MEMPHIS — Steven Adams once thought he was destined for farming life, back when he was just an exceptionally tall boy finding his way around Rotorua, a rural town on New Zealand’s North Island known for its thermal pools.
He valued hard work, family and consistency. (As the youngest of at least a dozen siblings, he had no choice but to work with others.) Then one of his youth basketball coaches bought him a pair of size 16 sneakers at a flea market. He wore them everywhere.
These days, Adams, 29, has a high-profile and well-paid occupation, as a 6-foot-11 center for the Grizzlies — and as one of the N.B.A.’s most prized teammates. He plays defense. He curses. He rebounds. He curses. He cracks jokes. He curses.
“Funniest person I’ve ever met,” said David Roddy, a first-year forward.
In the process, Adams has endeared himself to a young team with championship hopes as one of the best teams in the Western Conference. A former sidekick to the likes of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in Oklahoma City, Adams is now a one-man team-building operation in Memphis, where Ja Morant, one of the league’s most precocious stars, counts himself among the beneficiaries of Adams’s lunch-pail labor.
“I feel like a lot of the stuff he does for us goes unnoticed,” Morant said, “and it’s time for people to start watching him.”
With his sleeve of tattoos, bushy beard and mop of hair that extends to the back of his jersey, Adams would look right at home aboard a large fishing vessel. Instead, he leads the N.B.A. in offensive rebounds by a wide margin — a statistic that teammates and coaches value, since offensive rebounds create extra shots — while applying his self-styled brand of leadership.
It was on display during the Grizzlies’ season-opening win over the Knicks. In the middle of a late timeout, Adams stole a towel from the shooting guard John Konchar so that he could hand it to Morant, who apparently had a sweaty brow and — let’s be honest — was likely to play a more important role down the stretch. Konchar, who finished with 12 points, was left to stare at his empty hand.
After a recent practice, Konchar recalled the first time he met Adams, who came to the Grizzlies in a trade with the New Orleans Pelicans before the start of last season.
“I didn’t really know what to expect,” Konchar said. “I mean, he’s 7-feet tall and looks kind of scary.”
Konchar proceeded to rattle through Adams’s many fine attributes: his comedic timing, his taste in music, his size and strength, his uncanny gift for collecting errant shots. As he was wrapping up his interview, Konchar spotted Adams.
“Steve-O!” Konchar shouted. “I said so many nice things about you.”
Adams glanced over his shoulder just long enough to inform Konchar that he was full of it.
Said Roddy: “Honestly, he’s taken all the younger guys under his wing. And I’m just trying to learn from him as much as possible.”
So much of Adams’s approach as a basketball player is rooted in his childhood. He had a large family. By Adams’s count, his father, Sid, had 14 children, though some of his siblings think the number is higher. Adams also coped with tragedy and loss. And while he loved to have fun, he also knew when to be serious.
“Families are tough to run,” Adams said in an interview. “You have to be open and honest. You can’t be overly kind, either. It can’t be encouragement all the time. No, dude, you need to tell them when they’re messing up. And there’s nothing wrong with that.”
He went on: “Usually, honesty is quite ugly, and people don’t like it. But it’s important in the N.B.A. because you need immediate results. We play games every other day, so you need to get at the root of the problem.”
Sure enough, the interconnected themes of family, community and, yes, teamwork run throughout Adams’s 2018 autobiography, “My Life, My Fight: Rising Up From New Zealand to the OKC Thunder.” Adams is proud of the book.
“Threw some words together, didn’t I?” he said.
He writes about playing sports as a boy and about getting pushed around by his older sisters. (One of them, Valerie Adams, is a two-time Olympic champion in the shot put who recently retired after winning the bronze medal at the Tokyo Games in 2021.) He writes about struggling with the loss of his father, who died of cancer when Steven was 13, and finding basketball through the help of local coaches who guided him to camps and provided him with opportunities.
He also writes about feeling isolated at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Fitchburg, Mass., where he spent a postgraduate season before enrolling at the University of Pittsburgh. By then, Adams writes, he had gotten used to having a “tight-knit community” around him — friends who were “always willing to help out with anything.” Without that sense of community, Adams suffered.
So being a part of one — and even helping to create one — was something he prioritized when he joined the Thunder as the No. 12 pick in the 2013 N.B.A. draft. On a playoff-ready team led by Durant and Westbrook, Adams was happy to do the blue-collar work that came naturally to him: block shots and set screens, rebound and defend.
If he was a good teammate, Adams also irritated opponents. As a first-year player, Adams fouled out of three straight games. Vince Carter and Nate Robinson took swings at him. Later, in a heated game against Golden State during the 2016 Western Conference finals, Draymond Green kicked him in the groin.
At the time, Adams wondered why so many players seemed to react so aggressively toward him. He theorized that a lot of them were only children. Here, again, he cites being a part of a big family growing up. As he writes in his book, “The trick was to annoy your siblings as much as you could without being caught by your household ref.” The ref, in that instance, was one of his parents.
With the Grizzlies, Adams has been on a tear. Ahead of their game against the Charlotte Hornets on Wednesday night, Adams had averaged 11.7 points and 20.3 rebounds in three straight wins — and no, that is not a typo. He had 21 rebounds against the Pelicans on Saturday, which seemed like a big deal until he grabbed 23 against the Sacramento Kings the next day.
“There’s no craft or science behind it,” Grizzlies Coach Taylor Jenkins said. “He just puts himself in the right spots, reads his teammates and has a knack for the ball. It’s as simple as that.”
Adams described some of the subtle differences between offensive and defensive rebounding. On offense, he said, he felt as though he could be on “the attack,” with greater freedom to pursue the ball. On defense, he has more responsibilities. For example, he may be in the middle of a defensive rotation when a shot goes up and he has to find someone to box out.
In either case, he knows he has a job to do, which is to help his team. In many ways, it is all he has ever known.