Potential is a Dangerous Word as NBA Draft Approaches

Every year as the NBA Draft approached, the words “potential,” “talent” and “upside” are used by every writer, fan and NBA Draft aficionado; web sites like NBA Draft and Draft Express devote an entire site strictly to prognostications and evaluations of potential draft picks. Essentially, these sites do nothing more than talk about potential, just as the daily sports section describes the action in the previous night’s game.

The funny thing about these predictions and evaluations is the misinterpretation of talent. In basketball circles, coaches, general managers and scouts use the word “talent” as a euphemism to describe quickness, leaping ability, length, wing span and other personal characteristics which great basketball players typically possess. Players who possess these “talents,” but lack the actual basketball credentials to support an opinion that they are a great basketball player, are said to have “potential” or “upside.” So, a seven-foot basketball novice has potential; why else was Sagana Diop a top ten selection?

In a recent NY Times article, researchers from the Expert Performance Movement, led by Anders Ericsson of Florida State asserted that “talent is overrated.” In Marcus Buckingham’s First Break All the Rules, the Gallup Organization’s research suggests that great managers hire for talent, not experience, skills or any other reasons. Why the discrepancy? And, how does the research impact an NBA General Manager?

Almost every year, one of the consensus most talented players fails to materialize into the dominating presence experts predicted. In 2002, Nicholoz Tskitishvili was selected fifth overall and labeled the “Next Dirk Nowitski.” In 2001, Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry were selected in the top four picks. These are just a couple exams of highly touted prospects who have yet to materialize. These players possess the obvious talents NBA General Managers covet: size and athleticism. Yet, none has made a significant impact while others drafted after them have played in All-Star Games. Why is drafting such an inexact science?

While Buckingham suggests the best managers hire based on talent, he also warns that people do not change. He says the revolutionary insight common to great managers is: “People don’t change that much. Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out. Try to draw out hat was left in. That is hard enough.”

According to Ericsson, who suggests talent is overrated, “expert performers – whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming – are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.”

While it’s obvious Curry, Brown and Tskitishvili possess the physical attributes one needs to succeed in professional basketball, it is likely they do not possess the more important mental attributes and talents. One common basketball adage is that you cannot teach height. However, according to Buckingham’s research, you cannot teach competitiveness, focus, discipline or other talents that Ericsson would argue are equally, if not more important to one’s success.

In Ericsson’s research, ” [deliberate practice] involves setting specific goals, obtaining immediate feedback and concentrating as much on technique as on outcome.” Unfortunately, through the youth sports development systems, too much focus is placed on outcome and not technique and not enough time is spent in deliberate practice. If players lack the talent for discipline, focus and competitiveness, they are not likely to invest the required time in deliberate practice toward excelling in their chosen pusuit, in this case basketball. “Ericsson’s research suggests a third clichÃ?© as well: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love – because if you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good.”

So, what does this mean? Charlie Villanueva was an anomaloy. As the 2005 NBA Draft approached, most felt Villanueva would fall in the draft, despite his apparent physical talent, because of his lethargic attitude toward the game while at UConn. In this case, many GMs and media experts heeded the research of Buckingham and suggested he would not make a great NBA player. However, in his rookie season, Villanueva did appear to change; he managed to change people’s perceptions and excel during his rookie year. This is an illustration of a hidden talent, as Buckingham’s research suggests. Apparently, Villanueva does have the fire and competitiveness necessary to succeed; he simply needed another environment to bring out the hidden talents.

Villanueva is an interesting case, as his former teammate Rudy Gay is a similar inigma. Gay is as talented as anyone in the draft from a phsyical standpoint; at 6’9, he can run like a deer and possess great agility and length. He is a prototypical NBA wing. However, he appeared completely disinterested for the majority of last season. Is there something in the water in Storrs that creates the sluggish play? Is Calhoun wearing out his players for the college season in an effort to help them achieve their professional aspirations? Or, was Villanueva an anomaly and Gay is a disinterested basketball player? Does Gay possess the same hidden talents as Villanueva? I worked with a female player who signed a high DI scholarship due to her size, though I do not think she even likes playing basketball and I do not believe she will ever play a meaningful minute of basketball in college because she lacks the desire to train hard enough to get good enough to play. Is Gay the same? Is he as good as he will ever be? Or, is he the next Carmelo Anthony in need of a change of environment?

As the draft approches, questions abound. Is shooting a talent or a skill? Is playing hard a talent or a learned attribute? Who has hidden talents and who is just not as good as his physical attributes suggest he should be? If shooting and playing hard are indeed talents, and one cannot change a person’s talents, then Adam Morrison has tremendous value. However, is shooting is a skill and playing hard is a learned attribute, his value decreases as players with more conventional physical talents-guys like Rudy Gay, Tyrus Thomas, Rodney Carney-increase in value.

As you watch your favorite team prepare for the draft, and you try to predict who they will choose, some General Manager’s history suggest certain beliefs. Chicago’s John Paxson appears to believe that playing hard is a talent and players will not change much once they are drafted; maybe he learned his lesson after selecting Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler in the same draft. However, his picks of Ben Gordon, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Chris Duhon and Andres Nocioni suggest he values players who win, play hard and possess high basketball IQs with multiple and highly developed basketball skills like shooting, passing and ball handling. Therefore, it makes sense that if he is available, Chicago will select a player like Michigan State’s Maurice Ager.

Toronto, on the other hand, is notorious for drafting potential (though they have a brand new management team entering its first draft). The Raptors struck gold with Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and Charlie Villanueva, but missed the boat on Rafael Araujo, Chris Jeffries and Michael Bradley.

So, do you gamble on potential and end up with Kwame Brown as the #1 overall pick? Or, do you gamble on potential and get Amare Stoudamire at #8?

If I was a General Manager, I would approach the draft like Paxson, looking for winners who have proven their talent and ability to some degree. Also, I would watch individual workouts not for the phsyical demonstrations, but the mental toughness, competitiveness, focus and other mental talents that will enable the player to make use of his physical gifts. A player with average physical gifts and great mental talent (John Stockton) will ultimately be more successful than the player with a great physical package and an ambivalence toward the game. This is why the 2006 NBA Draft is intriguing, as Adam Morrison and Rudy Gay offer the exact justaposition as the same position.

General Managers get paid to make the right decisions on draft day. Many fail. An incomplete knowledge of talents and an obsession and overreliance on physical talents usually plays a part in most incorrect decisions, as GMs are infatuated with vertical leap and wingspan, because they are easily measured, but scared by talents such as competitiveness, focus, dicipline, mental toughness, etc. because they are very difficult to measure and assess. Those who master the art of understanding a person’s overall talents have a distinct advantage over their counterparts in sports management and usually draft superior talent and develop perennial play-off contenders, regardless of where they select (see New England Patriots, Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs).

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