What makes one NBA player better than another? Why do certain players improve while others falter?
Two of the most worn out phrases to describe young NBA talent are “If he ever figures it out, the sky’s the limit” and “When he put’s it together he’ll really be a force to be reckoned with.” These clichés earned their place in the Trite Hall of Fame for a reason: the list of NBA players who never reached their potential is endless. In many cases, it has little to do with physical skill, and much more to do with “figuring it out.”
But what does “figuring it out” mean?
I recently wrote a one game profile of veteran guard Kirk Hinrich for the venerable Wizards Blog Truthaboutit.net. In it I contrasted Hinrich’s play with that of fellow Wizard Nick Young, someone who is as close to “putting it together” as he is to uniting the Earth’s magnetic poles.
Now Hinrich is, athletically speaking, no slouch. He has good size and long arms coupled with at least average lateral quickness. Skill-wise, Hinrich is right in the middle as well. His shooting percentages, assist rate, and rebound rate are all solid but unspectacular.
Nick Young, on the other hand, has a prototypical NBA shooting guard body. At 6’6’’ he has the athletic ability and potential to become a decent starter. Skill-wise, he’s a pretty good spot up shooter and his handle isn’t awful but he’s never been an effective penetrator because he dribbles so high. And to be fair, Young is a different kind of player than Hinrich, who slides over to the point position when John Wall goes off the court. Young is more of a pure scorer, so he’s never handled the leadership duties that are inherent to Hinrich’s longtime position.
In the game I profiled Hinrich, a Wizards victory over the Raptors, both players were effective. Young got hot from the field and ended with 20 efficient points on 15 shots to go with a career high six rebounds and Hinrich had a quiet double double with 13 points and 12 assists. Yet watching the two players for the entire game, what jumped out at me was how little, in comparison to Hinrich, Nick Young seemed to feel and understand the game.
The difference was in their levels of awareness.
Hinrich kept a consistent stream of chatter going the entire game, routinely making the hard rotation, the sharp pass, and the clever read. He knew when to go over screens and when to slide under, depending on his defensive assignment, and used his length and positioning to shut off penetration. Meanwhile, Young was victimized by the Raptor’s screening and was caught on the wrong side of his man on numerous occasions. The Wizards won the game by 15 points, but they were minus-6 for the 30 minutes Young was on the court—and that’s with an efficient offensive output from the third year player. Hinrich ended plus-20 in no small part because his awareness, or what’s sometimes called “basketball IQ,” buoyed the played of his teammates.
This isn’t to say Hinrich is some choir boy who just wants to be the best he can–I don’t want to turn in him into a “hard working white guy” stereotype. He wasn’t much of a mentor to Rose in Chicago, and doesn’t seem particularly interested in making himself a knock down three point shooter—something the Wizards need him to be. It’s just that he knows where to be on both ends of the court and is invested, at least during games, in making his teammates better.
Look at the top talent in the NBA: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, LeBron James, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, Stephen Jackson. These players fill varying roles for their team, but each shares the ability to instantaneously analyze and interpret the enormous amount of data flying at them on the court. When Kobe catches in the post, he is a master at dissecting the defense to find himself or teammates open looks. He is intentional in his play, reading coverage and then forcing the defense to react in the manner he expects, before picking apart the resulting options. Garnett creates a similar effect on defense, constantly foiling the offense by reading the direction of the play or player then disrupting the intended actions. Offensively and defensively, the best players process the constant torrent of information much more quickly than the average NBA grunt. Bryant and Garnett are no longer elite athletes, but their awareness is so fine tuned that they habitually beat quicker players to the spot by being the first to know where the spot will be.
As a high school JV coach, my goal is to prepare players for varsity plays by increasing each player’s skill and awareness level. The latter is much more difficult. Focusing on communication and building cognitive habits can lead to significant improvement, but as with any skill, each player has an awareness ceiling. Most never reach it.
The best NBA coaches have a track record of enhancing their players’ awareness. Phil Jackson’s Zen philosophy of being “in the moment” is really about being fully cognizant of teammates and opponents. In Utah, Jerry Sloan’s persistent use of the flex offense has the interesting effect of increasing his team’s collective awareness level. Because they devote so much energy and practice time to one offense, Jazz players are intensely aware of the near infinite permutations of each set, and are focused on reading and reacting. With an internalized, cohesive offensive strategy, Jazz players are able to consistently rise above offensive expectations. See, being aware isn’t just for the greats, it’s also how bad players become average and mediocre players become Kevin Martins. In short, it’s how a player maximizes his potential.
A team stocked with highly aware players who are in-tune with each other is the unifying trait among NBA champions. That’s what Chauncey Billups really brought to the Nuggets. What many simply called “leadership” was in fact awareness, something Carmelo has struggled with (particularly on the defensive side) his entire career.
To me, my current hometown Wizards don’t look like a basement team on paper (this is how I can tell I am becoming a fan, please cue ridiculing comments). But JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche, Nick Young, and Al Thornton are some of the least cognizant players in the league. Just look at Blatche on this pick and roll:
The Wizards will never be better than mediocre unless they can play with more cohesion and chemistry, and that comes from heightened awareness. I’m convinced that this is what separates the best players and teams in the league from the pack of talented losers (in the sense that they don’t win, not that they are personally lame).
I’ve long been baffled by the fact that, among professional athletes, there seems to be so much separation in ability. Think of all the millions of players that pick up a basketball in high school. As the herd is culled using a rubric of athleticism and skill, the last distinguishing factor separating the incredible from the simply awesome, is awareness. And as the game speeds up between the college and professional levels, it’s the player who commits to augmenting his awareness capacity that ultimately succeeds. For every Nick Young there’s a player like Stephen Curry, reading the game at a level far beyond his years.
EA Sports scores every NBA player’s awareness levels for their video games, but I’m not sure how well actual NBA teams evaluate awareness for the draft and freeagency. It’s no doubt one of the most difficult skills for scouts to quantify, though it may be the most crucial distinguishing factor—the one separating Joakim Noah from JaVale McGee. Perhaps more than traits like size, shooting or quickness, it’s the organizations that covet and cultivate an atmosphere of awareness and cohesion that year after year fill the upper echelons of NBA teams.