Determined Steven Adams staying true to self
He exceeded all expectations in his rookie season, but Steven Adams tells MARC HINTON he heads back to the NBA with just as much to prove second time round.
You wonder if the NBA has changed him.
Turned his head or shifted his focus. Added a swagger. Demanded an entourage.
You look for signs that becoming kind of a big deal in one of the glitziest leagues in world sport has rubbed off on this young New Zealander.
Then Steven Adams takes your hand in his enormous paw, shakes it vigorously, sprawls his 2.13m frame over a couple of bleacher seats and answers all of those questions before he's barely spoken a word.
At 21 he may be earning north of $2.5 million a year and being talked about as a key cog on one of the best hoops teams on the planet, but he's still the same Kiwi kid who left these shores a couple of years ago with as many rough edges as he had smooth finishes around the rim.
It isn't a surprise.
We've all followed from afar his rookie season in the NBA with the Oklahoma City Thunder, and it's been clear that as easily as Adams has made the transition into the world's best basketball league, he has stayed as true as he dares to the person he is.
His interviews quickly became legend in the NBA. His quirky answers to probing questions, his refreshing candour, his unique perspective all endeared him to observers used to dealing with a more polished and rehearsed type of response.
He was different this raw-boned, wide-eyed kid from New Zealand, and the great thing was he was not afraid to show it.
Now here he is, back in New Zealand, a special guest at the inaugural Powerade Breakthrough Academy in Auckland, stuck on the same pedestal as the All Blacks who are along to provide some mentoring for the 11 hand-picked youngsters.
Liam Messam is there, and Aaron Smith, and Julian Savea, but literally and figuratively they're dwarfed by this unassuming giant.
Eyes gravitate to a long frame that goes on and on like a party political speech, and there's a sense of awe that here in the flesh is a guy they'd all watched in the heat of the NBA playoffs just weeks previous.
It's comforting - and, no doubt, inspiring - to think he's very much one of us.
I'd first met Adams four years ago when I travelled to Wellington to interview him as a Scots College schoolboy intent on making it to the NBA. There had been a rawness and hunger about him then, and it does not appear to have dissipated.
He's a bit more polished now, his vocabulary a bit wider, his confidence a little higher. But the same focused, fiercely determined kid still shines through.
Of course a lot's happened since then.
He's graduated high school for starters, which never looked likely when he was plucked off the streets of Rotorua by one of his brothers and taken to Wellington to get on the straight and narrow.
He's played a year of college hoops, got picked No 12 in the NBA draft, and then surpassed all expectations with an outstanding rookie season for the Thunder that saw him become a regular part of Scott Brooks' rotation.
There's now talk he could be the key to getting Kevin Durant and Russ Westbrook to that championship they so desire.
I ask if the enormity of what he achieved in season one has hit home yet. He sits up and looks as though he's just been asked if he could fly to the moon.
"It was good because I didn't know what to expect," he says.
"I feel it went somewhat well. But I didn't achieve anything. We didn't win a championship, so there's nothing to really buzz about. That's the whole point. You can't judge yourself on something that doesn't involve that."
Adams clearly keeps things in perspective.
He knows he needs to get better, but trusts his coaches to take care of that process. It's part of the reason he's not with the Tall Blacks on their World Cup campaign.
He understands he's still got so much to do, and doesn't want to "mess with that process".
His formula last season was a simple one. He played hard (annoyingly so, for some opponents), he stuck to the basics and he knew his role.
That won't change in year two.
"One thing I didn't want to do is come to the team and be a distraction. My mindset was to complement the team, and I tried to get as much help as I could on how to do that."
The off-season workload is pretty constant, no matter whether he's in New Zealand or Oklahoma. It's how it has to be in the NBA.
Everyone works hard on their game; and everyone understands that they have to because everyone else is doing the same.
You wonder if it's a big season for him, the last of the two guaranteed years of his rookie contract. His next deal could be double or triple this one. What have his people told him?
"They don't tell me anything," he shrugs.
"It's all up to you. Every year is. There's no point getting a big buzz out of anything. I take the same approach, and stick to it. It is a process and I will come about when I come about."
He certainly seems unfazed, and unchanged, by his dramatic change in circumstances. There's no bling.
Today he has an entourage of one, older half-brother Rob Tuilave along to lend some moral support. He's dressed casually, in sweats, and he's at ease both among the young athletes and the All Blacks.
He talks about understanding the responsibility of representing his country, but unabashedly admits he's still maturing.
"I'm real conscious of making sure I'm doing the right thing and not hurting the New Zealand brand, because Kiwis are awesome," he says.
I ask if his lifestyle has changed.
"It's the same," he shrugs.
"I get some new shoes and some new clothes which is cool, but I just live with my coach - it's only me and Kenny. That's all you need."
All he needs, anyway.
Sunday Star Times