The Position Revolution and the Myth of Height in Basketball

The myth of height in basketball suggests that tall players stay close to the basket, and short players play away from the basket. We know this is a myth because two of the best perimeter players and shooters in the NBA are above-average in height: seven-footer Dirk Nowitski and 6-10 Kevin Durant.

I received an email yesterday that criticized a coach and a player because of the player’s height and lack of free-throw attempts. The sender suggested that the only way a tall player could shoot so few free throws is if she played away from the basket, which the sender suggested was a poor use of her height. The sender went so far as to suggest that he did not respect this player anymore for this reason.

This season, I had the tallest player in every game. He was your average, super-tall freshman boy who has yet to grow into his body, so he lacks some coordination and strength. Despite his height, I never viewed him as a center. I never told him to stand under the basket and not to dribble. Despite his height, he did not have the strength or the mindset of a post player. Meanwhile, I had two players who were 4-5 inches shorter who did have the strength and mindset of post players. Why play the shorter players on the perimeter and the taller player inside just to appease tradition when the positions would be a mismatch of their skills and mentality?

The player from the email was third on her team in 3-pt shooting percentage despite playing for a coach who ruined her confidence (I know the player). She is a high I.Q. player; I actually suggested to the coach at one point that she would make their best point guard because she was the smartest player on the team, made the best decisions, and would have no problem throwing over some of the trapping zones in their conference. Of course, the idea of playing her as a point guard was met with skepticism because of her height.

Betlehehem Shoals and Rob Mahoney have coined the phrase “Positional Revolution” and defined its meaning as an attempt to rectify the disparity between players playing the same position on the stat sheet, but playing entirely different games on the court. At the recent Sloan conference, Muthu Alagappan presented his work which identified 13 positions.

As you can see, the traditional post player roles are divided into five potential categories: Scoring Paint Protector, Paint Protector, 3-pt Rebounder, Scoring Rebounder, and Role Player. Of course, there is the potential for the former post player to fit into the 1st or 2nd Team All-NBA or One of a Kind, but let’s assume that is not the case.

In this case, the player in question was third on her team in rebounding. The interesting thing is that the two players who led the team in rebounding are smaller players. However, they fit the personality of a post player more than the 3-pt Rebounder. In fact, both players, despite their size (similar to a SG or SF in size), were recruited for their rebounding ability, while the 3-Pt Rebounder was recruited for her skill set. If the team put the good rebounders further from the basket so the 3-pt Rebounder could play on the low block, the set up would minimize the effect of three players’ best skills, all to justify some myth of what a tall person is supposed to do. How would it be good coaching to play three players in area or roles that did not best utilize their skills, regardless of height?

Would Rick Carlisle be a good coach if he told Nowitski that he had to play in the key all the time? Would Scott Brooks be a good coach if he told Kevin Durant that he was too tall to be shooting three-pointers? Would Eric Spoelstra be a good coach if he told LeBron James that he was too tall to dribble?

These are laughable scenarios, yet this is what is done frequently at the youth, high school, and college levels. A smart coach would have taken my tall freshman and planted him in the middle of the key and built a zone defense around him. He would have been a Paint Protector and likely dissuaded many players from driving to the basket. On offense, a smart coach likely would have run something like a Dribble-Drive-Motion and had him move away from dribble penetration; his role would have been to catch and finish, and nothing more.

The problem is that he is a very good passer and ball handler. As he grows into his body, he has the skill set to be a small forward. His problems right now are athletically due to the huge growth spurt that he has undergone. Most coaches would attempt to mitigate this athletic deficiency at this point in his career by limiting his role and his potential mistakes (a training environment). As the season went on, I expanded his role and wanted him handling the ball. I wanted him in the middle of the press break, not hiding under the basket on the other end. I wanted him to catch at the elbow and sweep through for a drive to the basket. I wanted him to shoot more jump shots.

At the end of the day, what are positions? Is there a rule that says tall people have to stay close to the basket? Is there a rule that a coach has to play a PG-SG-SF-PF-C line-up? What do these positions mean? Why are we so beholden to these ancient stereotypes of positions? Could Elena Delle Donne play her game if her coaches were beholden to traditional positions? Would Dirk Nowitski have developed into an NBA superstar if his coaches were beholden to position designations and roles? Why limit a player simply because of height or a traditional role? How does that enhance the player’s or the team’s success?

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