Jimmer Fredette: Hype, Potential and Athleticism

After writing about Jimmer this week in Newsletter 5.9, several articles and comments about his athleticism and potential have been published. Pete Thamel of the New York Times wrote “N.B.A. Scouting Report on Jimmer: Good but not Great.”

In one sense, it is hard to disagree with the title. After all, roughly one player, on average, per draft really turns into a great (i.e. All-Star, MVP candidate) player. The odds are stacked against Jimmer (or any player, really) being that player. However, some of the comments in the article border on the absurd:

Stardom, however, is unlikely, the scouts and front-office personnel said. Comparative players that came up were Jeff Hornacek, Steve Kerr, Kyle Korver and Jason Kapono.

Hornaceck is not a bad comparison, especially for NBA personnel who seem unwilling to compare players of one race to players of another. My comparisons have been to Gilbert Arenas (though less explosive) and Mike Bibby (the other comparison that I like is Eddie House).

Korver and Kapono are 6’6+ and pure, stand-still shooters. Kapono was a more versatile scorer in college, but mainly by using his 6’8 size to post-up and shoot over smaller players. I watched Kapono play in a pre-season game a couple years ago and remarked that he had to be the worst defender in the league. It was not lack of effort – he moves incredibly poorly (to the point that I emailed someone with the Raptors and suggested a specific performance facility). He is very tight in his hips and lacks power, which is a poor combination for a game (and skill) predicated on explosive changes of directions.

The knock on Fredette is his defense. Of course, every time a player graduates to a new level, the coach assumes the player plays no defense. College coaches assume high school players play no defense, and NBA coaches assume college players play no defense. Therefore, to dismiss Fredette as an NBA prospect because of a lack of defensive effort right now is a bit absurd.

NBA people often overlook a gross lack of skill to draft an athlete: Charlotte’s Tyrus Thomas comes to mind immediately, as Chicago passed on the more skilled LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy to draft Thomas and his leaping ability. NBA drafts potential under the assumption that their coaches can develop that potential. The irony is that for an NBA player, it is often easier to develop an athletic quality like agility than to become a great shooter or develop game awareness because of their playing (hundreds of thousands of shots) and training history (often limited and improperly focused).

Therefore, to dismiss Fredette means disregarding his potential. What does he lack?

According to draft-types like Chad Ford, he lacks athleticism. However, these draft-types never define athleticism, and often appear to confuse athleticism with explosiveness or power. Even more specifically, most people who refer to athleticism in basketball picture take-off power defined by Tudor Bompa as “crucial in events in which athletes attempt to project the body to the highest point…to reach the best height to catch a ball… The height of a jump depends directly on the vertical force applied against the ground to defeat the pull of gravity. In most cases, the vertical force performed at takeoff is at least twice the athlete’s weight. The higher the jump, the more powerful the legs should be.”

Athleticism, however, as defined by Vern Gambetta is ““the ability to execute athletic movements (run, jump, throw) at optimum speed with precision, style and grace while demonstrating technical competency in the context of your sport.”

Does Fredette demonstrate NBA-level take-off power? Not really. Of course, neither does two-time MVP Steve Nash, one of the NBA’s best athletes.

Does Fredette demonstrate NBA-level athleticism? Without a doubt.

When the average fan (or apparently NBA executive willing to talk off the record to the N.Y. Times) sees the above crossover, they see a sport-specific skill. They see the crossover move that trainers in Sacramento called the “Bobby Jackson Step-Back” because Jackson used the move regularly with the Kings. They see a skill practiced over and over until mastery and a picture-perfect shooting technique, another practiced skill.

When I watch the move, I see the angle of his right leg when he stops to push off to the left. I see a poorly executed skill, as he required several baby steps rather than going straight into the shot. However, he changed directions at such an angle that his defender fell down, which afforded him the time to take the extra two steps and get his shooting rhythm.

Again, in this move, I see incredible lower body strength and body control. Yes, the crossover into a picture-perfect jump shot is a sport-specific skill. However, it also requires a great deal of athleticism to perform the skill so gracefully and effortlessly. All sport-specific skills build on general athletic skills – you cannot perform sport-specific skills expertly without the underlying general athleticism.

Fredette demonstrates the same agility, flexibility, dynamic balance and technique required to defend while making these moves. His body control as he shoots is exceptional.

In the above shot, he shoots from deep, yet he has virtually no rotation from his body; there is no wasted or extra movement (even Nash tends to rotate on his shot when stopping quickly or shooting from deep). Beyond illustrating his leg strength, this illustrates core strength and body control beyond the skill. Most people see a very skilled shooter; I see athleticism.

In Thamel’s article, BYU’s strength coach Justin McClure supports what I see:

He expects Fredette to test well in the physical drills. He said Fredette has a vertical jump of 36 inches, can bench-press 265 pounds and should be able to lift 185 pounds 9 or 10 times.

“I think he surprised people with that,” McClure said. “He’s a lot quicker and more agile than people give him credit for.”

The bench press does not really matter, as it is a fairly useless test (remember the media’s problems with Kevin Durant when he couldn’t lift 185 lbs.?). However, the quickness and agility are important.

However, the NBA uses closed-skill tests. In tests of agility, players perform differently in closed-skill tests than in open-skill tests. There is an NBA player who tests as a mediocre athlete in closed-skill agility tests, but tests off the charts in open-skill tests (the trainer asked me not to disclose the exact test or the name of the player).

Due to Fredette’s game awareness and pattern recognition skills, I expect that the closed-skill tests will underestimate Fredette’s actual game quickness and agility.

At the end of the day, who knows how Fredette will turn out in the NBA? There are so many variables. However, thus far, the articles and the comments from “experts” and “NBA personnel” illustrate a lack of knowledge in terms of athletic skills and athleticism. If these illustrate the thought-processes that lead to decisions, it is no wonder why there are so many misses. They attempt to identify athleticism through tests that do not necessarily correlate to game action, and they fail to define the qualities and skills that they reportedly value.

If the NBA personnel insist that Fredette lacks athleticism, they might as well line-up all college players and test for the vertical jump and assign players to teams based strictly on some formula that combines height and V.J. Why bother scouting and watching players if it all comes down to the VJ test? After all, that’s what these NBA people are saying: Fredette lacks explosiveness. They simply mis-use the term and interchange athleticism and explosiveness as if they are the same thing, as Fredette clearly illustrates athleticism as defined by Gambetta.

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