SALT LAKE CITY — Jamie Dixon found Steven Adams just as Adams was beginning to find himself.
Dixon, the basketball coach at Pittsburgh, began recruiting Adams when the 7-foot center from New Zealand was 15 and only slightly shorter. Adams gave Dixon an oral commitment not long after, two years after a personal downward spiral threatened his obvious basketball potential.
The youngest of 18 children born to Sid Adams (who fathered children with five women), Steven Adams wasn’t particularly close with his mother and temporarily lost his way when his father died in his mid-70s from cancer in 2006.
Even with around 30 older family members — Adams is younger than 11 nieces and nephews — the lack of parental guidance made Adams a rebel. He frequently skipped school and essentially was homeless.
"I kind of lost track of what to do in life," Adams said. "I just ran around doing stupid stuff."
Adams’ brother Warren finally brought him home and basketball gave him a purpose. Dixon’s connections in New Zealand, where he played professionally with and against two of Adams’ brothers, led him to Adams even though he visited the country four years ago to scout another player.
Dixon had a scholarship offer ready almost immediately, and his instincts proved correct as Adams developed into Pitt’s top-rated recruit in Dixon’s 10 seasons. He was rated in the top 10 of the class of 2012 by many recruiting publications and he’s a key to Thursday’s NCAA Tournament second-round game against Wichita State.
The 19-year-old Adams, who spent a year at prep school before going to Pitt, has continued to develop with the Panthers, averaging seven points and 6.2 rebounds as a freshman. The relationship with Dixon has eased Adams’ multi-hemisphere excursion.
"That’s pretty cool," Adams said. "It’s just cool that I can talk to someone who’s been to New Zealand, who understands the (twists on) language. It’s been good."
Pitt’s style of play has helped Adams’ development. The Panthers haven’t had a star post player since DeJuan Blair left for the NBA after the 2009 season, so in recent seasons Pitt has become more guard-oriented. The Panthers have recently turned out star backcourt players such as Ashton Gibbs, Jermaine Dixon and this year’s senior point guard, Tray Woodall.
With veterans around him and guards who steady the team, Pitt hasn’t needed Adams to live up to his recruiting status. He isn’t yet a star, but he is plenty dangerous, as his two blocks per game suggests.
The Panthers don’t have an overwhelming size advantage on WSU, but with three players 6-foot-9 or taller, the Shockers will have some matchup issues.
"They’re maybe a little bigger," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "I haven’t seen them in person. They appear to be an inch or two bigger, per man, across the frontline.… Maybe our guys have grown an inch or two, but if it’s a mirror image I hope we stack up physically with them."
To combat Adams’s effectiveness, WSU will likely try to exploit any perceived weaknesses. Adams scored in double figures once in Big East Conference games, and aggressive defense by WSU’s own shot-blocking 7-footer, Ehimen Orukpe, could continue that trend.
Offensively, the Shockers could challenge Adams by forcing him out of the paint, where Carl Hall has a potent mid-range game. If Adams is forced to defend Hall near the perimeter, it would limit his rebounding opportunities.
"I want to take him to the outside because I know he blocks shots," Hall said. "I think he leads the team in block shots, so I’ve got to try to go around him because he’s such a great shot blocker."