Right now, as you read this (well, so long as you read it Saturday afternoon), some of the brightest minds in the NBA are on the campus of MIT. And some bloggers are there, too (including our own Rob Mahoney).
It’s the annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, discussing the latest in advanced metrics — that fancy math you think doesn’t tell you about basketball but the best teams in the league disagree with you. And frankly, the fact they all do might make you want to rethink your position. But that’s an argument for another day….
One of the first panels of the weekend was a discussion of talent, of nature vs. nurture applied to athletes, a panel hosted by Malcolm Gladwell, the legendary author (“Blink,” “Outliers”) with the legendary hair.
Gladwell asked the panelists about the most talented player they knew that never lived up to their ability. Rockets GM Daryl Morey told the story of Marcus Banks (as reported over at TrueHoop, which is doing a great job reporting out of this conference):
Morey offered this anecdote from a pre-draft interview with Banks as a reason: (paraphrased)
MOREY: “What do you really want to do with your life?”
BANKS: “Be a male fashion model.”
Banks, the guy that was going to be the Celtics point guard of the future before Rajon Rondo never panned out. This is a glimpse into why. You need a baseline of athletic talent to make it to the NBA, but what separates players with that skill is the level is time put in on practice. Hours in the gym spent honing skills when nobody was around. Define it as love of the game, competitive fire, whatever. What matters is the time. Kobe puts it in, Michael Jordan puts it in, a lot of guys like Shane Battier put in the time to get the most out of their skills.
Then there is Tracy McGrady. We’ll let Dan Devine writing for Ball Don’t Lie explain.
But while McGrady’s abilities were awe-inspiring, his willingness to further cultivate them wasn’t, according to panelist and ESPN NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy, who coached the Florida-born star with the Houston Rockets from 2004 through 2007….
Noting that McGrady was as close to he’s ever seen as a basketball natural, Van Gundy went on to say that T-Mac “should be a Hall of Fame player.”
“His talent was otherworldly,” Van Gundy said.
After praising McGrady’s talents, Morey said, “I do think [that ability] got in the way of Tracy’s development.”
“Much of the game was so easy — you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players,” he continued. “When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age because of your physical tools — his wingspan was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ — my sense was, all that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.”
It’s an interesting discussion — can being so good so early get in the way of really becoming a great player. I have heard this discussed more with big men — athletic 7-footers can almost coast their way through a decent NBA career in a sense. They won the genetic lottery and don’t need to love the game to excel at it. They don’t need to put in as much time as guards, for example. The best do, the best put in the hours to get better. But there are plenty of big men who do not love the game.
But next time you hear about the newest, greatest high school player with that otherworldly athletic talent, remember Tracy McGrady. And wonder where this next one will end up.