Coach: Evaluating a Prospect’s Physical Gifts
In this multi-part series on evaluating potential NBA talent, Coach Macri will explain a typical process for the breakdown of players and what kinds of things the average fan should consider watching college games with an eye on who their team might select. In this week’s article, he provides considers how to judge a player’s skills and talents.
In the first article of this series, I gave examples of things to look for when it came to evaluating a prospect’s offensive and defensive game understanding. Last week, the topic was how to judge specific skillsets and player aptitudes. This time around, the focus will be on physical gifts – both measurable and observable.
One of the most common areas to make a mistake in the evaluation of a potential pro is looking at his physical gifts. This is the proverbial ‘eye test’ that some folks, fans and “experts” alike, use to judge a prospect. Many disparage the measurable characteristics of a prospect in one breath, then use them on the next to compare one player to another. Given this reality, what is the best way to judge physical gifts in relation to a player’s game understanding and skillset?
It should never be denied that physical gifts are a critical piece of being a professional athlete. How much weight it receives in the overall evaluation of a player is very observer-dependent. For me, the physical gifts are often the first thing I notice, or the thing that allows the player to (in some cases literally) leap out from the crowd. However, after the initial identification, my own weighting tends to put those physical gifts more toward the back of the priority list. Instead, I examine things like game understanding and skillset, both of which were discussed in the previous articles of this series.
Many are interested in seeing the measurable statistics that come out at the NBA “combine.” However, evaluators must be sure not to overvalue those statistics. The real measure of physical gifts is not the measurable, but rather how it translates into game situations. An easy example: a long wingspan or standing reach is nice, but how a player employs that wingspan to alter shots in the paint is much more important.
The easiest way to understand how to observe physical gifts is to explore how an evaluator might see them in practice. To do so, we’ll break down three physical traits, and how folks attempt to measure them, but most current methods tend to fall short.
Start and Stop: An interesting test at the combine is the box drill. In this drill, players must run, slide, and backpedal in a pattern in a box shape (using the lane markers), and it is for speed. The drill purports to test speed, agility, and the ability to start and stop. If basketball was a game of predictable patterns, it would have a lot more value than it actually does. Like most tests, it actually becomes a tool to evaluate how well you perform that specific action, not how your abilities might translate into games. However, what it wants to do is extremely valuable.
Back during Blake Griffin’s time at Oklahoma, I wrote about his need to start and stop better for Basketball Prospectus. Like many young athletes, he put himself into trouble on the court when defenders would take away straight line drives, because he could not slow down, change direction, and then burst forward. While he had obvious tools like speed, strength, and agility, it was his inability to start and stop that could have held him back to some degree. He has since worked on this aspect of his game (and in fact, I would say it is the thing he improved the most during his ‘off year’ as he recovered from injury.
John Wall is an excellent example of a guy who had the obvious ability to start and stop, change direction, and get burst. He has always displayed it. One guy I would look for this ability from this year during the college basketball season is Austin Rivers. How much command does he have of his body and his ability to start and stop? That could make all the difference – we know he can shoot. What about this physical gift?
Repeatable “Wow” Factor: One of the first columns folks look for from the combine is results from the various vertical jump tests. Achieving a new record in standing vertical and maximum vertical seem the holy grail for basketball players everywhere. How to improve vertical jump measurements is a question I get all the time in both my chat and via email. However, just looking at the number on a page is not enough. How does a player use that in game play?
When we see a display of explosive or unusual power on the court, we take notice. It’s often enough to make coaches and general managers scribble on their notepads about “raw athleticism.” However, it is only consistent and repeatable feats that should really draw our attention. As opposed to how high a player can get in vertical, I like to look at how quickly he explodes up after returning to the ground after the first jump and how high he can get off the floor on consecutive jumps. This is a transferable skill that means something in games.
When I watched Derrick Williams last year, I did not look for how high he got after coming down the lane or spinning in the post for a dunk, but how well he did in second chance opportunities after gathering an offensive rebound above the rim and bouncing off the floor for a quick finish dunk. That is true value.
When Evan Turner was having his great year at Ohio State, there were many who felt strongly that he had a great future in front of him. However, physically, I failed to see him do anything that consistently “wow-ed” me. Occasional glimpses are simply not enough to justify this trait. Watching Harrison Barnes this past year, early in the season, I saw much of what I see in Evan Turner – a lack of consistent explosion and power. However, as the season wore on, and especially during the ACC and NCAA Tournaments, Barnes started to show those physical gifts more clearly. That was valuable for him – and an interesting subplot to this year is whether he has continued that trajectory or not.
Space-Eating: It is a lot of fun to look at wingspan and standing reach. We see players whose hands hang at their knees and think about what kind of terror they can be on the defensive end. However, possessing freakishly long features is no guarantee of success. Hasheem Thabeet possessed a 7’6” wingspan and 9’5” standing reach in 2009, but his lack of fundamental understanding of the game has held him back from actualizing his potential on the court (full disclosure: Thabeet spent some time this summer with the Pro Training Center, and we are hopeful that he is able to live up to some of his measurements this season and in the future).
The real question for this measurable is does the player utilize their length to eat up space. The court is standard width of fifty feet, and the basket is always 10’ high. The more length that is actually deployed effectively, the better job defensively a team can do in limiting offensive options. When I watch prospects like John Henson or Anthony Davis, I am wondering if their unusual frames are able to alter the space around them. It is more than just an ability to block or change shots, but more an ability to change an entire plan of attack by the opponent. Some players do that – others do not.
Have questions for Coach Macri? Be sure and drop by HOOPSWORLD on Mondays at 3PM Eastern for the Coach’s weekly basketball chat! You can also follow Coach Macri on Twitter @CoachMacri.
Each week, HOOPSWORLD NBA analyst and coach Anthony Macri will open his notebook and offer an assortment of observations on games, players, and teams from throughout the league. Coach Macri serves as a player development consultant for the Pro Training Center and Coach David Thorpe, working with a variety of NBA players on their skills and game understanding. The Coach’s Notebook appears on HOOPSWORLD every Thursday.