UNLV’s engine hums when Adams drives

You can’t be Wink Adams and second-guess a 3-pointer or jab step to the baseline or pull-up jumper going to your left. Confidence to a basketball player like Adams is radar to a pilot. Its importance is immeasurable.

UNLV with a less certain Adams has been more bumper cars than gondola ride for most of this season, still winning most of the time and yet struggling to play complete games.

That will change the more comfortable Adams gets. Already, there are signs.

The Rebels, who host Utah today and became one of the few visiting teams to silence a Brigham Young crowd on Wednesday, have begun to resemble the team picked to win a Mountain West Conference title.

It’s no coincidence that Adams also has begun to resemble, well, Adams.

“I feel like myself again,” the senior guard said.

Adams began the season as an MWC preseason co-Player of the Year who was missing nearly as many 3s as he was taking. Defenders didn’t hope he would shoot another; they begged him to. They backed off as if they were in Boulder City and he in Summerlin.

He wasn’t driving, wasn’t using his quickness and strength, and wasn’t creating space for a mid-range game that is much improved over recent seasons. He was settling, and streak shooters who settle are bound to question themselves when the misses pile up like weekend traffic on I-15.

Then Adams pulled an abdominal muscle against Southern Utah on Dec. 23, missed most of that game and all of the next one at Louisville, returned and averaged just over seven points in the next three games while shooting a combined 9-for-27.

“I didn’t want to go to the basket, didn’t want to have any contact,” Adams said. “But as I began to feel better and the Wyoming game came up, I stopped thinking so much and found other ways to score by going to the basket again.”

The results: In wins against the Cowboys and BYU, Adams averaged 21 points and shot nearly 42 percent, but most important was his activity level. His aggressiveness. His decision to put the ball on the floor more.

Adams’ 3-point percentage this season — 23.1 on 21-of-91 shooting — still causes one to cringe. Only twice has he made more than two 3-pointers in a game, and five times he has made none on three or more attempts.

They are numbers that not only endorse Adams driving as he has the last two games but demand it for UNLV to remain in a contender’s role.

Pure shooters open up the drive by taking 3s. Streak shooters like Adams need to drive to open up jumpers. When camping behind that line Adams is a good player and yet somewhat easy to defend for players at this level.

When he’s taking the ball to the basket and creating different scoring options, Adams can be a great player and at times impossible to stop.

“We want guys who have worked and invested and put in as much time as Wink has to shoot a lot,” UNLV assistant coach Steve Henson said. “He is so quick and strong. He is so talented. He can use his strength to get into the lane and get layups and get to the line and get that shooting percentage up by doing those things.”

Henson knows the guard position well, having played it as a two-time honorable mention All-American at Kansas State and then for five NBA teams over a six-year period. He was a terrific player who preferred those guarding him be “slow, shorter guys who weren’t any good, but those didn’t come around very often.”

Jokes aside, he knows what it’s like to be defended by smaller, quicker players who climb into your jersey one night and taller, longer, more athletic ones who contest every shot the next. He knows the different issues Adams must deal with depending on the opponent.

“Wink can create his shot better than most, so we encourage that and taking good shots, period,” Henson said. “We’re never going to discourage him from taking open 3s.

“He has slowed himself down. His pace is good. His balance is good. We expect him to make shots.”

When he does that beyond the 3-point line, UNLV is good.

When he does that by also driving and creating, it can be very good.

When he does both and with confidence, the Rebels can resemble the teams that advanced to the past two NCAA Tournaments.

That’s how much confidence means to a player like Wink Adams, and how it can translate to his team.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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