How Adidas is finding its way with its 2021 draft class and its move to LA
‘We will create culture together, and if you give me some time, I will pursue greatness like them’
Once the second half of the Houston Rockets’ opening summer league game got underway, it didn’t take second overall pick Jalen Green long to get going. Just after his veering step-back 3 on the left wing cashed out, Green leaned down like he’d done so many times before, held out three fingers and celebrated as he ran back up the court.
He hadn’t even played 20 minutes of pro exhibition hoops yet, and the buzz throughout the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas continued every time he had the ball in his hands.
Green delivered a game-high 23 points in his debut. Two nights later, the 19-year-old had it going again, this time facing off against Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham, the only player selected ahead of him.
“Yeah, obviously I feel some type of way that I went No. 2 and I feel I should have been No. 1,” he said bluntly beforehand. “But it’s all good.”
The marquee matchup, a 20-point Rockets win, went further than just that one game.
It was No. 1 vs. No. 2. NCAA big man on campus vs. G League trailblazer. Nike vs. Adidas. Rock-solid vs. rock star. Simple black draft suit vs. awesomely outlandish bedazzled Balmain bell-bottoms.
Green’s brashness in Vegas spoke to a confidence and competitive nature that’s long seeped into every facet of his life, and it’s also the exact qualities and charisma that have long surrounded the Fresno, California, native as a potential NBA superstar since the age of 16.
“His style is admirable, is probably the easiest way to say it,” said Eric Wise, global general manager of Adidas Basketball, with a laugh. “It’s something that’s undeniable.”
From his trademark curly hair and willingness to wear a variety of loud kicks and equally flashy fits to his explosiveness through the lane and stare-down-inducing dunks, many around the industry believe Green can have a Vince Carter-like impact and presence out the gate.
From a sneaker standpoint, Adidas hopes that Green will have that same Carter-type effect that once catapulted the AND1 Tai Chi and Nike Shox BB4 atop hoops sneaker culture at the turn of the millennium.
“He’s a star in the making,” said Wise. “More importantly, his game and how he goes about it, he has that ambition to be great.”
As Adidas looks to lean out its overall list of NBA endorsers, narrowing down from a bloated roster of 80-plus players three summers ago to a more focused and targeted 40-50 athletes now, there’s been a more strategic criterion for deciding which players it has looked to sign heading into the 2021 NBA draft and the fall sneaker free-agency window.
Explosiveness and expressiveness on the court are just one characteristic, as off-court style in an Instagram-centric world, having a vibrant personality, and bringing a blend of that presence and confidence to inspire a future generation all must come into play.
“The guys that we signed were the ones that we really targeted,” said Wise. “Everyone has a story.”
From Green to No. 3 overall pick Evan Mobley to proven winner and playmaker Jalen Suggs and scoring guard Sharife Cooper, the quartet added to Adidas just before the draft each bring their own style and dynamic to the brand.
It’s why many around the industry feel Adidas came away with the best overall draft class of signings, betting on the star power of Green in Houston, the leadership and all-around game of Suggs in Orlando, Florida, the versatility and raw ability of Mobley in Cleveland and the underdog story of Cooper back home in Atlanta.
Mobley has long been familiar to Adidas executives, after starring for the brand’s flagship AAU program on the Compton Magic during his inevitable path to becoming a top NBA draft pick.
Cooper, boasting more than 825,000 Instagram followers of his own, comes from a hoops-centric family well-immersed in both the culture of the game and the pro level. His sister Te’a plays for the Los Angeles Sparks. His father Omar launched a sports agency to represent the two up-and-coming hoopers and additional rising stars.
Suggs’ resume speaks for itself. The dual-sport star from Minnesota gave up his all-state quarterback talents to pursue hoops, helping lead Gonzaga to the national championship game of the 2021 NCAA tournament in his lone freshman season with winning play after winning play.
The brand is also continuing to negotiate with additional 2021 rookies, such as LeagueFits staple and fellow Rockets rookie Josh Christopher. The 24th overall pick was also impressive at the summer league, with an all-around game that saw him handling and distributing the ball even more than expected, showcasing his game beyond just his ability to score in isolations and transition.
Signing Green, Cooper and Christopher would land Adidas the crossover star trio who appeared together on the cover of SLAM magazine two years ago, a group that also speaks to the star-studded following that top phenoms have in the modern era, even when they were only halfway through high school.
As Wise describes it, and many at the brand echo, Adidas is undergoing a bit of a reset in its product approach, its overall structure and the era of athletes it’s looking to partner with.
This fall, it’ll be launching the first signature shoe of Atlanta Hawks star point guard Trae Young, who already made his mark in the Adidas Trae Young 1s to close his third pro season, during an overachieving run to the Eastern Conference finals this spring.
Signature series already exist for NBA stars such as James Harden, Damian Lillard, Derrick Rose and Donovan Mitchell, whose shoes the young guns are expected to wear as they begin their rookie seasons. Naturally, they’ll each aspire to have their own potential signature shoe down the road.
“I grew up inspired by D Rose and Dame and want to follow in the steps of the young Adidas family coming up now like Trae and Don,” said Suggs. “We will create culture together, and if you give me some time, I will pursue greatness like them.”
With the rookie class intact and the current signature roster locked in, the next face of Adidas Basketball’s resurgence isn’t even an athlete, but renowned fashion designer.
When it was announced in December that Fear of God founder Jerry Lorenzo would be committing to a long-term partnership with Adidas, the position was described as Lorenzo “leading creative and business strategy” for its basketball category.
Besides heading one of the most influential fashion lines in recent years, he also already successfully designed both basketball shoes and lifestyle models at Nike, Vans and Converse in the past. This partnership would take things to an entirely different tier.
“The one thing too with this partnership, is we wanted to reimagine what ‘partnership’ looks like,” said Wise. “It’s not just a collaboration.”
A new, and fittingly third line of Lorenzo’s company was being formed – Fear of God Athletics – to add to the mainline Fear of God fashion house brand and the more accessible and basics-driven Essentials line. As part of the deal, Lorenzo inked Three Stripes along the back of his neck under his trademark long hair.
“Adidas and Fear of God share the same dream for the future of basketball, on and beyond the court,” Lorenzo said at the time of the announcement. “We look forward to changing the face of the industry through a new model that will unfold before us in the coming years.”
Ever since, Lorenzo and Jason Mayden, the newly appointed president of Fear of God Athletics and a longtime respected industry veteran, have been traveling to the Adidas Village in Portland, Oregon, to work on future designs, give feedback on existing plans and begin building a reimagined Adidas Basketball category together.
“The partnership has been great. He’s incredible,” said Wise. “We just grind and get to it daily. We’re just working to really level up the category, first and foremost, and then everything that comes underneath it. His impact has been immense across the category. His talent, his impact and his influence on culture and in sport speaks for itself.”
As the partnership ramps up further, a big-picture strategic change was also decided on for 2021, with the merger of Adidas Basketball and its longtime lifestyle category Adidas Originals in the corporate structure.
In the past, basketball sneakers and originals models were created by two independent teams in the past, with varying levels of visibility and crossover. Now retro shoes such as the Forum and current performance hoop shoes will fall under the same group, with a complementary plan ahead.
“Coming together gives us the opportunity to tell holistic stories,” Wise said. “It sounds simplistic in nature, but it’s something that we haven’t had the opportunity to do until now. The product is going to be able to speak for itself, but more importantly, it’ll be connected.”
Besides the structural shift, there’s a massive physical shift taking place as well for the company. Over the summer, the entire operation of Adidas Basketball designers and product marketers are moving to Los Angeles, to be closer to Lorenzo and his team in the downtown warehouse district, and also to better immerse the employees in a more diverse and creative environment.
“Being able to work a little bit differently will be a big advantage for us,” said Wise. “Learning and creatively just being around culture consistently is a huge advantage for us.”
It’s no small decision for a German-based company that has had its U.S. headquarters based in Portland since 1993, when it first pulled away Nike executive Peter Moore, the designer of the Air Jordan I and II, and marketing executive Rob Strasser, to build its American footwear imprint.
Categories such as running, cleated sports and additional business units will remain at the recently renovated Portland headquarters across Greeley Avenue – and a new home base in LA is ultimately a decision the brand feels will enhance the design, enhance the workforce it can draw to a more attractive location, and create a more constant flow of ideas between the Adidas and Fear of God teams.
“Daily it gets better and better,” said Wise. “Being in LA and in close proximity, it just enhances it even further.”
Los Angeles is also one of the key hubs of Adidas Legacy, a partnership program with 10 high schools each in LA, Chicago and New York that provides more than 800 underserved student-athletes on men’s and women’s basketball teams with resources and access to workshops in arts, sports, music and film.
The move will also bring employees closer to the culture and lifestyle of its NBA partners, both during the season as teams venture downtown to play the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers, and in the offseason, as many of the league’s top players spend ample time each summer in LA.
Green had been spending his spring and summer in LA, training away as he headed into the draft after a season playing with the G League Ignite. Two weeks before hearing his name called by NBA commissioner Adam Silver, from his Instagram account simply titled @Jalen with a million-plus followers, yet another private jet image graced his page.
The caption read “quick lil trip home” and closed with a black heart emoji.
Green was donating a refurbished basketball court in Fresno as one of his first activations with Adidas, celebrating the 559 area code region that made him. The center court circle featured “JG4,” his initials and jersey number worn during his rise at San Joaquin Memorial High School.
The opposite halves in blue and red featured both the Adidas “Badge of Sport” performance logo and the Adidas Originals “Trefoil” logo, speaking to that newfound connectivity between categories.
“Back in Fresno, I want the kids who are watching me there to know that they can do it too,” he said.
When Wise describes the importance of a commitment to the community, there’s weight behind his words. He’s been invested in advancing the standard corporate statements found in most athlete signings and community impact plans into tangible, impactful, long-lasting efforts.
“Time to make a change,” he penned in an Adidas “GamePlan” blog post earlier this year.
Along with vice president of product Rashad Williams, top creators category director Lauren Body and nine other Black Adidas employees, Wise and the collective helped to outline a plan of action – United Against Racism – that senior leadership both in the U.S. and in Germany are providing considerable resources to support and enact.
Those efforts, outlined in a company “Factsheet,” will look to add more diversity internally at the company, with new “minimum targets of representation” established. There is also a $120 million pledge “toward U.S. initiatives focused on ending racial injustice and/or supporting Black communities through 2025.”
While this is a tall order in a saturated and competitive basketball shoe market, the collection of shifts and adjustments in just the last year, along with a promising young class of athletes and an injection of impact across design, all aim to forge a new path for Adidas as it resets its footing and approach ahead.
“It’s another building block to the foundation that we’re trying to form,” Wise said.