The Myth of the Talented Basketball Player

There is a gross misunderstanding of talent in basketball. I read articles suggesting that the coaches of the uber-talented need to “let them play” or that they cannot fit into any style that does not resemble a stereotypical AAU game. Is a player talented if he only excels in constant 3v2 fast-breaks and only know how to run an isolation for a shot in the half-court or catch and dunk lobs?

What is talent? Typically, when the general public or media imagine talent, they imagine leaping ability, length, size, etc. In many ways, the much-maligned Javale McGee is the embodiment of the public’s perception of talent.

A player like McGee would excel more in a free-flowing, up-and-down environment because he is not a great decision-maker with the basketball and he is not a great shooter and he lacks some strength and balance to battle with bigger players in the paint. Therefore, a game in open space suits his talents more.

However, while you agree with the logic of the last paragraph, re-read the paragraph and see what that actually says about McGee: it essentially says that he is not a very good player. Rather than being talented, he is limited. He excels at things in open space, like catching alley-oop passes and blocking shots. However, does that make one a talented basketball player? Before answering, watch the video below:

Does the video show a talented basketball player?

To me, a talented player has to be able to do more than block shots and catch alley-oops. If a talented player can play only in a run-and-gun environment, is he really talented? When I read articles that characterize players in this way, I assume the player is a great jumper who cannot shoot and who makes questionable decisions with the ball. Is that a talented player?

A run-and-gun environment benefits less skilled players, which is why I advocate small-sided-games and transition games for younger, lesser-skilled players. A run-and-gun, let-em play environment creates space for players. The additional space makes decision-making easier and leads to easier shots. Defensively, there are fewer expectations when defending a 3v2 fast-break than a 5v5 half-court offense because three players should score against two defenders. The fast tempo makes each possession less meaningful, so bad decisions, bad shot selection, and poor defense are less noticeable because there are more possessions. Why do most games slow down at the end? Because even fast-paced teams want to insure that they take a good shot when the end of the game is near.

There is nothing wrong with playing a fast pace, creating space for offensive players, or taking a quick shot. I prefer that my players get easy shots. However, my contention is with those who say that talented players can play only one way. If a player cannot play in the half-court, he is not the uber-talented player that others see.

Part of being a good player is using screens, rotating on defense, running pick-and-rolls, getting open, making moves to lose a defender, using footwork to create a shot, making good decisions with the ball, handling defensive pressure, and more. If a player cannot do these things, he is not a good player at the college level regardless of how high he can jump or how many shots that he blocks. When I hear that a coach needs to “let a player play,” I assume the fan or writer means that the player should not be subjected to these pedantic fundamentals and should be allowed to dunk freely. That’s the and1 Mix-Tape Tour, not college basketball.

The triangle offense was characterized as a constraining offense. However, the two most prolific and creative scorers of the last 30 years (ever?) excelled in the triangle offense. If MJ or Kobe was a high-school senior right now, I imagine writers and fans would write about how his college coach just needed to let him play and not make him run an offense or play in the half court.

College basketball is great because there are many different styles of play. This is not about villainizing any specific system. Instead, my contention is with those who want to dumb down the expectations for great or potentially great players. Young players respond to high expectations. They can learn to be all-around, intelligent basketball players. I am tired of fans, writers, and coaches who seem to feel that talented players should not be challenged to improve or lack the capacity to learn to play the game in different styles or different speeds while utilizing a multitude of skills.

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