Random Thoughts On the Talent Pool

This essay is a rather extreme case of late-night rambling — just warning you ahead of time.

In case you stumbled upon this website and have no understanding of basketball, sports, or American culture in general, let me just say that the players in the NBA are really good at hoops. I mean, ridiculously good: so good that they have been dominant players their entire lives, at virtually every level. I always laugh when some fans are watching a game and say “I could do that!”… Well, no, you couldn’t. The average fan seems to have a shaky grasp at times on the vast, gaping, astronomical chasm that exists between their own abilities (or even the abilities of the best basketball player they’ve ever known/played with) and those of the worst NBA player who ever played. There’s simply no comparison there, as I learned the hard way when future D-Leaguer Patrick Ewing Jr. dunked over me, Freddy Weis style, in a high school AAU game in 2003. I was on a mediocre lower-tier HS team, we were playing the best crop of prospects in the state of Georgia (which at the time included Ewing, Stanford/Washington G Tim Morris, Evansville C Bradley Strickland, & Georgia Tech PG Matt Causey), and they beat us by nearly 100 points. And Ewing is the only player on that team with even a remote shot at the NBA! Talk about a harsh dose of reality.

Of course, when we put our fan hats on we tend to say things like, “Player A sucks,” or “Player B needs to be cut from the team,” but we also need to remember that these statements only make sense relative to other NBA-caliber players. For instance, Terrence Williams of the Nets is last in the league in Win Shares and is scoring 6.1 PPG on 36.5% shooting; by any NBA standard, he’s stinking up the joint right now on one of the worst teams in league history. But he was also arguably the best all-around player on a team that went 31-6 in the Big East and came within a game of reaching the Final Four. The point is, if you met him on the street, odds are Terrence Williams would be the best basketball player you knew, and he’s been one of the NBA’s worst performers this season.

Also, it bears noting that in order to be one of the worst NBA players by any cumulative metric like WS, you have to actually be good enough to convince the coach to leave you on the floor long enough to play that poorly. I once wrote about how Barry Parkhill and Adam Morrison were the worst players in NBA history by WS per minute, but the simple truth is that the real worst player in NBA history is probably one of these guys who could count their career minutes on one hand. For all the talk about how various players “would be great if they only had the chance”, the NBA’s method of funneling talent does a decent enough job of identifying the best available players in the world, putting them on rosters, and allocating playing time among them. Or, put another way, getting enough minutes to become Adam Morrison in the first place automatically means you’re at least riding that line between the lowest 150 or so rungs on the NBA ladder and the top slots in the minor leagues.

Then again, it is interesting to think about the “natural selection” of the talent evaluation process from grade-school kids just starting out playing to NBAers at the pinnacle of the sport. As I said earlier, even the least talented NBA-caliber player was The Man in high school and likely college as well — he was the quintessential BMOC, posting dominant numbers against lumbering, talentless 6’3″ forwards like myself at every stop along the way to the pros. Now, sometimes APBRmetricians will decry the way mainstream hoops analysis has overvalued scoring at the expense of all else (and that may in fact be true at the NBA level), but the ability to create your own shot and maintain a good level of efficiency has always been the scarcest talent in the game and the most difficult one to retain when a player moves up to a greater degree of competition. Just think about the level of basketball you maxed out at; for instance, I was the MVP of my 8th-grade team and scored nearly 20 PPG in 7-minute quarters, but in high school I was an end-of-the-bench scrub on a middling team. What was the difference? Scoring ability — when everyone was suddenly my size, my penchant for destroying undersized waifs in the post became irrelevant. In other words, at pre-NBA levels, few players fail to move on to the next step because they can’t rebound or can’t pass — it’s always about scoring, and as long as a guy can create, there will be a place for him on the roster.

Paradoxically, though, the “best scorer moves up” rule dries up when you get to the NBA level. Look at somebody like Steve Alford: great scorer in college, even good per-minute scoring ability in the pros, but it wasn’t good enough for him to stick around as a pro. When you reach the NBA, everyone can score at a basic level, so it’s what you do beyond shot-creation that has value to teams — hence the presence of rebounding specialists, 3-point marksmen, defensive stoppers, sideline cheerleaders, etc. Sure, there are still megascorers like Kobe Bryant who distinguish themselves through an otherworldly ability to produce points, and salaries have been shown to correlate strongly with scoring averages, but when it comes to being one of those bottom 150 players who keep an NBA job vs. those who entertain the fine people of Yakima, the ability to score is almost irrelevant if you haven’t carved out a niche in another area. Among the rank and file of the NBA, role players rule.

That’s why it’s ironic that the filtering system used to funnel players uses scoring ability as essentially the sole criteria for advancement at lower levels but not at the precipice of the NBA. Top college teams are essentially exercises in “let’s throw as many McDonald’s All-Americans together as possible and see what happens”, sorting out the roles later among a group of HS studs, but the NBA doesn’t work that way. Oftentimes players in that bottom 150 are selected precisely because of their one-dimensionality — it’s just that they’re better at that one dimension than almost anyone else on the planet. So here’s a crazy thought: why not just groom these role players from grade school on? I mean, if they’re not in the NBA to score points, does it really make sense for the pool of possible future NBA role players to be limited at lower levels because scoring ability is a requisite to move up? Could teams instead develop a stable of, say, top defensive prospects who never touch a basketball in their lives and focus all of their time and energy on D, starting as 8- and 9-year-olds?

Well — shooting down my own insane idea — probably not. Putting the absurdity of “test tube role players” aside, remember how I said even role players were scorers at one time or another? Perhaps the baseline ability to score is simply taken for granted, and players who fall below that threshold would simply be unable to function at the NBA level no matter how well-honed another of their skills may be. Obviously a player who never touches a basketball would be a severe offensive liability, forcing a team to essentially play 4-on-5 at one end of the floor, so it’s possible that even the greatest defensive player imaginable (trained in the fine art of KobeStopping™ since before he can remember) would not be worth it to a team in the long run when they could probably scour the NBDL instead and find a somewhat worse defender who can actually dribble and shoot. In other words, the cost of losing the greatest defender who ever lived would be more than made up for by the fact that his replacement was a viable entity on offense.

Now, it would be bizarre and interesting to think of an alternate universe where boys moved up to higher levels of basketball based on skills like defense or rebounding instead of scoring, but again we come back to the question of scarcity — is scoring the “gatekeeper” because it’s glamorous, or because fewer and fewer people can do it at every checkpoint along the path to the NBA? And why is scoring the glamour activity of basketball anyway? Some analysts act like that was an arbitrary decision as soon as Naismith nailed up a peach basket, but it could be because scoring points (and preventing them on defense) is the primary goal of a basketball team in any given game, and a team of role players is worthless if they’re not complimenting players who can actually score.

But I digress. It’s pretty obvious that I think the talent pool is a fascinating topic of discussion; when slicing and dicing NBA numbers, sometimes it’s easy to forget that The Association represents only the tip of a very large iceberg made up of collegians, high schoolers, dominant 8th-grade ballers, all the way down to everyone who ever picked up a basketball and sized up a shot. Even those of us who played the game and failed against players who failed against players who failed against guys that might make the D-League someday have a tendency to fall into the delusion that NBA players aren’t that much better than the rest of us, but regardless of the quirks of the player-selection process, they’re playing a game with which most of us are only familiar at an extreme distance. That’s why it’s always useful to think from time to time about where the NBA fits in the grand scheme of the game — it’s both remarkable to imagine your own small connection to the greatest players in the world, and humbling to realize just how amazing these players really are.

About Neil Paine

I work for Sports-Reference.com. I've been a freelance writer for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and Basketball Prospectus.

Posted on February 26, 2010, in Insane ideas, No Math Required, Rants & Ramblings. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.

  1. On any level, no matter what the sport, the first requirement to even make a team is the ability to keep up athletically. If you are not big, fast and strong enough to keep up, you can’t be on the team/in the league because you will be overwhelmed by the athleticism of your peers. As a result, those who are athletic enough to play on the NBA,NFL,MLB level can survive and even dominate on athletic ability at lower levels. Some guys are so athletic (think Michael Vick) that they star at the pro level with limited skill sets. Also, consider that as guys move up the ladder and the funnel narrows, having an “elite skill” allows players to arrive at their role. This holds especially true in the NFL where just about everyone is a specialist, but the NBA has a few guys like Dennis Rodman, JJ Redick,Chuck Hayes, etc who survive on specialty skills.

  2. Robert August de Meijer

    Lovely post (at least, according to another 6’3″ end-of-bench highschool forward), it put some skills that are required for the NBA in perspective. It is as if the skill required to win the game (3/4 of the time, up until the pros) is to shoot well, but the skill required to win the career is 3/4 of the time something completely different (rebounding, defense, passing, screening et al). It seems like two different games then!

    I’ve often wondered how a match between a complete-offense team would do against a complete-defense team. Would the best shooters overcome the best defenders? What about the other way around? I believe the rosters would look something like this:
    Offense: S.Nash, G. Gervin, D. Wilkins, D. Nowitzki, A. Stoudemire
    Defense: N. McMillan, M. Cooper, D. Rodman, B. Wallace, M. Eaton
    Imagine a game between these two groups.

    And how would this go on a high-school/college level?

  3. I imagining an official at the Chinese Basketball Federation calling a meeting for tomorrow to discuss this post.

  4. Those poor 8-year-old Reggie Evans clones!

  5. Very nice post.

    What you say is true. NBA basketball players ARE almost a different species. I had a similar moment in my basketball “career.” I was a 6-4 center in a crappy New England private school league. I never thought I was a great basketball player, but my senior year I was second or third in the league in rebounding, averaging 15 points per, and feeling pretty good about my Reggie Evans imitation. Then I had my run in with the number one rebounder in the league, Dan Gadzuric.

    Currently, he is a bit of an NBA laughingstock because of his big contract and lack of offensive skills. The Sports Guy loves to rip on him. But let me tell you something. That guy is FREAKING ENORMOUS and very athletic. This was in high school before he filled out and he barely knew how to play the game, but It was like lining up against a teradactyl. His arms stretched across half the court and he ran the floor like a deer. He went for about 38 and 18 and dunked over me 7 times before we fouled him out. When he held the ball over his head I could barely reach it.

    As you say, the worst NBA players (though I think Gadzuric gets more crap than he deserves) are in another stratosphere compared to the rest of us…

  6. When I was younger, I could out-run and out-jump just about anyone; I was tall and used to lock guys down out on the playground; then I played against some college guys, all of whom were shorter and less athletic than I was. They destroyed me, of course. There’s alot more to being great than size and explosiveness(just look at Nash). The skill level of most NBA players is off the charts, even the so-called scrubs; they only look like scrubs because NBA defense is also off the charts.

  7. Great post. At 34, I play regularly still in a Local Y league 2x/week. There are younger guys in this league that just own the court: can score from whereever, press you on D and jump all over you. Yet, these guys for the most part barely made a dent on D3 or maybe low D2 schools when they were in college. We sit back and wonder what it would look like if a 6th man from a Top D1 school decided to come into the gym and play pickup. DWade or Lebron coming in to play would almost like an alien from another species on the court.

    Some guys can work their asses off in a gym, but there is a point where some freak gentics comes into play and literally separates us from professionals who make millions to play ball.

  8. Well said and well thought out for ramblings. Good points all, which is why I find some BKB sims to be somewhat lacking as the scorers and rebounders get all the love (and playing time), while the defenders, three-point specialists and passers are somewhat devalued.

  9. Nice post, Neil. There was a guy who went to my high school (Nate Blessen) who almost made it into the NBA. He made it onto a few summer league rosters but I believe that was as far as he got. He was a few years older than me, so I never played with or against him while he was in high school, but I played with him later on in pick up games and alumni tournaments and stuff like that. And that guy would just wipe the floor with everybody out there. He may as well have been Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Dr. J rolled into one guy out there for as much of a disparity between him and the rest of us. And we certainly aren’t (or weren’t, I should say) chumps out there, we were mostly better than average players who would put up a good game at your local YMCA or whatever. But good God, it was just ridiculous playing with that guy. Playing with someone like that, and knowing that HE couldn’t make it in the NBA, not only gives you an appreciation for the Josh Powell’s of the world, but really makes you realize how absolutely amazing the Kobe Bryant’s of the world truly are.

  10. Very interesting, Neil. There really are probably some serious role player candidates out there who don’t make it as far as they could if there skills were more valued at the lower levels.

    This is why guys who start off with questionable offensive games while obviously being incredible athletes who can defend and rebound at a high level (Pippen / Rodman both come to mind) often find themselves on less than spectacular college squads.

  11. Owen,
    I played in the same league for a year. Gadzuric was disgusting. I also played against another guy named Mo Sessums. Guy was 7 foot and loved throwing elbows. What a ridiculous high school league. Anyway I digress.

    As far as player development goes, I don’t know how much I agree with this post. Basically, for the positions of 4 and 5 most of those guys don’t ever learn how to be athletic since its not necessary for most of their lives. For the wing positions, most of us aren’t going to be blessed with arms that hang down to our knees. Those pre-requisites are what set NBA players apart. Freak genetics.

  12. I had the luxury of getting to play many pick up games against future NBA players at the rec center at Arizona. I can tell you – they were so utterly dominant that they never really had to “try” – and this was always at the main court where the past good/great high school players and intermural studs played. Sean Rooks used to do nothing but shoot threes – and make them at well over a 50% clip. He sure didn’t do that in college or the NBA. I played with/against Khalid Reeves many times – and never once saw his team ever lose, no matter how layed back he was playing. He was the best I’d ever seen pick up.

    Heck – the Arizona football player that could play basketball (maybe somewhat unrefined – chose football over basketball) were often SIGNIFICANTLY better than the best rec players – often because the were so athletic and strong. They were usually the best players in intermurals.

    I’ve gotten into so many arguments with people when they claim they are better than so and so who’s in the NBA. When Avery Johnson won a championship – that was common among pick up PG’s – “I’m better than that Avery Johnson guy – I just never got a chance”. Absurd.

    Heck – I could take a recent Arizona “scrub” – say Fendi Onobun – and wipe the court with pretty much any rec league team anywhere no matter who we put around him. If the average joe ever played a few games on the same court with Hassan Adams – a super athlete who will probably never make the NBA – he would undoubtably say Hassan was the greatest player he had ever seen, and should be a star in the NBA. But, Hassan is not – because NBA players are the ultra elite.

  13. Neil, I don’t think that the “scorer’s bias” in talent winnowing argument is persuasive in arguing for a counterfactual world where NBA defenses and rebounding could be notably improved.

    First, I think you misrepresent the current system for recognizing and developing domestic talent. Sure, the McDonald’s all-stars get the press, but there are over 300 division I schools handing out up to 6 scholarships per year, never mind division II, and junior colleges. Clearly, any potential NBA player is caught up in this net.

    The issue then is whether these players are “mishandled” in their development. And here, I don’t see the argument for gross imperfections in the system. Winning matters throughout, and winning depends not only on “raw”, athletic-based scoring ability. There is everything else about offense, then defense, and rebounding, and, I would add another category, ball-handling (a.k.a the ability to not turn the ball over prior to a scoring opportunity).

    As long as there is an institutional framework where the paramount goal is winning games, the presumption must be that all skills are being developed for all players, NBA-aspirants included. Perhaps these could be done better (the European vs. American system debate), but the best institutional arrangement is a separate question.

    And a distinct point about ball-handling and offensive rebounding in particular, the relative return to these skills at lower levels of competition (i.e. where scoring efficiency is lower) is higher than they are at the NBA level. So, to the contrary, based on incentives within the system, one should expect surfeits, not deficits, in these skill areas come draft time.

    Finally, there is the general (mis)perception of existing NBA shortcomings. Though the statistical evidence is indirect, I do not get any sense that NBA defensive orrebounding ability is lacking for the talent development system that exists in the USA. Taking APM (or RAPM) as the metric (not for its particular player rankings but for the general range of values it yields) what estimates consistently show is that elite offensive players (in their Off APM) contribute somewhat, but not a lot, more than elite defenders (in their Def APM). This is structurally as it should be (I think, as great position defenders are limited by their inability to channel the offense through them) but the point is that the gap isn’t huge, suggesting that the current system does not under-produce defensive ability.

    Additionally, in terms of the existing institutional factors being derelict in recognizing and developing NBA talent, the list of elite NBA defenders does not consist of late second round draftees. (Eyeballing various lists suggests that these players were somewhat under-appreciated at draft time – and it would be interesting to see some empirical work on this comparison – but not categorically.)

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