Steve Adams is finding his way in one of the toughest sporting contests in the world, writes Nick Venter.
OPINION: ''Steven Adams loooooooooooooooool'' tweeted NBA basketball star James Harden when the young New Zealander was picked 12th in the NBA draft in June.
To those unversed in the Twittersphere that roughly translates as ''what a joke''.
Harden had reason to sneer. Oklahoma City Thunder, the team which acquired Adams, had traded him a couple of years previously to reduce its salary bill and gain extra draft picks.
However, Harden was not alone in viewing Adams as a gamble.
Valerie Adams' kid brother has all the physical attributes necessary to play basketball.
He stands 2.13m tall and, as befits a man whose older sister is a two-time Olympic champion, is blessed with strength and unusual athleticism.
But he's only been playing the game since he was plucked off the mean streets of Rotorua by one of his brothers at the age of 14 and steered towards a Wellington basketball academy.
The players he competed against in his one and only year of US college basketball for the University of Pittsburgh had been playing the game all their lives and the difference showed.
Despite his size and athleticism Adams got only limited court time and, in basketball parlance, the team did not run plays ''through him''.
He was a spare part in a well-oiled machine.The pundits took note and Adams was identified as a long-term ''project'' when he entered the draft.
Even when he was picked 12th, the experts said it was some time before he'd be bumping shoulders with the game's superstars.
His shooting technique was fundamentally flawed and he lacked basic basketball nous, they said. He was destined for the D league - the NBA's development league.
Well, it turned out they had not seen what the Thunder's scouts had seen.
Adams impressed Thunder coach Scott Brooks in pre-season matches and has been a constant presence in the Thunder lineup ever since.
True, his numbers are modest. After 26 games he was averaging 16.4 minutes, 3.9 points and 4.8 rebounds, but he's shown enough to excite fans, commentators and former stars.
''I like the Adams kid a lot and I think he is going to be the key whether they [the Thunder] can go to the next level,'' former star Charles Barkley said recently.
What observers like Barkley like is that Adams is not only big, he's got soft hands, a good shooting touch close to the basket and, as, you'd expect of someone who grew up playing rugby, he enjoys the physical side of the game.
In one of his first matches he stunned team-mates by taking a forearm in the face from ageing star Vince Carter and carrying on as if nothing had happened.
Carter became the first of several players to be ejected from a game for responding overly physically to what The Oklahoman's Anthony Slater recently described as Adams' ''physical yet emotionless'' style of play.
The good news for Kiwi basketball fans is that Adams is only going to get better as he learns the game and adjusts to one of the toughest leagues in world sport.
The better news is that a Kiwi could be competing in the 2014 NBA finals.
His Thunder team sit near the top of the tough Western conference and is one of the few teams given a chance of defeating LeBron James's Miami Heat in the finals.
The best news of all is that neither fame nor fortune have gone to Adams' head.
He remains a down-to-earth Kiwi who proudly displayed a New Zealand flag sewn into his jacket on draft day and tweets his support for Kiwi sports teams at every opportunity.
- The Dominion Post
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