CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.
By Ben Nadeau
Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.
Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.
Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.
But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.
Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.
After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.
From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.
“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.
“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”
Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.
Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.
The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.
But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.
“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.
“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”
And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.
Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.
“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”
The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.
To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.
Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.
But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.
“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”
It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.
“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”
Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.
“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”
In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.
If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.
“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”
But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.
Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.
“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.
“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”
Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?
Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.
And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.
“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.
“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”