Steven Adams looks at a picture of himself from his rookie season. It's from one of his first games as a pro, a 19-year-old Kiwi by way of one year at Pittsburgh, with raw talent and unknown potential. His hair is short and neatly trimmed; his face is clean-shaven; he has only one tattoo on his skinny right arm ("Funaki," his middle name, in beautiful cursive); and he has a massive, almost comical, smile.
What else does he see?
"You know how when you meet someone and they're really ignorant, but they're really happy?" Adams says as he twists hair from his wiry, reckless beard. "Because they don't know any better, and everything seems great? That's what I see.
"Just completely clueless and everything's f---in' roses and daisies."
Adams has evolved in deeper ways than going from a clean-cut choirboy to Dothraki bloodrider. What he has become is the NBA's modern enforcer, a classical bruiser who possesses unusual versatility and athleticism. He's a 7-footer, but his game is not traditional, nor is it futuristic.
He doesn't shoot 3-pointers -- and doesn't really plan to, he says, although it's a common sight to watch him drain seven or eight corner 3s in a row after a practice -- and doesn't really score outside of 15 feet. He doesn't really block shots, either.
He is, though, shockingly one of the NBA's best midrange shooters (because of a deadly 8- to 10-foot floater), a devastating pick-and-roll finisher and among the short list of elite defensive bigs.
"In New Zealand, I'm just as normal as it gets."Thunder center Steven Adams
But down 2-1 to the Utah Jazz in a physical, gritty, opening-round series, Adams and the Oklahoma City Thunder are being tested like they have all season. Adams has been chopped down in the past two games because of foul trouble, and his absence was noticeable. In Game 3, after his third foul sent him to the bench for the final seven minutes of the first half, the Jazz outscored OKC 30-14.
The pressure is rising, and, as the Thunder prepare to enter unknown waters again, with Paul George headed for free agency and the tension of postseason expectations bearing down, Adams' stabilizing influence is vital.
And in a league with an objective of stacking star talent on top of each other, Adams isn't really seen as the kind of draw that reels in big, free-agent fish or lures a teammate to stay. But in reality, he's exactly the kind of player any star should want patrolling the paint.
What shocks most people about Adams is when they're reminded he's only 24 years old. He might look, sound and play like a 15-year veteran, but he's one of the NBA's best young players, squarely in any best-players-under-25 list.
Sit down and talk with him about anything other than basketball, though, and you'll get reminded quickly of his age. He loves anime, particularly a show called "One Piece." He adores the Oklahoma City Zoo, raising his voice almost to a squeal to talk about the time he got to pet an elephant.
And he really loves video games.
"I could play 10 hours straight when I was a kid," Adams says. "I'd just be at home anyway, go help my dad or whatever, stack firewood, chop down a tree or some s---, but after that, I was just like, 'Oh yeah!' and game the rest of the day."
At the moment, Adams is known for being quite good at "Fortnite," the current video game of choice among NBA players. At first mention of it, Adams belts out, "Really good, fam!"
He has too many solo wins to count and rubs them in the faces of teammates such as Jerami Grant, who finally scored his first victory last week. Basically, everybody on the Thunder plays "Fortnite" -- except Nick Collison.
"Nick's probably on Nintendo or some s---," Adams says.
Adams prefers to go solo and has made posting a picture of his wins on Instagram something of a victory lap.
Growing up in New Zealand's Rotorua, a place he affectionately said in 2016 "smells like someone farted in your face all the time," Adams didn't start playing basketball until he was 14 because he was big and saw it as a way to focus himself and stay out of trouble.
He became addicted with the process of improvement, and, not coincidentally, the same thing applies to "Fortnite." He picked it up when some friends from New Zealand recently visited, then hit YouTube to learn strategy.
It's an unsurprising approach, because Adams is obsessive over game film, studying tendencies of opponents and even referees and their style of how they toss jump balls. He loves the details of the game -- how turning his defensive stance 10 degrees one way can alter an opposing pick-and-roll, or the different timing of screens for different teammates.
He loves talking tactics and strategy, diving into the nitty-gritty of basketball at every opportunity.
In Oceania, there's something called "tall poppy syndrome," which is essentially cutting down high-profile people to keep the universe balanced. No one is allowed to get too high, to stand over his fellow human and bask in the glow of celebrity. In New Zealand, it has evolved to often encourage a profound respect of humility and ego accountability.
A primary goal of an NBA career, though, is to become a tall poppy -- the tallest poppy, really. It's about max contracts and magazine covers and TV commercials. It's about stats and awards, about celebrity.
All things Adams is unconcerned with.
"I think Steven wants to have a good career, wants to help the team, but I really think there's certain guys that winning overrides everything else," Thunder coach Billy Donovan said.
"I don't think Steven ever views himself as being better than anybody, and I think Steven views, being part of a team, that it's his job and responsibility to bring happiness to the rest of the group."
Adams is self-deprecating and goes to great lengths to credit luck, or basically anything other than himself, for something good he has done. But any opposing coach asked about the Thunder's star-stacked roster always makes sure to include Adams.
"Steven is one of the elite players in the NBA," Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said. "He's one of my personal favorites."
Adams didn't grow up dreaming of playing the NBA and didn't revere any stars. He had heard of some, such as San Antonio Spurs legend Tim Duncan, but to Adams, they were just guys playing a sport. There was no starstruck moment, no "welcome to the league, rook" slap across the face. He's playing basketball -- nothing special to it, mate.
"In New Zealand, you get the well-known people, but you won't look at them for like a moral compass," Adams says. "Over here, some people look to these athletes to, like, solve their problems. It's like, 'Bro, we play basketball.'"
But there's a bit of an irony there, with him existing on a team chock full of galactic levels of stardom, players such as Russell Westbrook, Carmelo Anthony and George who have their own gravitational pull.
It's fine by Adams, who remains confused by the idea of stardom.
"If you're going through something serious, go see a psychologist. Like, f---! Don't look to us."
At first glance, it would appear odd that Adams is one of the league's elite offensive rebounders, while simultaneously, at least statistically, being a very mediocre defensive rebounder. Adams led the league in offensive rebound rate (by nearly one) and became only the 10th player ever to average more than five a game, co-leading the league with Andre Drummond at 5.1.
George declared Adams "the best rebounder in our game," but he was tied for 95th in the league in defensive rebounds at 4.0 per game during the regular season. Westbrook averaged 8.2, tied for eighth in the league (this is where you could insert the "thinking" emoji).
"That's the type of league it is; you get a certain number of these things, sort of number -- this is your life, so it makes sense that you'd actually care about it. But it's just one of those things, mate; f---, if you really want to win and your goal is the championship, then f--- [the stats]."
As Westbrook chased history a season ago, becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double, YouTube mixes of Adams boxing out his man while Westbrook swooped in started building a narrative.
"There was all kinds of talk about rebounds. But Steven doesn't care. He doesn't care at all statistically about what he does."Thunder forward Nick Collison
Whispers of stat-padding accusations began, and, as Westbrook's season crescendoed with 42 triple-doubles and an MVP, the volume increased. But as Westbrook impossibly pulled off the feat a second straight season, hauling in 20 rebounds on the final night of the regular season only a few hours after rebuking the stat-padding narrative himself, Adams was caught in the crosshairs again, seen as the victim of selfishness.
Would someone think of the Kiwi? He could be averaging a double-double!
But if you think he actually cares, you'd be wrong.
"When I first got in the league, guys were fighting for rebounds because guys felt like they'd get paid for rebounds," says Collison, a 13-year NBA veteran.
"Everybody talked about rebounds with 4s and 5s. You wanted to try and get a rebound for every three minutes you were out there. There was all kinds of talk about rebounds. But Steven doesn't care. He doesn't care at all statistically about what he does."
Westbrook's rebounding isn't necessarily a scheme the Thunder have hatched, but it is something they see as beneficial. First, Westbrook owns one of the most ridiculous motors professional sports has ever seen. Add in a brute such as Adams who is content to wipe out his big man with a boxout, with opposing guards rarely crashing to contest Westbrook, and you have a perfect stat-stuffing storm.
"It doesn't matter who gets the ball as long as it's your team," Adams says. "[Westbrook is] really good at just going to get the ball and finishing it, and then he pushes the ball after that.
"We don't have to f--- around."
It was a couple of seasons ago when Westbrook showed an unusual affinity toward Adams.
Westbrook drove at the rim and fired a bullet pass from point-blank range at Adams' face. It went through his big man's hands for a turnover, the same kind Westbrook would silently fume over when former teammates Kendrick Perkins or Serge Ibaka whiffed on it.
But with Adams, Westbrook tapped his chest: "My bad."
Westbrook has evolved in his own way over the years, particularly with leadership and teammate connectivity, but the relationship with Adams has evolved into a perfect fit. Westbrook is ferociously loyal to people in his circle, but he's not all outwardly affectionate about it.
But in 2015, at the team's annual Halloween party, Westbrook went as Steven Adams -- Funaki tattoo, handlebar mustache, ponytail and all.
Halloween brothers! pic.twitter.com/2wknqYdVHI— Steven Adams (@RealStevenAdams) October 25, 2015
"I don't look into it too much, it's just who I am," Adams says of his relationship with Westbrook. "See, because I'm weird. I'm really f---ing weird. Socially awkward, at best. Just bizarre. [I] say weird stuff all the time. So I don't look into relationships too much.
"Like, 'Ah we had this one moment.' Nothing like that. It's just, 'S---, does he like me? This is who I am, go f---yourself if you don't like me.'"
It's the little quirks about Adams that make him so endearing. Such as wearing Stoney Creek camouflage -- the New Zealand equivalent of Mossy Oak -- basically everywhere. Or donning a fur hat -- Stoney Creek, of course -- after almost every game, and always backward for some reason.
Or that during games, he wears the same old pair of orange Adidas shoes so worn out they have holes in the sides (Adams is a sneaker free agent this summer, by the way). Or that he goes most places barefoot.
"I think that's what makes me weird is that I am normal," Adams says. "As bizarre as that sounds -- like in New Zealand, I'm just as normal as it gets."
In asking around the team for Steven Adams stories, two answers almost always came back: (A) There are too many to pick from, or (B) it's not repeatable.
"There's a couple good ones," Thunder shooting guard Andre Roberson says, "but I'd rather not say."
Adams and Roberson are best friends, living almost across the street from each other. Adams moved in first, and Roberson followed, in part to live by Adams. They have an open-door policy, dropping in on each other at random to play video games.
After Roberson tore his patellar tendon in January, Adams was visibly shaken by it, kneeling by Roberson until he was carried off the floor.
"He'd come check up on me," Roberson says. "I was bored as hell, laid up in bed on some meds, and he'd stop by to see if I was all right, bring me food from time to time. But that's what we've always been doing -- sticking together."
It's often forgotten that Adams is the last standing, and by far most significant piece remaining, from the 2012 James Harden trade. Adams was one of the unprotected picks the Thunder landed in the deal, and they took him 12th overall the next season.
OKC liked his background, his demeanor, his approach and his fit within a star-driven roster led by Westbrook and Kevin Durant. That roster has given way to what the Thunder have now, and Adams stands tall as a true cornerstone.
The Thunder have historically avoided elevating players in promotions but have strayed in the past few years. But on the playoff signage across the street from Chesapeake Energy Arena this year, there are four faces: Russell Westbrook and Paul George bookending Carmelo Anthony and Steven Adams.
"I was real surprised," Adams says. "Because they sent me a photo of it, and I was just like, 'Yeah, just me up there with the lads.' You know, the Golden Group. But then I saw it was with those three, and I was like, 'What the hell?'
"I'm a fan favorite, I guess."