Kiwi import at home on the court
New Zealand native Steven Adams won't be flying under the radar much longer
Steven Adams is still new to this.
The New Zealand native may be one of the top-ranked players in the Class of 2012 (No. 6 in the ESPNU 100), but Adams is still learning the U.S. way of basketball. He's new to the style of play, the media attention, the competition level -- new to being a "star."
"It's different," Adams says. "It's taken a lot of getting used to. Basketball in this country is completely different."
Adams may not be that familiar with the U.S., but basketball fans nationwide will be introduced to the 6-foot-10 Pitt recruit Saturday night when he takes the floor for the Jordan Brand Classic in Charlotte, N.C. (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
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Even among the best high school players in the country, Adams is sure to stand out on the court because of his style of play. An uncommonly well-coordinated big man, Adams runs the floor like a guard and has the skill to score in a variety of ways, but he chooses to focus on post defense and rebounding.
It's a mentality that stems partly from being raised outside the typical American basketball system. Adams isn't concerned with his own numbers, just with doing whatever he can to contribute.
"Steven is completely untainted by the process of being a highly regarded player in our country," says Ryan Hurd, who coached Adams this past season at Notre Dame Prep (Fitchburg, Mass.). "He just does his thing on the court, and nothing else really affects him."
Growing up in New Zealand, Adams was part of a huge family (18 siblings and half-siblings) and sports were a way of life. One of his half-sisters is Olympic gold medalist shot putter Valerie Adams, and all of his brothers played basketball. He started taking the game seriously around age 13 and developed quickly from there.
Adams played for some of his native country's most prominent club teams, using his size and athleticism to guide his squads to a pair of Under-19 national titles. Last year, he joined the Wellington Saints of the New Zealand National Basketball League -- a professional league -- and helped them to a championship. Adams wasn't paid, so he's still eligible to play in college under NCAA rules.
Even with all that success, Adams never received, or desired, much attention. In his mind, he was just playing a game. Trying to make highlight-reel plays never entered his mind. That's the mentality he brought to Los Angeles in August when he competed with Team Asia in the adidas Nations Tournament.
"I just showed up," says Adams. "I didn't really know anyone, but I wanted to play well and give an effort against some of these top players."
Adams was basically an unknown at the start of the tournament. Fast-forward five games and he was one of the hottest basketball prospects in the world.
Going up against the best high school players the U.S. had to offer (six players from the U.S. squad will take part in the Jordan Brand Classic), Adams dominated. In one game against a U.S. squad led by Kaleb Tarczewski, the No. 4 player in the ESPNU 100, Adams posted 20 points and 24 rebounds while holding Tarczewski to 10 points and four rebounds.
Adams averaged 22 points and 16.8 rebounds per game at the Nations event, tops for the tourney. So by the time he arrived at Notre Dame Prep on Jan. 1, his reputation preceded him.
"He came in with huge expectations placed on him," says Hurd. "He was kind of a mythical creature. Our players expected him to be incredible."
Despite joining the team midseason and being immediately thrown into the lineup, Adams averaged 12 points and 14 rebounds per game.
"I had to learn everything real quick," says Adams. "I'm playing against a lot of big guys now. I was usually the tallest player in New Zealand, and the small people weren't as quick and athletic as the American players."
Adams caught on quickly. The Tarczewski matchup at Nations wasn't his only signature performance. In a Jan. 14 game against Tilton School (Tilton, N.H.), Adams was pitted against Nerlens Noel, the No. 1 player in the ESPNU 100. Adams went for 23 points and 13 rebounds and held Noel to 14 and 7. Not bad for someone who had relocated from across the globe less than two weeks earlier.
Adams was so new to the culture, however, that he had no idea who Noel was until after the game. The concept of player rankings was foreign to him.
"I didn't find out until afterward," says Adams, who was a late addition to the Jordan Brand Classic roster along with Noel. "When I did find out how highly ranked he was, it made sense. He was really friggin' good and a real nice guy off the court."
"He couldn't figure out what all the excitement was about," adds Hurd. "He was shocked by it. He had just put up huge numbers against one of the top guys in the entire country, but it never really even registered for him."
It was an example of the culture shock Adams has gone through during his three-plus months in America. Adams has NBA dreams, but he didn't think he'd be a star this quickly.
"All the media attention is ridiculous," he says. "In New Zealand, we don't have that stuff. It's unbelievable. The players here seem to like it, but I'm still kind of building up to it. I don't think that quite fits my personality, but I'm trying."
Unfortunately for Adams, the spotlight isn't going anywhere. He's just going to have to get used to it.
Mike Grimala is a basketball editor for ESPNHS. Follow him on Twitter @ESPNHSGrimala.
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