What can LeBron James actually learn from training with Hakeem Olajuwon?

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Few things in the world of pro basketball are fetishized more than mentorship, particularly when the part of the wise sage is played by an NBA legend. There’s just something about NBA greats — past and present — comparing notes that really sparks the imagination; the idea that some enlightenment could be gained through two people sharing a gym is an alluring one, so much so that current players consulting with some of the game’s all-timers is as surefire way to generate headlines as it is the most whimsical basketball daydreams.

The most recent examples all seem to hover around the same legend: Hakeem Olajuwon. He famously met with Kobe Bryant, and was cited for his efforts every time Bryant set up shop on the block. Then he met with Dwight Howard, a move designed to increase the league’s most dominant center’s post repertoire. This year’s pairing? Hakeem and LeBron James, everyone’s favorite “he-should-really-post-up-more” player of choice. James’ ability to physically dominate his opponents has made him an effective post threat thus far, but his game down low could certainly use some polish. That’s where Olajuwon would theoretically help; a drop step here and a baby hook there, and James would go from an efficient but underused post threat into a certifiable weapon.

Of course, all of this leans heavily on the notion that Olajuwon’s tutelage actually creates a tangible benefit. There’s only so much that can be gained from short-term instruction, and while Olajuwon undoubtedly has much to teach any post player willing to listen, his time and influence are limited in these cases. He may be able to introduce a few ideas or moves, but to expect those skills to be fully formed is asking a bit much. Hence why Howard, who spends as much time in the post as anyone in the NBA, didn’t look the part of a completely reinvented player. He was a bit more fluid and did have a few new tricks this past season, but his moves were essentially as robotic as they had been previously.

A superficial examination of Howard’s case alone would say that Olajuwon’s teachings weren’t able to accomplish their intended goal. Yet where Olajuwon’s advisement may be truly beneficial is not in skill training, but in confidence building. Tom Haberstroh of ESPN’s Heat Index examined the before and after effects of Olajuwon’s instruction on post usage and efficiency, and found a particularly interesting development in the post play of another of Olajuwon’s apprentices:

In 2008-09, [Kobe] Bryant 14.2 percent of his overall play repertoire was used on post-up plays, or, put another way, he used 4.1 post-up plays per game. This includes post-up plays like drop-steps, turnaround jumpers, and even pass outs when the defense collapsed. On average, 1.035 points were scored per post-up play (you can find this under the “Efficiency” column).

And what happened the following season? Everything went up, but mostly his usage. Whether it’s a product of age slowing him down or a newfound confidence sparked by Olajuwon (or both), Bryant almost doubled his diet of post-ups in 2009-10. That’s an astounding change in playing style which we rarely see in the game today. His efficiency also saw a slight uptick from 1.035 to 1.058.

Bryant did become a bit better in the post, but more importantly, he started operating from the block almost twice as often. It’s notable that he was still able to boost his efficiency despite that increase in usage, but the far more relevant aspect of Bryant’s evolution is that he was willing to work out of the post so often at all. Haberstroh wonders if the same product might come from LeBron James’ sessions with Olajuwon, and rightly so; James’ biggest post problem isn’t a lack of effectiveness, but of willingness. If training with Olajuwon would give James the confidence to work down low more often, then that alone could make the NBA’s most brutally effective and efficient player that much more so.

Perhaps this kind of mentorship is guised as a workshop in post moves, but thus far the clearest benefit seems to be the transformation of the low post into a comfort zone.