BOCA RATON — James Johnson has a nickname for rookie Bam Adebayo.
“Am I allowed to call him by his name?” coach Erik Spoelstra said when asked about the Heat’s first-round pick after practice earlier this week. “JJ will only call him ’13.'”
That’s Adebayo’s jersey number and that’s the life of a rookie.
“It caught me off guard the first time because [Johnson] was like, ’13,'” Adebayo recalled. “And I was like alright, whatever.”
But just because Adebayo’s coaches and teammates refer to him as “13” doesn’t mean he hasn’t already earned their respect after just a handful of practices. Training camp began Tuesday at Florida Atlantic University.
Adebayo, who was selected by the Heat with the 14th overall pick out of Kentucky, has already shown off the skill set that caught Miami’s attention during the draft evaluation process. Spoelstra called Friday’s practice Adebayo’s “best day by far.”
“I’ll tell you one thing, Bam jumps so high,” Heat guard Dion Waiters said. “He’s so athletic. He’s young, he’s raw. Once he really learns the game, he’s going to get out there and play and he has to learn on the fly sometimes also. Once he really studies the game and really gets what’s going on out there and the principles and the defensive principles, he’s going to be a monster on the defensive end. Him and [Hassan] Whiteside back there, it’s crazy. Once he really just figures it out, he’ll be fine.”
Goran Dragic called Adebayo “a force of nature” and Udonis Haslem said Adebayo is “definitely physically capable of competing with grown men in this league.” Those type of comments are unusual for a player who would be entering his sophomore season in college and just turned 20 on July 18, but they aren’t that surprising considering the power forward/center is listed at a chiseled 6-foot-10 and 255 pounds.
“Bam’s athleticism is something you can’t not see — how athletic he is,” Haslem said. “At 19 or 20 with a 250-pound frame, it definitely stands out to you. He’s humble. He’s hungry. He’s willing to listen. He’s willing to learn. That’s all we need from him right now. Everything else will take care of itself. … The mental part is just something you can’t really fast track for a guy at 19 coming out of college. It’s just going to be a process. He’s got to understand that. He’s not going to get any calls. It’s just going to be a process for him.”
The feeling inside the Heat organization is that Adebayo can offer more on the court than what he showed in his one season at Kentucky. Many, including his college coach John Calipari, believe Adebayo was held back in college with the Wildcats’ offense built around fellow first-round picks De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
That willingness to accept a secondary role despite coming into college as a five-star prospect impressed the Heat. He averaged 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a freshman last season.
“That’s one thing I loved about what he did in Kentucky,” Spoelstra said. “He accepted and embraced a role. That’s pro preparation, in my mind. Everybody comes in as a blue-chip player and they just want to have 40 touches a game and score 30 points a game in college, and then be one-and-done and on to the league. Very few have the emotional maturity to accept a role on a great team. So, yeah, we’re encouraged by all of that. He’s going to improve over the years with us because of that work ethic, commitment. But his willingness to take on a role I think separates him from a lot of young players in the league, because he’s going to have to be a role player.”
Adebayo flashed glimpses of his offensive potential as a member of the Heat’s summer league team with solid shooting mechanics and athleticism that included Eurostep moves in transition. He averaged 17.5 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in the Orlando Summer League, and 15.7 points, 8.7 rebounds and 0.3 blocks in the Las Vegas Summer League.
“I don’t want to put boundaries on him,” Spoelstra said. “He has a lot of Miami Heat qualities that we like. The one thing I’ve learned over the years is when [Heat Vice President of Player Personnel] Chet Kammerer says, ‘This is my guy,’ I don’t even have to throw the monitor on and edit him. And that was Chet’s guy six weeks before the draft, three weeks before the draft, one day before the draft, 10 minutes into the draft and we had the pick available and he was there, we just said, ‘OK, Chet, this is your call.’
“We just wanted to invest our time in him. Yeah, he did a lot of things that surprised us a little bit this summer. We wanted to find out if he could handle the ball and make some plays, and not just from the center position. I was pleasantly encouraged by that.”
Despite the positive reviews, Adebayo could find it hard to get on the court early on. Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk will start the season ahead of Adebayo on the frontcourt depth chart, and Justise Winslow could also end up getting some minutes at power forward.
Calipari visited the Heat facility this offseason and applauded the organization for drafting Adebayo.
“[Calipari] believes that this kid hasn’t even reached his ceiling and that he really did hold him back last year to some extent because of his point guard play and perimeter players,” Heat president Pat Riley said last week. “But he feels like we might have the steal of the draft. It’s up to Erik and the staff to evaluate him on how he plays and how he gets into the rotation”
As for Adebayo’s nickname, Johnson has already seen enough to drop it and call him Bam. But Adebayo prefers “13.”
“We’re not for everybody,” Johnson said. “Once I saw he was one of us I called him ‘Bam’ and he didn’t like that. He likes ’13’ better. So we’re going with it.”