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Kovacevic: Doubting Adams? Big mistake

| Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013, 11:42 p.m.
Pitt's Steven Adams reaches for a rebound against Cincinnati on Sunday, Dec. 31, 2012. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Steven Adams is a behemoth of a teenager at 7 feet tall, with broad shoulders and bulging biceps, and yet he arrived at Pitt somehow even bigger than that.

Remember all the love from the national outlets flocking to Cardiac Hill for features on the “Kiwi Phenom?”

Remember when the hot topic wasn't whether Adams would star at Pitt but whether the Panthers could keep him for more than a year?

You know, before he'd become an NBA lottery pick?

Now, from all that, on the eve of Pitt's second Big East game Saturday at Rutgers, Adams is essentially restarting at zero.

As in, the number of shots he attempted New Year's Eve in the 70-61 loss to No. 8 Cincinnati.

Imagine the humbling.

Imagine this 19-year-old freshman from the other side of the globe, for whom basketball always had come so naturally, and suddenly he's unable to generate a single jumper, layup, putback, slam, jam … not even a free throw in 24 minutes on the court.

For now, actually, all we can do is imagine how Adams feels. He declined to be interviewed after the Cincinnati game, then again after practice Thursday. By all accounts, he's remained upbeat, laughing and joking with teammates. But it can't be fun right now. It just can't.

Might not be for a while, either. Oh, he won't hear it from Pitt fans ­— not now, anyway — but he'll be an easy target in other Big East barns, starting this week. It isn't just the Oakland Zoo that can pick at an opponent's scabs, you know.

“Zeeee-ro! Zeeee-ro!”

My money, if you want to know, is on Adams.

And, yeah, I'd bet a lot more than zero.

He might not stick it to those rival students this weekend or even this season. But I'll predict right here that by the time he's done at Pitt — whatever year that might be — he winds up filling the bill, maybe even exceeding it.

There's just too much there.

If anyone's worried about Adams' mental toughness, they're thinking of someone other than the youngest of 17 children raised in a nails-tough region of New Zealand. (Or, as Bobby Knight called it on the ESPN broadcast of the last game, “Australia.”) Those siblings were just as big, even the sisters at 6-5 or 6-6, and they'd claw like cats in competitive family events.

You want to talk tough?

When Adams was 13 and his father died, he took it so hard he spent a year living on the streets and survived on his own before older brother Warren rescued him a year later.

Sorry, but that's just got to be more daunting than the mystique of Piscataway or Providence.

If anyone's worried about Adams' basketball skills, that's equally easy to dismiss. He is neither a bust nor a bust in the making. Watch his exceptional agility for a big man, his smooth coordination. Those aren't acquired traits. They're inherent. And in Adams' case, they're extraordinary.

He didn't make nearly every top-10 recruiting list for 2012 because those scouts saw a ghost.

Oh, and lest it gets buried under that Cincinnati zero, Adams has averaged 6.8 points and 6.4 rebounds, including nine rebounds against the Bearcats.

The real question for now is this: How long will it take Jamie Dixon to get the best out of him?

The coach can begin, I think, with a gentle nudge. And he just might have done that Thursday by taking polite exception to reporters' questions about the Panthers needing to work the ball inside more often.

“You know, people ask about that, but Talib Zanna's inside, and he's our leading scorer,” Dixon said of his relentless 6-9 forward enjoying a breakout season. “Talib's doing what he has to do to get open, and our other guys are looking for him. Talib's beating our centers down the floor, too. We're telling them that can't keep happening.”

Right. The ball's got to be earned in the paint, to an extent.

At the same time, the guards have got to do a lot more of “feeding the grizzly bear,” as Tray Woodall has described the importance of finding Adams.

Mostly, though, the emergence is incumbent on Adams himself:

• He's got to demand the ball. His well-known unselfishness isn't helping in this area.

• He's got to stand taller, raise his arms and get open.

• He's got to get those size-19s a little higher off the floor for rebounds and putbacks.

• And, yeah, he's got to uncover a whole new level of nasty to thrive in Big East ball.

None of which should be an issue, given Adams' pedigree.

You know, I'd been hopeful before this winter that this would be as fun a Pitt team to watch as any in recent years. Not necessarily the best but one we could watch grow into something special. Maybe even as soon as March.

It might happen, but the same young man still looms largest in that scenario.

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