Psychology: The next frontier in NBA talent evaluation

BOSTON — Talent vs. hard work is an age-old question, with new school answers.

Malcom Gladwell, the moderator of the headline panel at this weekend’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, touts a 10,000-hour theory from his award-winning book Outliers that basically states it takes 10,000 hours to gain mastery in a given field.

This of course doesn’t mean if you or I practice basketball for 10,000 hours we will become NBA players. We won’t. You must possess a base line of NBA talent and (unless you’re Earl Boykins) size to begin with, and even then many solid college basketball players just don’t have what it takes.

Former NBA head coach Jeff Van Gundy had perhaps the line of the conference when he called Tracy McGrady a player who put in 1,000 hours instead of 10,000.

McGrady was blessed with every NBA talent one can have, yet according to his former coach he didn’t possess the will to be great through his practice habits, so instead of being mentioned among the all-time greats he will likely go down in history as a supremely talented player who never won a playoff series.

This meshes with a point made on the Basketball Analytics panel in that the next frontier in player evaluation involves psychology, with Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saying he puts as much stock in psychological evaluations as statistical ones.

Perhaps more important than a player’s measurables and even his stats is what makes him tick. Does he really love the game or is he just playing it because he’s really tall and can make a nice living with it?

Rockets general manager Daryl Morey named former Sun Marcus Banks as a talented player with seemingly everything going for him who just didn’t make it in large part because he didn’t love the game enough. Stromile Swift and JaMarcus Russell also fall into this category, according to the panelists.

Morey told a story of a pre-draft interview with Banks in which he was asked what he ultimately wanted to be in life, and Banks answered a male fashion model, which tells a person all they need to know about why Banks’ career has devloped the way it has.

The panel brought up Grant Hill as a counterexample of a player who clearly loves the game. Of course Hill saw the prime of his career wiped out by injury yet he’s fought on long enough to reinvent himself as a valuable role player and defensive ace for the Suns at the age of 38.

When you watch the way Hill and Steve Nash think the game, something that has allowed them to maintain their effectiveness into their late 30s, you can see them as clear examples of players who have mastered their craft in a way Gladwell described.

The next frontier involves finding those players who eat and breathe basketball rather than the guys who coast on physical ability and may turn into the next Stromile Swift.

This is why comments like those Cam Newton made about wanting to become an entertainment icon are so disconcerting. That brands Newton as a guy who plays football so he can be an entertainer rather than a superior football player.

Of course you could love the game as much as Matt Janning but not make it if you don’t possess NBA athleticism, but look at a guy like Jared Dudley. There’s no question he’s put in his 10,000 hours and has literally turned himself into a very good NBA player despite his physical limitations.

So many front office decisions in the NBA involve managing risk. Do you draft the superb athlete with a questionable drive or do you take the player with a lower ceiling but a more projectable future? The same goes with free agency, where Boston University Ph.D student Arup Sen’s research paper proved the perils of long-term guaranteed contracts. Will a guy stop working once he gets paid like a Tim Thomas or will he want to keep improving every year like a Dudley?

The teams that can find a model that accurately projects a player’s 10,000-hour-ability will be far ahead of the curve in making front office decisions.

Tags: Grant Hill Malcolm Gladwell Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

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