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Challenging the Traditional Notions of Athleticism

One of the most commonly used terms when NBA teams draft players is “athleticism.” When a player has this “athleticism,” they are often seen as having immense potential. Think of these few questions: How often do you jump as high as you can? How frequently do you have pure straight-line speed races with another player? Is it more important for a player to have an explosive first step or be straight-line speed fast? Now, having an extremely high vertical jump will give you some highlight plays, but how much does it really matter? 

Consider that a different professional sports league, the NFL, has realized that the 40-yard dash and other traditional athletic tests are not the best way of evaluating prospects and they should really not hold that much weight. In the NFL specifically, it is way more important that a wide receiver or cornerback can get in and out of breaks quickly than run 40 yards straight. How often are they running 40 yards straight? Speaking of speed, wouldn’t it also be more accurate if players were judged by the speed they played in games rather than in combines or pro-days? That is what teams are starting to evaluate. 

“The biggest issue for most scouts will be his athleticism, or relative lack thereof,” from Bleacher Report about James Harden before the 2009 draft. Start by watching this clip.

Harden starts by attempting to lure his defender to sleep going through his legs and crossing over, next he starts a forward motion as if he is driving after Johnson reaches over, and finally he stops on a dime. Although Harden may lack “true foot speed,” he more than makes up for it with his ability to start and stop. A few more examples of Luka Doncic are below.

Doncic’s ability to start-stop-change direction so quickly are skills that make him a truly special player. Similar to Harden, Doncic is often labeled as a below-average athlete, but not many have the ability to do some of the things Doncic does. Another star player that challenges traditional notions of athleticism is none other than Kyrie Irving. Irving has an extremely special talent to start/stop, stay on balance, be flexible, and change directions. These skills are possibly four of the most important traits for creation. One player that I believe lacks these skills is RJ Barrett. He isn’t able to start/stop and change directions quickly and fluidly. Flat out, Barrett will never be a star player, because he will never be a star creator. Thus, these other athletic traits such as change of direction, acceleration/deceleration, flexibility, and balance are highly underrated, especially when evaluating prospects. 

When evaluating prospects, another common misconception is playmaking versus passing are the same. A player such as Lonzo Ball is considered a great playmaker, but this is a misconception. The base of playmaking is being able to put pressure on the rim and create shots for yourself and others. Obviously, there are exceptions to the rule, but being able to put pressure on the rim is one of the most valuable abilities. Ball should be considered a connecting passer; he doesn’t put pressure on the rim, and he doesn’t pose a dynamic threat as a shot creator. What Ball does well is move the ball, make catch and shoot threes, but he has never lived up to expectations because of a lack of shot creation. Thus, Ball will never become a star, because he is not a playmaker for himself or others. Players like Darius Garland (below) and Anfernee Simons (below) will always have more offensive potential because they have more potential as playmakers.

Garland 1
Garland 2
Simons 1
Simons 2

This relates to traits in the previous paragraph and a quick first step. With these traits usually comes the ability to pressure the rim. This is what gives someone star potential as an offensive player. Watching Simons and Garland play there are clear flashes of creating plays for themselves and others. Connecting passers are valuable to every offense, but a playmaker is what makes an offense go. Assists are not the end all be all for multiple reasons, but the main reason is simply they can’t measure who is creating the play. If Zach Lavine beats his man, draws help, kicks it out to Ball in the corner, Ball passes it to the wing after the defense rotates, and the wing heats a three, Ball gets credited with the assist. In this situation, Ball was purely a connective passer, and Lavine was the playmaker. There is no perfect way to judge playmaking because it isn’t an exact science, but assists are certainly not the way to do it. Heck, assists don’t fully measure how good of a passer a player is. Since there is no official definition for an assist they vary, and sometimes the player is credited with the assist will have little or anything to do with the play.

While pondering on what NBA teams look for in a prospect I thought about this… certain traits cannot be or are harder to be developed. Awareness and processing speed are traits that are extremely hard to develop. Awareness and processing speed are evident a lot of times in certain passes and off-ball defense. Sometimes a player can see the floor and process plays quicker, and oftentimes that same player has a special type of awareness. If a player has that ability he should be valued extremely highly. Besides those two traits, most other traits can be developed to some degree. Combining awareness, processing speed, balance, ability to change direction, start/stop, and accelerate/decelerate make up a good portion of the traits that give a player the potential to become a lead creator. Players who lack these traits often will have trouble getting to the rim in the NBA, which will put a huge cap on their ceiling. Notice most of the top guards in the NBA have these skills, Trae Young (below), James Harden (seen earlier), Steph Curry (below), and Luka Doncic (seen earlier). I don’t think the NBA has a good understanding of what actually goes into potential for guards. 

Young
Curry

In this selection I will go into one player I think has a chance to be truly special. That player is Rob Dillingham. Dillingham has the special movement skills I have mentioned earlier. He impresses me every play, but I’m going to pinpoint a few specific plays. In this clip…

everything is on full display. Similar to Harden, Dillingham starts off by effectively lulling the defender a bit, after a few tween-crosses he quickly goes into a hesi shot fake which freezes the defender. Dillingham then proceeds to accelerate extremely quickly only to stop on an absolute dime and he finishes the move with a crossover to sidestep. Another play that impresses me a lot is this clip.

Even though Dillingham can’t gain full control of the ball he still shows an impressive ability to stop. What is really impressive is his ability to go between his legs quickly when the second defender comes, but the ability to see the third defender is even more impressive because the defender is behind him. Also impressive is the pass he makes to the defender without eying him. I can show so many more clips because Dillingham uses his abilities to decelerate and change direction so often.

After the rise of “unathletic” players such as James Harden, Trae Young, Steph Curry, and Luka Doncic, the NBA (and everybody else) will soon realize that they are misjudging “athleticism.”  

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