Originally published in SLAM 159

words Ryan Jones | portraits Trevor Paulhus

It doesn’t take much of a conversation with Steven Adams to realize that his accent might be the least unusual thing about him.

OK, the accent is pretty unusual.

The 6-10, 245-pound New Zealand native came to the US in January when he arrived from his faraway home for a semester at Fitchburg (MA) Notre Dame, so naturally his Kiwi accent remains prominent. But the more you learn about Adams, the more you understand that, by pretty much any standard, let alone that of a highly ranked high school basketball player, dude is unique.

Check the details: His mother was from Tonga. He’s one of 18 siblings (half-siblings included). One of his sisters is a former Olympic gold medalist in the shot put. He was orphaned and briefly lived on the streets in his early teens. There’s more, much of it less tangible, but no less interesting.

What it all adds up to is an 18-year-old kid with a background and upbringing unlike any other kid he’ll play with or against. An 18-year-old kid who admits that he was far more likely during his formative years to be watching cartoons than watching basketball, who only started playing organized ball five years ago, and only stepped into the high-profile US prep scene five months ago, and so knows nothing of the hype-generating machine that produced most of his new peers.

“Growing up away from all the media, that sort of stuff, I think it was a huge benefit for me,” Adams says. “If I got used to it at a young age, if that’s all I grew up to know, I’d probably start expecting it. But I don’t believe in it. I think it’s all bullshit, really.”

He’s getting a whiff of the hype now, and there’s no BS about it. Impressive showings against top 2012 big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Nerlens Noel during his brief run at Notre Dame Prep confirmed that the high expectations on Adams’ arrival were fully justified. Lean and athletic, he’s a gifted defender and rebounder and gets up and down the floor. He’s understandably still a bit raw offensively, but given that he spends most of an interview talking about how much he enjoys working on his game, that figures not to be a weakness for long. “I love working out, just knowing that I’m actually getting better,” he says. “I just love making progress.”

Adams says he spent most of his practice time in New Zealand doing individual workouts and that he’s struggled with the transition to a team focus in practice. It’s another area in which Adams simply doesn’t fit the mold, and yet he thrives in spite—or maybe because—of it. He’ll be at Pitt next fall, one of the nation’s top recruits at one of the nation’s better programs in maybe the best conference in the country. Most kids in his situation would be thinking one-and-done and have their first sports car already picked out.

Steven Adams is not most kids.

“I had no expectations when I came here. I thought I’d be average, like a normal basketball player,” he says. “All this, it hasn’t really hit me yet. I haven’t even been to college yet. I never really looked at myself as a great player. I just train and play. I just try to deal with what’s happening now.”

Which is an unusual thing for a guy in Steven Adams’ position to say. Which, in other words, sounds about right.