Gorman: Pitt's Dixon not surprised at Adams' early success in NBA

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, May 23, 2014, 9:07 p.m.

Jamie Dixon visited the White House last week, touring the Oval Office and meeting President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The Pitt basketball coach had lunch with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was a guest panelist at a leadership forum at the Pentagon with five NCAA champion coaches.

Yet Dixon was just as enthusiastic in discussing the development of Steven Adams, the 7-foot center from New Zealand who spent one season with the Panthers and was named Thursday to the NBA All-Rookie second team.

The No. 12 overall selection by Oklahoma City, Adams averaged 3.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in the regular season but is playing a prominent role for the Thunder in the NBA playoffs.

With Serge Ibaka injured, Adams is seeing increased minutes and living up to lottery-pick expectations sooner than anyone imagined.

Adams had a double-double (10 points, 11 rebounds) against the L.A. Clippers in Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals and nine points and eight rebounds against San Antonio on Wednesday in Game 2 of the West final.

“I'm not at all surprised by it,” Dixon said. “I hoped he'd go to that team. They weren't looking for him to score. They expected him to play defense, rebound and set ball screens. He did that really well for a rookie, a 20-year-old rookie, a 20-year-old international rookie.

“There's no question his progression has been dramatic since New Zealand.”

It has been a double-edged sword for Dixon, who discovered Adams at age 15 as a 6-foot-8 project with little experience playing organized basketball before spending a year in prep school.

“I recruited him for five years,” Dixon said, “and had him for five months.”

The short span of his Pitt career wasn't as memorable as that of, say, DeJuan Blair. Adams averaged 7.2 points and 6.3 rebounds for a team that went 24-9 and reached the NCAA second round.

Pitt fans can only dream about what the Panthers would have been like had Adams returned for his sophomore season, as he insisted he would do.

“We would tell kids we thought Steve would be one-and-done, but Steve never said it publicly or privately,” Dixon said. “I don't think Steve knew how good he was or how the draft worked. I don't think he was being dishonest. He was all about the team, very unselfish in his thoughts.”

Imagine what Pitt's lineup could have looked like had Adams returned, with fifth-year seniors Talib Zanna and Lamar Patterson at forward. Or had McDonald's All-American Khem Birch not transferred to UNLV midway through his freshman season.

Nonetheless, Dixon will not allow himself to daydream about what could have been.

“I know fans speculate, but you can't do that in our position,” Dixon said. “You do what's best for the kid and for the program.

“You couldn't have played all of them together, and they wouldn't have scored like they did. No way can you think like that.”

Dixon says he had a plan all along for Adams. Though his abbreviated college career didn't translate into a Final Four trip, it still could pay dividends for the Panthers.

Adams became Dixon's first NBA first-round pick, and a lottery selection at that, despite starting his freshman season as a raw player lacking an offensive repertoire.

“You have to first go back to see how much he improved from the start to the end of his freshman year,” Dixon said. “That was dramatic.

“He's in an ideal situation, which is what we promised him,” Dixon said. “He fits perfectly. That's all been part of The Plan. That was the phrase we used. We always talked about The Plan five years back, and this was part of The Plan.”

Dixon appears resigned to the notion that talented big men won't last long in college basketball. Instead of dwelling on it, he plans to point to Adams as proof that Pitt can serve as a springboard to the NBA.

And maybe Adams' sudden success will help Pitt land a player who can help Dixon return to the White House some day as an NCAA champion.

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