Throughout the NBA Finals, I have seen multiple tweets commenting on the brilliance of LeBron James’ passing…for a tall player. Why should height matter when evaluating one’s passing ability? All things being equal, shouldn’t a taller player have an advantage over shorter players when it comes to passing? After all, NFL teams prefer taller quarterbacks because it creates better windows to throw through. Doesn’t LBJ possess the same advantage?
What are the constraints placed upon a ball handler when he looks to pass? The first constraint is his skill level; in the NBA, every player has the ability to pass a basketball, regardless of height.
What are the constraints which most impact passing in basketball (or any invasion game really)? The primary constraints are the passer’s defender, the pass receiver’s movement and speed, the pass receiver’s defender, the rules of the game (i.e. traveling, double dribble, backcourt violation) and the size of the court.
Of these primary constraints, which is affected by height? Does being a taller player affect the way that the passer’s defender plays? Possibly. However, like a quarterback, a passer who is taller than his defender has more windows available through which he can make the pass. A smaller defender potentially limits a bounce pass, but air passes are preferable to bounce passes because of the speed of the pass in almost every situation (this differs for very young players who struggle to catch a very fast pass and who benefit from the slower bounce passes in terms of the coordination involved with receiving a pass).
Does being a taller player affect his teammate’s movement? The pass receiver’s job is to create space to receive the pass. A taller passer may make this easier, especially in a high-low post-entry situation. The taller player may have an easier time throwing over the two defenders.
Does being a taller player affect the pass receiver’s defender? Does being a taller player change the rules or the game or the size of the court?
The one possible constraint for a taller player is passing off the dribble, as each dribble may take a fraction of a second longer for a taller player than for a smaller player, and the fraction of a second may be the difference between an open pass to a player in stride and a slightly deflected pass or one that is slightly behind the pass receiver. Also, a taller player may be at a disadvantage when throwing a bounce pass if the bounce pass is needed.
Therefore, why aren’t taller players better passers?
I believe this stems from the limitations placed upon developing players by coaches and the media. There is no reason why taller players cannot be better passers except that they are not given the same opportunities or held to the same expectations as smaller players.
Rather than looking at James’ passing as remarkable, we should make it the standard. Why shouldn’t we expect taller players to pass well? Chris Webber, Vlade Divac, Arvydas Sabonis, Shaq and many others showed that it is possible, when players are empowered, for taller players to be great passers.
At young ages, players should develop without positions in a more global fashion so each player develops all of the skills. Rather than pigeon-hole players into a narrow position and skill set, all players should develop globally, seeking to master all of the skills. As players reach higher competitive levels – college and professional basketball – coaches may narrow a player’s focus to concentrate on his particular strengths to maximize the team’s opportunity for success.
However, when this narrowing occurs with 10, 12 or 14 year olds, we stymie the development of players, limit their development and put unnecessary constraints upon developing players. Rather than limit these players, we need to raise our expectations and work to develop the tools necessary to meet these expectations.
LeBron James should not be an anomaly because he is an adept passer and 6’8. He may be the best passer or a great passer, but there should not be a qualification based on height. Height is not a constraint on passing ability. Coaching (and positional expectations), however, is a constraint on players’ development of passing skills.