In this final piece of the Basketball Pillars series, we will define and explore athletic ability. At first blush, athletic ability is the most straightforward of the three pillars.
There are numerous ways in which athletic ability is taken for granted, but it is best to start with a definition. As such, athletic ability can be understood as the measure of the physical abilities needed to perform the tasks needed on the basketball court effectively.
As far as athletic ability goes, casual fans and pundits alike reflexively associate it with verticality, lateral quickness, end-to-end speed, and explosiveness. However, there are other frequently overlooked aspects of athleticism that impact the game of basketball in meaningful ways.
Balance, eye-hand coordination, deceleration, and cardiovascular endurance are all aspects of athletic ability. Players will be naturally endowed with aspects of athletic ability to varying degrees and will enhance their own athletic ability to varying degrees via training.
Unlike basketball IQ and skill, which are often overly-romanticized for how they affect a player’s ability to impact a basketball game – athletic ability is often downplayed or taken for granted, while somehow noted as important if a player lacks it.
This hypocrisy is evident when recalling the concerns over 2020 NBA Draft top pick, Anthony Edwards and current NBA superstar, Luka Dončić. As much skill and basketball IQ has, there was no lack of concern trolling over his athletic ability [or lack thereof] would allow him to keep up with the increased physicality of the NBA.
Despite being misguided analysis, interestingly, athletic two-guard Anthony Edwards was given much of the “can he shoot well enough” treatment.
Apparently athletic ability matters, until it does not.
In either case, athletic ability is necessarily inter-twined with the other two pillars of basketball. The ability to explode past your defender is ineffectual if you lack the skill to finish around the rim. Having excellent deceleration [the ability to stop on a dime], does not mean much if you lack the skill to hit a pull-up jumper reliably.
Athletic ability is the conduit through which the other pillars of basketball express themselves. A player’s athletic ability tells you nothing about their ability to impact a basketball game, but a lack of athletic ability can be informative if the also lack basketball IQ and skill.
Another unique characteristic of athletic ability is its correlation with age and wellness. Players will naturally age out of their athletic ability or have it hampered by injury.
Interestingly, athletic players with lower basketball IQ and/or skill are often seen as high upside players while players with lower athletic ability and higher skill and/or basketball IQ are seen as having higher floors but lower ceilings.
This is true to some extent. While the basketball IQ gained through experience tends to be relatively negligible, it is theoretically possible for a player to increase their skill during their career and increasing athletic ability has a much harder cap for most individuals.
As discussed in the previous piece, skill is the most foundational pillar from which everything is possible to begin with. From there, basketball IQ is necessary to maximize those skills on the court and finally athletic ability is the physical expression of those components on the court.