Looking back at the 2007 NBA Draft to discuss talent identification

I found an old blog entry from 2007 that discussed talent identification in the lead up to the 2007 NBA Draft.

That is Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown and Tskitishvili. So far, so good.

Certainly missed on Conley, and everyone missed on Oden, but the other six remain in the NBA a dozen years later, which isn’t bad.

Not bad on Afflalo and Dudley (even nailed the Pistons drafting Afflalo!), although Young has had a great career, albeit not as a superstar.

In the lead up to the 2019 NBA Draft, I took issue with an article that described the NBA Draft as a crap shoot:

The NBA drafts players between 18 and 22 years of age. Despite youth coaches believing that they can identify talent in elementary school, these players are not finished products. Only the rare players enter the NBA as ready-made starters; almost every player has to improve to earn playing time and stay in the NBA. Therefore, when we look back after 2, 5, 12 years, some things appear obvious, but that is hindsight because we have learned more about the players in the subsequent years. Should we have known these things at the time of the draft? Sometimes, but not always.

I wrote this about Jeremy Lin during Linsanity:

What if this is really a story about a player who met failure at every step of the way with a Growth Mindset and responded with increased effort and determination to make himself into a better player? Poor Man’s Commish, the authority on the Jeremy Lin story, has commented several times about moves that he has now that he did not have at Harvard or about improvements to his shooting technique. Others have noted his improved quickness since his time at Harvard.

Maybe, just maybe, people made accurate evaluations of Lin at the time. Maybe Lin took note of those evaluations and viewed them as progress reports, not final grades. Maybe Lin heard about his suspect jump shot or need for more quickness and worked at those weaknesses.

The thing that differentiates Lin might not be his ethnicity or Ivy League degree but the way that he deals with criticism or rejection. Rather than losing hope when he went undrafted, maybe it fortified his will and determination and spurred extra effort in the gym. Maybe when he was cut by the Warriors and Rockets, it created an urgency to show more if given another chance.

Maybe Jeremy Lin is not the story of others who made mistakes, but an individual who believed in himself and created his opportunity through a re-dedication to perfecting his craft. While others settled with being pretty good, maybe he strove to be great. While others headed to Europe for a nice payday, maybe he maintained a single-minded focus on his NBA dream.

Maybe everyone was right all along. And, maybe, just maybe, Lin had the will and desire to hit the gym and prove them wrong by improving and stepping up his game at each step along the way. Maybe he persevered when most others would quit; maybe he did not allow others’ perceptions to become a self-fulfilling prophecy; maybe he grew from these experiences which tend to stagnate growth in others.

Maybe the narrative should be about a kid who likes to ball who didn’t let other people tell him what he couldn’t do or achieve and who believed in himself enough to put in the work to make an absurd dream (non-scholarship to NBA) into a reality.

Similarly, it is easy to look back and believe that we should have known that Steph Curry should have been drafted higher, but what role does the environment and coaching play?

With his astonishing success, it seems ridiculous to think that anyone would question his skill, success, decisions, or shot selection, but considering the rhetoric from a lot of NBA players, who I imagine share many feelings with a lot of the ex-NBA players who are now coaches, how would a coach have reacted at the beginning of last season before Curry became an MVP and World Champion? Remember, we’re talking about a player who many Warriors’ fans would have preferred to see traded to Milwaukee instead of Monta Ellis.

Would Curry be Curry without Kerr? On any team, with any coach, he would be a great shooter and scorer. But, in a different environment with a different coach, would he be more like JJ Reddick than Curry? How much of his brilliance is due to the environment?

This, then, changes the question. Rather than wondering why coaches missed out or did not recognize Curry’s talent and skills (since I and Tucker are arguing that it was recognized), the question instead should be: How many other players would move beyond their current status if they played in the right environment?

In today’s NBA, nobody would draft Greg Oden over Kevin Durant, but the NBA in 2019 differs from the game that was played in 2007. In 2006-07, Golden State led the NBA with 1967 three-point attempts; in 2018-19, the Spurs attempted the fewest three-pointers (2071), and Houston led the NBA with 3721 three-point attempts (stats from Basketball Reference). Similarly, Curry obviously should have been drafted higher, but it took him changing the geometry of the entire NBA to demonstrate that obviousness. He was drafted into a different NBA than the one in which he plays today.

At the time, maybe NBA GMs should have known more about Durant, Lin, and Curry. As I wrote in 2007, rather than following the adage that you cannot teach height, NBA teams should draft for the psychological skills and intangibles that predict success (competitiveness, focus, discipline) that author Marcus Buckingham argues are equally innate. If a team had identified Lin’s tenacity and grit and drafted him, would it have allowed more time for him to realize his potential?

For youth coaches and parents, there are three primary take aways:

  1. The game evolves. A player who thrives today may not have a role in a decade if he or she cannot evolve and improve. The ability to and willingness to learn and improve is as important as any skill, quality or talent.
  2. The psychological and mental skills ultimately trump the physical gifts. In any sport, there is a minimum physical threshold; a 5’8 male is going to have a very difficult time making the NBA, and a 7’0 male likely will be exposed on a soccer field. Once the minimum threshold is achieved, it is the psychological characteristics that will determine one’s success: Resiliency, grit, mindset, adaptability, work ethic, and more. If you plan to prepare your child for athletic greatness, focus on these skills and characteristics before worrying about his or her jump shot.
  3. The environment matters. Does the environment allow for the player to thrive, like Curry with Kerr or does the environment limit the player(s), like Curry under Marc Jackson? By focusing only on what a player cannot do, do we miss what the player can do? Is there a way to exploit the positives?

Yes, NBA GMs make mistakes. However, many mistakes are obvious in hindsight only because a player improved, the environment changed, the game evolved, or an injury occurred. Decisions are made with imperfect information, but to improve one’s odds, more emphasis should be placed on the psychological traits and the fit with a team’s environment (which, of course, is difficult when coaches change every 2-3 years, which is one reason that organizations such as the Spurs and New England Patriots have an advantage).

The unpredictability of talent identification and development

Chris Devenski is a reliever for the Houston Astros. He has been one of the best relievers this season on the best team in baseball. Read more

LTAD, LeBron James and Team Handball

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Problems with talent identification

More and more, youth basketball moves from an environment of talent development to an environment of talent identification and selection. Many coaches who used to engage in development with young players have left the sport because they invest years into a player and watch the player and his or her parents leave their home program (school/AAU) for another program because of exposure, free shoes, or whatever. Inevitably, the original coach reads about how this new program that coached or trained the player for 1-2 years was responsible for their development. Why spend time and effort developing players for little to no money or recognition when you can poach the already talented player and reap financial benefits and recognition?  Read more

Tryouts for AAU, high school, or provincial basketball teams

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Stephen Curry, the environment, and problems with talent ID

Draft Express profile on Steph Curry showed real hurdles. (Getty via CBS Sports)

I found the above picture in a CBS Sports article after originally seeing the weaknesses described in a presentation by Ross Tucker (if you’re interested in talent ID, I highly recommend Tucker’s presentations).

Read more

Recruiting and the Development of Tall Players

I spent this week watching the girls’ basketball state play-offs with an eye on evaluating players for the junior college where I work as a strength coach in the event that the basketball coaches ask for a second opinion. In debating the merits of various post players for a junior-college program, I returned to a persistent question that is relevant to coaches of all ages: Is the goal to win now or to develop players for long-term success? Here is how the question plays out: Read more

The Myth of the Talented Basketball Player

There is a gross misunderstanding of talent in basketball. I read articles that suggest that the coaches of the uber-talented must “let them play” or that the uber-talented cannot fit into a style other than a stereotypical AAU game. Is a player talented if he excels only in 3v2 fast-breaks, isolations, or catch and dunk lobs? Read more

The Missing Storyline from Linsanity (aka The Jeremy Lin Story)

I watched Jeremy Lin when he led Paly to the CIF State Championship in 2006, as I was living in Sacramento and knew many players, coaches, and fans in the Bay Area. I knew Mitch Stephens, who was criticized when he picked Lin as the 2006 San Francisco Chronicle Player of the Year. I have written several times about Jeremy Lin (here, and here) and Poor Man’s Commish has kept everyone updated via twitter for years, but I do not know Lin or his story personally, so this is a view from the outside. Read more

Khan Academy as a Way to Change Athlete Development

There are four takeaways for me:

1. The knowledge map that he creates is essentially what we tried to do with the Train for Hoops program four years ago. Academics are suited for the program because you complete the assignments online and the computer program assesses your performance automatically and uses the algorithm to design the next assignment. In basketball, players had to track and input their own performance. As coaches and parents told me over and over, that is too much work for a player.

It is not ideal. However, it begs the question: if you’re not prepared to spend an extra 10 minutes writing down your performance during your workout and transcribing it to a computer online to generate a progressive workout program, how serious are you about your improvement? If you go through a workout without tracking your progress by any measure – whether video analysis, outcome totals, time – how do you know that you are improving? How do you know that your effort is leading somewhere?

2. “The paradigm is that once you get 10 in a row, it forwards you into more and more advanced modules.” Is that how we progress players? Khan calls this a “System of Mastery.” School is not like this. When you take a math class in school, you do Chapter 1, you do the homework and you take a test. You are evaluated on the test, which becomes your grade, and you move to chapter 2. This creates gaps in your knowledge. If you scored an 80% on the Chapter 1 test, that means you did not master 20% of the material. In most cases, the material builds, so you have a 20% hole in your foundation for chapter 2.

Youth sport is more like the traditional educational system. A child signs up for an u8 basketball team. His responsible coach teaches him the basic fundamentals. However, he does not master all the skills. The next season, he signs up for u9 with gaps in his skills that may or may not be corrected. If the u8 player never learns to jump stop properly, and the u9 coach assumes all the players know how to jump stop, the player may progress to u10s not knowing how to jump stop. He may not be called for travels every time in the games because the officials have a lot of leeway with u8s and u9s, so he and his parents may not even see the gaps in his development. At u10, all of a sudden, he doesn’t play much because he constantly gets called for traveling or because he’s terribly off-balance when he shoots. He gets discouraged and quits, and it stems from the lack of focus on skill mastery when he was 8. He moved to the next level because of age, not mastery, and he lacked the foundation to build skills. Some players progress on and on with a gap in their skill level or general fundamental movement skills until high school. A player may be fast enough to hide his inability to dribble with his left hand, a skill that should be mastered at a young age. Eventually, that gap in his skills will prevent him from progressing.

How can we create leagues that are based more on mastery of skills for promotion than age or size?

3. At around 11:20, he shows data from the Los Altos School District. “Over and over, five days in, there is a group that’s raced ahead and a group that’s fallen behind.” Once those children who have fallen behind get past the one concept, they race ahead. The implication is that classes are often grouped by a snapshot of ability; similarly, teams are picked based on a snapshot of ability. However, a player may be stuck on one concept or move, and once they master that move or concept, they race ahead. If they are cut because of that snapshot, they may never master that move or concept because they have been weeded out of the competitive stream, and they likely quit.

4. When he shows the data of the Los Altos School District, he says about the green color (children who are proficient in a concept) and the red color (children who are struggling with a concept), “Even better, let me get one of the green kids to intervene and be the first line of attack and tutor their peer.” What a great way to enhance both students’ learning while also keeping the students at somewhat of a similar level! Teaching the concept to a peer will enhance the student’s understanding and retention of the material.

Similarly, reader Josh Littlejohn put his players in charge of the team for a game to see how they would react to a lack of a coach. It is an interesting example of an athlete-centered environment.

The Khan Academy illustrates a fundamental shift in the way that we organize the classroom. Is it possible that similar concepts can re-organize the sports development environment?

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice

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