MIAMI – It’s easy to forget that Bam Adebayo is just 20 years old.
At 6-foot-10 and 255 pounds, Adebayo looks and plays like a grown man. But spend a few minutes with him away from the basketball court, and he’ll show some signs of his age. Adebayo lives on the 48th floor of his downtown Miami condominium building. His mother, Marilyn Blount, lives on the fifth floor.
“She does mom things,” Adebayo said. “She’ll call me every now and then and be like, ‘You need me to wash your clothes?’ I’ll be like, ‘No.’ Then two weeks later I’ll be like, ‘Mom, can you wash my clothes?’”
But that — along with his driver’s license, birth certificate and passport – might be the only proof that Adebayo is 20.
The Heat’s rookie big man has impressed teammates and coaches with his maturity, ability to grasp NBA schemes and willingness to fit into a very specific role. A role that’s been diminished since starting center Hassan Whiteside returned from injury, but one that’s still allowed Adebayo to flash his potential throughout the season.
Adebayo’s story began long before the Heat selected him with the 14th overall pick in last year’s draft, though. It began in a single-wide trailer home at 76 Church Lane in Little Washington, N.C., where Marilyn raised him as a single mother working as a cashier at the Acre Station Meat Farm.
“It pretty much comes from my mom,” Adebayo said when asked where his maturity comes from. “Because my mom was a real independent woman. Single parent living in a trailer and she made ends meet. When you see that every day for 18 years, it’s like if she can do it, I can do it.”
Marilyn and that single-wide trailer home became Adebayo’s motivation in life and his journey to the NBA.
“Bam knows that he had a hard road,” Marilyn said. “Bam looked at me going to work and how they used to treat me at work. Then Bam looked at me, and he would say, ‘Wow, Ma. I’m going to really work hard.’ I said, ‘Yes, Bam. Just get out there and do what you got to do.’”
Growing up with his mother in that trailer home shaped Adebayo. His father didn’t play an active role in his upbringing.
As early as Adebayo’s teenage years while playing for the Karolina Diamonds AAU program, he made it clear that helping his mother is the driving force behind any success he has playing basketball.
“His mom worked her butt off,” Adebayo’s AAU coach Kevin Graves said. “In America, there’s people that work their butts off and make a lot of money. And there’s people that work their butts off and don’t make a lot of money.
“For a mature kid like Bam, to watch his mom struggle and she never wavered. She got up every day. She didn’t have a car or driver’s license. She walked to work every day. If it was raining, she was walking. If it was sleet, she was walking. If it was dry outside, she was walking. I think he developed that same mentality of you just work, man.”
That work ethic and ahead-of-his-years mindset caught the Heat’s attention during the draft evaluation process. So did some other things: his athleticism, motor and willingness to be coached.
The Heat saw past Adebayo’s solid but not spectacular numbers as a Kentucky freshman, when he averaged 13.0 points, 8.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks with fellow first-round picks De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk scoring most of the points for the Wildcats.
“Bam didn’t have gaudy numbers, as far as scoring,” said Chet Kammerer, the Heat’s vice president of player personnel who leads the organization’s NBA draft scouting team. “But he was on a very talented team and the one thing that was true about him, he will do what you ask him to do. They wanted him to be the inside presence. He didn’t get a lot of touches. His job was defend, rebound, set screens for those guys and they were supposed to be the scorers.
“He was kind of the blue collar, he was the guy that was supposed to do a lot of the dirty work. And he did it. He wasn’t pouting if he only got a few touches. If you would watch him in college, there were a lot of times he was open and he didn’t get the ball much. So his numbers were not off the charts. But you had to realize, that’s what they wanted out of him.”
When Adebayo went through a pre-draft workout at AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat realized he was better than his stats.
Kammerer remembers interviewing a humble, but confident Adebayo. In Adebayo’s talks with Heat brass, he claimed that he could hit 60 of 100 corner 3-pointers.
“I was thinking to myself, there is no way he’s going to make 60 threes,” Kammerer recalled. “I can’t remember how many threes he took in college. I said, there’s no way.”
Adebayo attempted zero 3-pointers in college. He made 60 during his pre-draft workout with the Heat.
“That was the one thing that shocked me,” Kammerer said.
Throw that in with Adebayo’s defensive ability, and the Heat left that workout sold.
“It solidified in my mind that this guy is better than I thought,” Kammerer said.
And Adebayo has continued to impress the Heat this season.
“His routine is as rock solid as anyone and as consistent as anyone and that has not wavered since Day 1 to now,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “I remember in September, when we started really working with our young guys. We put together a program of an image of what a professional basketball player is playing for the Miami Heat, what that looks like, and a program to follow. And he’s followed it to the tee.”
Despite underwhelming numbers as a rookie (6.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.5 assists), he’s exceeded expectations. Before the season, Spoelstra mentioned he was open to sending Adebayo to the G League for consistent playing time.
That hasn’t been necessary, with Adebayo playing in 67 games and averaging 19.9 minutes.
“My intentions this season was just doing anything I could to get on the court,” Adebayo said. “We had some [injuries] and I got on the court, and I started performing and started producing. Coach started saying, ‘He’s undeniable.’ He trusted me at the end of fourth-quarter sets, running the offense through me a few games and after that we developed a bond. He trusts me just like I trust him.”
Adebayo’s most impressive quality has been his ability to switch on smaller player and keep them in front of him as a 6-foot-10 defender. Athleticism paired with a 7-foot-3 wingspan has allowed him to switch on All-Star perimeter players like Jimmy Butler, LeBron James and Stephen Curry … and stop them.
In the Heat-Warriors game on Dec. 3 in Miami, Curry spent 10 seconds trying to get past Adebayo with several crossovers and pump fakes before giving up and just passing the ball away late in the shot clock.
“If you think about his length, it helps him because he can spread out and cut guys off,” said Graves, who taught a very raw 12-year-old Adebayo how to play competitive basketball. “And then if they try to shoot over the top of him, he’s 6-10 with a wingspan. He can at least make the shot difficult instead of jumping out of the play.
“If you go back and look at that Steph Curry clip, the LeBron clip, the Jimmy Butler clip that he had, he never left the floor. That is an art.”
But Adebayo still has a lot of room for improvement on offense. Just 28 of his 169 made field goals this season have come from outside the restricted area, as he’s relied on dunks for most of his points.
Adebayo is shooting 11-of-40 (27.5 percent) from outside the paint.
Those struggles were highlighted in a four-point, 1-of-10 performance in a loss to the Trail Blazers on March 12. Portland center Jusuf Nurkic dominated the matchup with 27 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks.
“That was the worst game I’ve ever seen him play,” Graves said. “I taught him to play. I literally taught him how to shoot. What I’m telling you is this, that was the worst game I’ve ever seen him play in life – high school, AAU, pick-up game, anything.
“I texted him a picture of Nurkic [after the game]. First thing he saw when he walked out of the locker room was that dude.”
Graves points to another game as proof of Adebayo’s untapped potential. Adebayo scored 19 points on 7-of-7 shooting from the field and 5-of-5 shooting from the free-throw line in a loss to the Cavaliers on Nov. 28.
“That game showed who Bam could be down the road,” Graves said. “It was the game against Cleveland when they were getting blown out by 30. He wasn’t playing a lot and they put him in. … The reason he played a perfect game is because he was comfortable. They were down 30, he had nothing to lose.
“I’ve seen Bam since 11th grade cross dudes up, do bounce-back Kobe [Bryant] moves, reverse spin fakes, hard crossovers. He has it in his repertoire. When he went in that Cleveland game, it was like do whatever you want and he lost his mind.”
There have been moments that Adebayo has shown that type of skill. A couple of Eurosteps in transition, some made baseline jumpers and two six-assist performances stick out.
For now, Adebayo is sticking to his role in the Heat’s system – play defense and help facilitate the offense on the elbows as the handoff man or by setting solid screens.
“I think that’s what our coaches like about him,” Kammerer said. “He has a great work ethic, he’s coachable, he has a high basketball IQ. Some of those things, he’s been better than I thought, frankly. His ability to fit into our offensive system. We thought defensively he would be able to come in and help us because we saw the qualities of what it takes to play defense. We felt like he had that.
“He’s been better with the ball than I expected him to be. We didn’t see that in him. He’s been a surprise to me. To me, what he’s done better than I anticipated was the fact that he’s been a quicker learner than I expected. He’s grasped the system better than I expected for a young big guy to do.”
Even teammates have noticed Adebayo’s offensive potential behind the scenes.
“He’s a good offensive player, he just needs to get a little bit looser,” Goran Dragic said. “We see a lot of great touch from him in practice. He’s shown it. Sometimes the first year is always tough because you’re kind of adjusting to the game still from college to here. I think next year he’s going to be even better.”
But it’s important to remember that Adebayo is still a 20-year-old adjusting to the NBA game and NBA life. One of the most challenging things to get used to has been leaving his bags in the hotel on travel days on the road.
“When we have to leave the hotel, everybody was like: ‘No, man. You leave your bags and stuff that you don’t want to take to the game in the hotel,’” Adebayo said. “I was like, ‘Hold up. I’m not leaving my bag.’ And after that, I got used to it. But I still always got that in my mind, what if somebody takes my bag?”
While living in his own condo in Miami, Adebayo has also learned some things about himself. He enjoys Wynwood and taking walks around downtown, and he’s a clean freak.
“He is super clean,” Graves said. “If you went to his condo, he’s one of the cleanest people you would ever meet. Like, seriously. The floors, the dishes, the countertops.
“Bam is a 20-year-old who lives in a condo in Miami, and it’s spotless. He has everything in his closet in order. He has his shoes lined up a certain way. His hoodies are hanging on hangers based on color coordination. Bam is just a unique person, man.”
A unique person with a unique story that he never wants to forget.
After Graves and Marilyn dropped him off for his freshman year at Kentucky in 2016, Adebayo texted Graves immediately.
“Coach, when you drop my mom off at home, can you take a picture of the trailer?” he texted.
“I knew what that meant,” Graves said. “I knew that meant he wants that picture. He doesn’t just want that picture to put in his wallet. He wants that picture.”
So Graves went the extra step and enlarged the photo he took of the single-wide trailer home Adebayo grew up in with his mother, and had it framed.
Fifteen words were engraved on a metal plate near the bottom of the frame: “Never forget where you came from, and never lose sight of where you are going.”
That picture has followed Adebayo to Miami. It’s now hung in Marilyn’s condo.
“He can’t miss it because when you walk in, it’s right there in my living room,” Marilyn said.
Adebayo will never forget where he comes from, and his sights are set on where he’s going.
“The sky is the limit for me,” he said. “I feel like I can do anything I put my mind to.”