 110% effort when on the court. That’s indispensable for a team full of young players facing so much adversity.

In my opinion, Adams’ extension is looking smarter with each passing game. Every good team requires a paint anchor. Someone willing to do the dirty work. If New Orleans keeps Adams around long term, one can envision him being successful around a core of Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram.

Some tweaks are definitely required on this Pelicans roster, but jettisoning Steven Adams is not one of them.

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @j_vlosich.