As Pat Riley stood up alongside Bam Adebayo to pose for photos during his introductory press conference Friday afternoon inside AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat’s team president made a bit of a bold prediction.
“One day,” Riley said as Adebayo held up his No. 13 jersey flanked by Coach Erik Spoelstra, “this jersey is going to be hanging up in the rafters.”
Riley, 72, might have gotten caught up in the moment. Or, he might have been trying to make the chiseled, 6-10, 243-pound 19-year-old smile a little more and feel a little comfortable at his new job.
But this much is true: although most NBA experts are not giving the Heat high marks for this pick because Adebayo is seen as more of an old school big man than the kind who can stretch the floor in today’s modern, three-point-crazed NBA game, Riley and Spoelstra are smitten.
They believe Adebayo’s ceiling is high. Riley on Friday said his workout with the Heat back on June 8 reminded him a lot of former six-time All-Star Shawn Kemp. Spoelstra said he’d be more than happy to get the player Adebayo patterns his game after: 15-time All-Star Kevin Garnett.
“We love the versatility he brings,” Spoelstra said. “You can define versatility in so many different ways and I think that’s where sometimes the narrative gets a little bit lost or lazy. People think the league is only going to three-point shooting. It will still always be about the paint. It will always be about the rim and there are two sides of the floor. So you need the versatility to be able to defend out on the floor. You need guys that can defend multiple positions.
“I’m still stunned by a young man this large and athletic and explosive that can move his feet and be that light on the ground. We think that fits to our defensive system, our style and the way the league is going you need guys that can show that kind of quickness. He can also punish teams in the paint at the rim. Look, the sky is the limit with Bam because of his work ethic and because of all these things that we just mentioned. We think he fits with the way the league is going. Just look at the Finals. You saw guys of his athleticism out there running around and making plays at the highest level. So, we love him.”
Adebayo, who turns 20 on July 18, attended Friday’s press conference with his mother Marilyn Blount. She raised him by herself in Little Washington, North Carolina on a cashier’s salary. They lived in a single-wide trailer by themselves.
“As a young man you never want to see your Mom struggle,” Adebayo said. “So, I worked my tail off and I got here so my Mom will never struggle again.”
Adebayo is slotted to make $2.5 million this coming season.
Part of Thursday’s approach with picking him is the fact backup center Willie Reed could end up being swayed to go elsewhere this summer for more money. Riley basically acknowledged it by not even mentioning Reed during his late night press conference after the draft Thursday.
Riley called 14-year veteran and captain Udonis Haslem, a free agent who could return at the veteran’s minimum or one of the team’s exceptions, the team’s backup center. He referred to Luke Babbitt and James Johnson as the starters at power forward.
Adebayo, who will participate in the Heat’s summer league games in both Orlando and Las Vegas, will have an opportunity to provide help in the front court as a rotation player at the beginning of his career.
“He’s not 7-1 like Hassan but he plays like him at 6-9,” Riley said of Adebayo who averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and 1.5 blocks a game in his one season at Kentucky. “He’s an above the rim player for real while other guys try to play above the rim.”
Most mock drafts had Adebayo going much later than the 14th pick. When the Heat chose him, North Carolina swingman Justin Jackson, Creighton center Justin Patton, UCLA stretch four T.J. Leaf, Wake Forest big man John Collins and Duke 7-footer Harry Giles were still on the board.
“There were other bigs available that had specific skills, but there were other things we didn’t like about them,” said Riley, who had never drafted a player from top NBA-talent producer Kentucky before Thursday.
“Obviously I’m a big fan of what John [Calipari] does from a coaching standpoint at Kentucky. He comes from a great system. But just also, when we sat and talked to [Adebayo] for an hour, you get sort of blown away by his story and his background, his motivation and why he is here. There are a lot of other sidebars other than just this incredible athlete. We felt he was the best player at that time on the board.
“He’s not the best shooter, but that all comes. When he was in the workout for us he made 30 out of 50 threes and had a great release. All that stuff comes with young big men.”
Ultimately, it could be that shooting touch that defines whether or not Adebayo becomes a steal with the 14th pick or just another miscast power player in a league that continues to become less and less about that.
“We’re going to be open to whoever he dreams of becoming and expanding his game,” Spoelstra said. “And if he’s willing to put in the work like he has right now then anything is possible.”