The Brutish Versatility of KJ Adams Jr.
KJ Adams Jr is quietly one of the most versatile players in the country due to his willingness to do the work others don't want to.
So frequently in the draft process, there will be guys who seemingly come out of nowhere and end up contributing to NBA rotations. They won’t have jaw-dropping statistical profiles or never before seen physical traits, but they still somehow find a way to make a positive impact on every game they play in. KJ Adams Jr. is the epitome of this type of player. The Kansas Jayhawk sophomore is the bedrock for so much of what they do on both ends of the floor and clearly has the trust of his teammates and coaches. Whether he’s a 2023 NBA Draft prospect or one in the future is still up in the air, but KJ Adams proves on a nightly basis that by doing the little things he’s an NBA player.
At 6’7” and 225 pounds, Adams isn’t a typical center. Hell, selling teams on a 6’7” small forward is a tall task now. Adams makes up for his lack of height in a myriad of ways, though. You could even say, he plays bigger than he is. This is when you roll your eyes at the ever-so-popular announcer cliché. While it is a cliché, there is a lot of truth to it. For starters, Adams is built like a Greek god, and his strength is extremely functional. Additionally, Adams has the footwork, agility, and motor that allow him to guard essentially all five positions, operate on the perimeter with the ball, and be a terror in transition. Physically speaking, there isn’t really anything that Adams can’t do.
In full transparency, this piece is going to largely be about the simplistic brilliance of what Adams does on the court. However, it would feel manipulative to not at least point out that there are some concerning flaws. As we already addressed, he’s small for a center. He will struggle with the more physically imposing NBA centers. However, if paired with an offensively perimeter-oriented center or a scheme that switches regularly, Adams should be just fine. Secondly, I’m afraid that my previous statement of “operate on the perimeter” may be misleading. By no means am I trying to suggest that Adams is a floor spacer. He has taken two three-pointers in his Kansas career and missed both. He also shoots just 60.5% from the line for his career. Finally, concerns over his rebounding numbers are fair (4.4 per game and a defensive rebounding rate of just 7.5), but those are more so symptoms of Kansas’s scheme. They switch relentlessly, which constantly drags Adams to the perimeter on defense. Adams has the awareness, motor, and strength to rebound; he’s just limited in his ability to do so based on his responsibilities. What he does do, though, which we’ll get into shortly, is handle the ball and make superb passes. Enough of that, though; let’s get to the fun stuff.
Adams is currently averaging 10.4 points per game on 63% shooting. Not only does Adams finish at a high clip, but he also takes high-quality shots. Per Synergy, based on the shots he takes compared to the rest of the country, Adams has a shot quality (expected points per shot (PPS)) of 1.20 and is scoring 1.26 PPS. Adams also ranks in the 89th percentile in overall points per possession (PPP) with 1.067 and the 83rd percentile in possessions plus assists with 1.3 PPP.
Adams tends to spend most of his possessions acting as the screener in the pick-and-roll. In these situations, he’s scoring 1.097 PPP (63rd percentile). This action allows Adams to use his wide frame to set solid screens and get into spaces where he can be most effective as he is currently scoring 1.431 PPP (87th percentile) at the rim. Even though Adams lacks the size of more traditional roll threats, his floor awareness, athleticism, and scoring touch make him just as deadly.
Here, Adams sets a screen before rolling to the rim. Gradey Dick delivers a bounce pass that Adams has to extend to reach just as the help defender is arriving. It would be very easy for this to end up in a turnover or for Adams to just barrel through the defender for a charge. However, Adams quickly controls the ball before spinning against the defender for the athletic finish.
This time, Adams shows off his strength. As Adams goes to set the screen, he can feel Dereck Lively on him. This tells Adams that Lively is at the level of the screen and that the paint is unattended. Instead of setting a full screen, Adams gives Jeremy Roach a slight bump before slipping and rolling hard. As he rolls, Adams curves his path. We see him set the screen in line with the elbow, but as he cuts to the rim, he’s outside of the lane. This altered route allows him to attack the rim with more force as Dajuan Harris is now able to deliver an easily catchable pass. As Adams elevates, he jumps into Lively. This action negates Lively’s shot-blocking ability as Adams’s strength absorbs the contact.
Even when Adams can’t get all the way to the rim, he has excellent scoring touch on floaters as he is currently scoring 1.042 PPP (79th percentile) on runners. Here, Adams sets a solid screen as his defender comes up to the level. This creates a pocket pass for Harris to lead Adams downhill. As he attacks, Adams doesn’t overcomplicate the situation once Keyontae Johnson rotates. Instead of trying to sky for a dunk or awkwardly Euro-step around him, Adams simply drops in a floater.
Again, Adams can’t get to the rim to score, but he doesn’t panic. Adams uses his hands to make the over-the-shoulder catch as the recovering defender closes on him. Instead of forcing a shot likely to get blocked, Adams spins back away from the rim. This move gives him a better angle and generates enough space for him to drop in the floater.
In case you were starting to worry about his vertical spacing, don’t. His height will limit him some, but Adams is more than capable of skying to finish with powerful dunks and lobs.
What makes Adams so effective as a roller, though, is his passing ability. Here, Adams shows off his footwork by quickly flipping the screen before rolling. Adams immediately recognizes the help defender has rotated to him and has the awareness to know that his teammate is wide open in the corner. After a slight bobble, Adams promptly kicks out a perfect pass to Jalen Wilson and changes his momentum to avoid the charge.
Adams rolls and avoids the help defender’s steal attempt like we saw him do earlier. This time, though, there is a second help defender who is keen on taking a charge. Adams shows off his body control and awareness as he kills his momentum, changes his direction of movement, and feeds Kevin McCullar for the dunk.
Even when Adams isn’t being used as a roller, he can be used as a focal point in a set play. He does an excellent job of reading the floor and delivering accurate passes to cutters. Even though this is a set play, Kansas is capable of running it due to Adams’s passing ability. As Dick and McCullar swap spots on the wing, Adams lifts out of the post to draw away the rim protector. Since Dick’s defender is playing aggressive ball denial defense, Dick cuts to the rim and is rewarded with a perfect bounce pass for the dunk.
This time, Adams and Dick look to run a handoff. Dick quickly recognizes that the baseline is open and makes a quick back cut. Adams immediately reads what his teammate is doing and splits the defenders with a perfect pass to set up the layup.
Adams never stops working on offense. He is constantly crashing the glass, relocating, setting screens, and moving the ball. Even though he doesn’t have tremendous size, his high IQ and skill allow him to do a variety of things. It is hard to think of Adams not contributing to NBA offenses that utilize frequent ball and player movement.
While there is plenty that Adams can do on offense, his defense is horrifically versatile. For opponents, it is a symphony of terror. His defense seamlessly flows through different skills, abilities, and areas of the floor. He effortlessly transitions from defending to the post to switching on the perimeter to recovering for a weak side block. His motor on offense is only trumped by his motor on defense.
When Adams is on the court, Kansas has a defensive rating of 94.8, which ranks 33rd in the country. When he leaves the court, their defensive rating jumps to 99.8, which ranks 106th. Adams’s individual defensive numbers are solid, averaging 1.0 steals, 1.0 blocks, a block rate of 4.2, and a steal rate of 2.0, but they aren’t otherworldly. Like his offense, Adams’s impact doesn’t fully show up in the box score as his pure presence, versatility, and energy disrupt so much of what the opponent is trying to accomplish.
Here, Adams gets switched on the perimeter against an opposing guard, and Adams isn’t the least bit concerned. On the pass, Adams switches again before displaying stellar footwork to cut off the first drive. Adam Flagler then backs the ball out to attack again, but he grossly underestimates Adams. Adams again displays perfect footwork as he never allows Flagler to turn the corner. Adams also does a tremendous job of staying vertical and letting his physicality disrupt the drive to force the turnover.
Adams regularly displays his agile footwork, which is an incredible tool to pair with his defensive awareness. On this out-of-bounds play, Adams immediately recognizes that his teammate is going under the screen as Keyonte George settles above the break. Adams knows this will be an open three, so he quickly switches and closes out. George does a great job of attacking the closeout, which would beat most big men. Adams had a controlled closeout, though, which allows him to quickly regain his balance, slide with George, and block the layup.
Adams is also a selfless defender. He regularly rotates to help teammates, even when he knows he’ll have a substantial recovery to make. He isn’t worried about being the one that gets scored on or having to make the extra effort as long as he makes it as difficult as possible for the opponent.
Here, Wilson does a good job of cutting off the drive, and Adams times his double team to perfection as the ball-handler spins middle. This kills the drive and forces the kickout. As the pass is made, Adams immediately processes that McCullar has rotated to the baseline. Without hesitation, Adams scrambles and gets a decent contest on the three. Then for kicks-and-giggles, he leaks out and finishes the transition lob.
This time, Adams is forced to double due to a mismatch. This again creates tremendous pressure that forces a kickout. Then as if he’s connected with his teammate, he naturally recovers as the ball swings. Instead of immediately bodying his man in the post as he recovers, Adams gives a slight cushion so he can more effectively react to the incoming entry pass. Adams eagerly pounces on the lazy pass to force the turnover.
The most important action that Adams will have to defend in the NBA is the pick-and-roll. Given his size, he likely won’t play much drop coverage. This alone will exclude him from plenty of team’s draft boards, but he has all the tools to thrive in a high-pressure, switch-heavy scheme.
Here, Adams eagerly switches at the top of the arc against Milos Uzan. Uzan uses a hang dribble as he attacks left, and Adams is entirely unfazed. As Uzan attacks, Adams perfectly slides his feet to ensure he maintains his balance and doesn’t lose the ability to elevate at the rim. As Uzan elevates Adams effortlessly blocks the shot.
Most teams won’t want to simply switch everything, so Adams will have to show and recover, something he’s constantly proving he can do. Here, Adams shows hard on the screen and gets dragged out to the rim before instinctually recovering to the paint. Fundamentally, this isn’t the soundest as he is now yards away from his man. However, with time, this can be improved upon. What’s impressive is Adams’s quick recognition of his screw-up and ability to recover to contest the shot.
A common defensive scheme against side pick-and-rolls is to keep the ball away from the middle. This can lead to the screener popping to the middle of the floor uncontested, which is exactly what happens here as Harris and Adams trap the ball-handler. As the pass is made to Ryan Young, Adams swiftly recovers by avoiding the brush screen by Kyle Filipowski. Seeing an open lane, Young drives and tries to spin against Adams’s recovery. Adams, though, uses his length and quick hands to poke the ball loose. He then gathers the loose ball and delivers a perfect outlet pass for the layup.
KJ Adams Jr. is a bit of an anomaly. He has the body of a modern wing but the game of an old-school center. Everything about his archetype simultaneously screams that he both is and isn’t an NBA player. In a league flush with shooting, undersized big men who can’t shoot don’t seem like a great bet. Despite every limitation that says he shouldn’t work, Adams continues to thrive. His simplistic, decisive approach to offense generates high player and ball movement, consequently creating high-quality shots. On defense, there aren’t many players in the 2023 NBA Draft who provide his same level of versatility and reliability. Adams may not produce garish numbers, but he does the work others don’t want to, and he elevates the play of those around him.
He'll be on the perimeter in the NBA. That's where Self was having him practice in the preseason. When the team's bigs didn't step up, Self did what he told them he'd do -- he played KJ at the 5 and let them watch. KJ's court vision seems to be as good as, or better than, anyone on the team. The ball doesn't stick in his hands. Note how quickly he either shoots or passes, and how quickly he finds the open man. No surprise that he can handle it -- in AAU he was point guard. So this business of playing the 5 is temporary. Don't get confused. His future in the NBA will be on the perimeter -- and note that on the season-deciding play in the national championship game, who did Self put in for his perimeter defense? KJ. Self is no fool. In any case, the experience KJ is getting this year in the paint will be valuable.