In wake of praise from Riley, Spoelstra, Heat’s Adebayo places third for NBA Defensive Player of Year

MIAMI — The evolution included two steps forward: first being named Miami Heat captain, then being a finalist for the first time for NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

But it is the one step back that resonates at the moment: being eliminated last week in the first round of the playoffs.

For Heat center Bam Adebayo that makes this a moment of reflection on gains made and a net less than still stings a week later.

The captaincy he said was more than expected.

“You learn that it’s not about you,” he said. “You can’t walk in, ‘Today’s about me.’ You can’t do it, because you’re captain. You’ve got to think about so many other people before you put yourself up. That’s the one thing I truly learned, is it can’t be about you no more.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra said that role and the accompanying resolve was another stride forward for the 26-year-old big man.

“Seeing Bam’s leadership in a different way as the team captain,” Spoelstra said, “that’s been one of my joys to watch him grow, on and off the court, but seeing how he influenced in a different way, than just with his inspiring plays on a basketball court.”

The play on the court is what had him listed along with Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert and San Antonio Spurs big man Victor Wembanyama as the three finalists for Tuesday night’s announcement of 2024 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

While Adebayo placed third, with Gobert taking the honor and Wembanyama placing second, it was the highest finish for Adebayo in the balloting since he was drafted by the Heat out of Kentucky in 2017.

Adebayo received three first-place votes from the 99-member media panel, in balloting concluded before the start of the postseason. He also had 15 second-place votes and 31 third-place votes.

Adebayo’s 91 points in the weighted balloting placed him a distant third behind Gobert (72 first-place votes, 433 points) and Wembanyama (19 first-place votes, 245 points), slightly ahead of fourth-place Anthony Davis (four first-place votes, 83 points).

To Adebayo, the nomination, alone, stood as recognition of gains, believing he still is growing as a defender.

“I would say being in the right place at the right time, work smart instead of harder,” he said of his maturation as a defender. “I feel like that was my mind shift, being able to help people before certain situations happen, being able to talk everybody through a scheme, being able to teach that scheme.

“I think I did a great job of that. I thought a lot of guys understand the coverages that we do now.”

It is that type of growth that earned the praise of Heat president Pat Riley during his Monday season-ending media session.

“Bam’s growth from his rookie year to what he is right now has been off the charts,” Riley said. “Everybody knows what his game is, what he does for us, how important he is in a lot of areas. And so he has to expand his game also. He’s an all-NBA player and we’re happy to have him.”

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As with the defensive award, All-NBA, to be announced later this month, likely will have to wait.

But as the playoffs turned to the offseason, Adebayo said he very much hopes to expand his game.

“You can work on a lot of stuff,” he said of his offseason goals. “To pinpoint? I would say being able to coach my teammates through the offense while the game is happening, being able to tell my teammates where to go, what to do, throughout the course of the game, and really pick that up. I feel like that can only help us.”

With Adebayo headed to USA Basketball camp in July and then off to the Paris Olympics, this will be somewhat of another truncated offseason, even with the Heat’s first-round demise.

“I don’t think you disconnect,” Adebayo said of getting away from the game in the wake of falling to the Celtics. “I feel like you still watch basketball. You get the time off physically, but mentally you still think about, because you’ve got to be mentally ready going into the Olympics. So it’s a great opportunity.

“Physically, I’ll take time off. Mentally, I’m always going to think about it, and then I might sneak in the gym every once in a while to calm my mind.”

Adebayo returned from the 2021 pandemic-delayed Tokyo Olympics with gold, but that was amid limited attendance. Now there is the chance for a fuller experience and the opportunity to become the first Heat player with multiple Olympic-gold banners at Kaseya Center.

“I feel like this is the original form,” Adebayo said of the Paris Games. “You’ve got people in the stands. You’re actually able to see people in the ceremony. You get to see what it’s like to be in a different environment. So I’m excited.

“And also, we win, I get another banner.”