This piece will serve as the first in the Basketball Pillars Series, and will explore basketball IQ. The term gets brought up quite frequently by pundits and talking heads everywhere. But what exactly is basketball IQ?
For even those that do not use the term frequently, they can still identify a high basketball player without much issue. There is little disagreement that LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Magic Johnson are high IQ basketball players.
Intelligence quotient is an average score typically derived from a series of standardized tests to measure specific facets of intelligence. With no such standardized tests for basketball, it is clear that basketball IQ has merely become shorthand for the ability to play the game in an intelligent manner.
Playing the game intelligently is clearly diverged from overall excellence as a basketball player, which is to say high IQ players are not necessarily superstars, and superstars may not be high IQ basketball players.
The reason for this is simple, the ability to thrive as a basketball player depends on several aptitudes. Skill, athletic ability, and basketball IQ are the chief capacities required for basketball players.
With high levels of skill and/or athletic ability, a player can reach superstar potential with average basketball IQ. Conversely a high IQ basketball player can be a superstar with average skills and athletic ability.
Still, none of those points answers the question – what exactly is basketball IQ? Succinctly put, basketball IQ is the ability to both predict and adapt to a game in progress. On the prediction front, a high IQ basketball player could accurately make the read that their defensive assignment is trying to set up their teammate for a corner three and make the necessary adjustment.
High basketball IQ encompasses the ability to take the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates into account and possessing the practical know-how of using that information to your advantage. High basketball IQ often manifests itself in the form of elite team defense, top-tier court vision, and finding open shots against a defense.
Basketball IQ is the crucial component missing from many players who have never “put it all together”, or “figured it out” as analysts will often opine. It is also not necessarily a totally abstract quality that a player is enshrined with or not.
In fact, though players that start out with low basketball IQ may in act have a ceiling on said IQ, basketball IQ is also a product of experience to some degree. This is why a player’s physical prime is almost never the same as their playing prime.
The overlap of a player’s physical tools not yet drastically declining, and their increased understanding of the game is where their “true prime” lies.
It is also important to not conflate expressions of basketball IQ as axiomatic evidence of high basketball IQ. For example, good passing is usually a by-product of excellent court vision, which is in turn usually indicative of possessing a high basketball IQ.
Put simply, a good passer is not necessarily a high basketball IQ player, though a player with high basketball IQ is more likely to be a good passer. But again, not necessarily.
Unlike athletic ability, basketball IQ actually has a positive correlation with age and unlike skill, it is not necessarily something that a player can actively hone.
Basketball IQ can be thought of as the second foundational pillar, it will keep a player in the league after their athletic ability has faded but will not serve without a high basketball IQ.
High IQ basketball players with limited skill and athletic ability get relegated to the role of “locker room guy” that barely gets minutes past a certain age.
The next pillar we will examine is skill.
Clint is an avid fan of the Los Angeles Lakers, and contributed to various sports publications prior to his work with Upside Hoops.