This piece will be part of a mini-series intended to explore a high-level look of what makes a basketball player great.
Basketball is a game that can be analyzed and broken down in countless ways, but essentially the argument can be made that it comes down to three pillars.
Basketball IQ, skill, and athletic ability.
Having a meaningful impact on any basketball game typically requires some combination of those three pillars.
For the purposes of this publication, basketball IQ will be defined as the ability to both predict and adapt to a game in progress. Skill will be defined as the physical mastery of the on-court practical tools actually used to play the game. Lastly, athletic ability is the measure of the physical abilities needed to perform the tasks needed on the basketball court effectively.
The degree to which these pillars matter is debatable. A highly athletic player that lacks basketball IQ or skills may standout from their contemporaries as a child. Perhaps even at the high school level. However, as one inches closer to the college game and professional basketball, being the most athletic player on the court is less significant unless at least one other pillar has been built to some degree.
Obviously, those three pillars themselves have multiple sub-categories which will be explored more fully in another piece. As an example, athletic ability is not merely vertical ability and quickness – despite many fans and even pundits often framing it in this manner.
In a previous piece, Measuring the Greatest NBA Players of All-Time, statistical analysis was used to compile a top ten of all-time list which resulted in the following:
- Michael Jordan
- LeBron James
- Chris Paul
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
- John Stockton
- Magic Johnson
- Tim Duncan
- Wilt Chamberlain
- Karl Malone
- Kawhi Leonard
This list is not purporting to be an all-encompassing end all ranking of the greatest NBA players, specific criteria was used to determine this ranking, and certainly reasonable debates can be used about the correct metrics to apply.
That being said, they are still generally agreed to be some of the greatest players in NBA history, regardless of where they may ultimately fall.
Using this list of players and what we already know about them, we can get a sense of which pillars are potentially over-represented in the best players (if any).
Of the ten listed – Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Karl Malone are exceptionally athletic.
LeBron James, Chris Paul, John Stockton, Magic Johnson, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard are all very high IQ basketball players.
Lastly – Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, and Tim Duncan stand out from the bunch in terms of actual basketball skills.
Yes, this sample size is miniscule, but we get a quick idea that three players stand out for their athletic ability, three players stand out for their basketball skills and six stand out for having high basketball IQ. If nothing else, the difference is stark enough to warrant further exploration.
On the professional level, there is a certain baseline that is clearly present in all players. This is to say that no one is getting in the NBA if they do not possess at least some qualia of each pillar.
Michael Jordan for example, despite the countless praise he receives for his on court greatness, is almost never referred to as a high IQ basketball player. Jordan achieved much of his success due to his other worldly athletic ability and basketball skills.
Jordan was definitely not a low IQ basketball player, however. At worst, he had an average basketball IQ, though he was undoubtedly an above average IQ player in his later years.
Looking at LeBron, he is an exceptionally high basketball IQ player that is also exceptionally athletic, but his basketball skills are incredibly mediocre on average. LeBron is not a great shooter, his ball-handling skills are passable, and he is not the most ambidextrous finisher around the rim.
In fact, LeBron’s only exceptional skill is his passing. His passing on the other hand, benefits from his court-vision, which is a by-product of his basketball IQ.
And therein may lie the secret sauce to the equation. Players that are able to possess complementary pieces from differing pillars will find a path to excel at any level. To use another example, Russell Westbrook is obviously a freakishly athletic player with incredible verticality.
However, it is Russell’s skill as a great ball-handler, coupled with his speed and verticality that allow him to get by defenders frequently.
A lack of understanding of how these pillars affect impact leads to bad scouting of young players. Because ultimately, it is impact that is most important when grading a player presently and projecting their arc in the future.
There remains on over-emphasis on singular pillars, depending on the scout, and the pillar most often relied on is skill. This intuitively makes sense, a highly skilled player will be good at basketball, right?
Yes, but the problem with this thinking is that there are so many skills to account for, and few players are truly elite at multiple skills. And even the ones that are, are otherwise limited if they do not have sufficient qualia of other pillars.
Kyrie Irving may be the most skilled player in the league currently. Amazing ball-handler, excellent shooter, great passer. Is he a top ten player though? No.
He is certainly a superstar, and one of the best players in the league, but his immense skill is not enough to propel him to the very upper echelon of NBA basketball.
Projecting a player’s upside becomes simpler if utilizing the pillars. If a player does not display significant and complementary traits from at least two pillars, their upside is limited.
In the next piece, we will take a closer look at what exactly is encapsulated in the term “basketball IQ”.
Clint is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to various sports publications prior to his work with Upside Hoops.