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Can being too good, too young end up holding a player back?

Mar 5, 2011, 11:59 AM EDT

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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.

  1. bigtrav425 - Mar 5, 2011 at 12:52 PM

    Call me crazy but wasnt both of those points common sense and already known,well atleast by us fans.The fact that they have to have a meeting at MIT with some braniac (not thats,thats a bad thing)and his theories make me very suspicious of how these people either have jobs or have winning organizations.and the 2nd issue is Why players should be forced to stay ATLEAST 2 yrs in college.then you can kinda separate the guys who can and really wanna play in the NBA….This article is really baffling to me

    • Maxa - Mar 5, 2011 at 1:47 PM

      If you’ve ever read Malcolm Gladwell before, this angle doesn’t surprise you at all.

  2. passerby23 - Mar 5, 2011 at 1:36 PM

    It seems like a theory pushed by people who want the two-year college rule in place. I don’t see any credence to the “too good too soon” theory. Let’s not forget Tracy McGrady had a rough/mediocre first couple of years in Toronto. It wasn’t like he was shot out of a cannon into the NBA into instant stardom. Kobe also came in as a dominant high school player who experienced some significant growing pains, but worked extremely hard to improve his game.

    What it comes down to is the individual. Players like McGrady and Vince Carter seemed content to ride their abilities, while others like Kobe and Lebron have worked tirelessly to improve.

    • borderline1988 - Mar 5, 2011 at 8:40 PM

      I’m happy you mentioned Vince Carter. In my opinion, VC is way more guilty of laziness than McGrady. McGrady at least has injuries to blame his decline on, and actually was one of league’s 3 best players in the mid-2000’s.
      Vince Carter, on the other hand, was an exceptional talent in his first 5 years. His conditioning was superb. Talent level was off the charts. And then everything went downhill.
      VC himself admitted to laziness at one point. A total coaster. A waste of incredible talent.
      McGrady perhaps didn’t work as hard as necessary, but at least he was the NBA’s leading scorer when healthy. He must have tried somewhat.

      • zackd2 - Mar 6, 2011 at 8:56 AM

        He averaged 25/5/4 in Toronto when he talked about not giving 100% 24/7. No athlete does, because they’d be burnt out before the All Star break.

        Everything went downhill before he lost his jumping ability and turned into a jumpshooter, which is what he should do. He can’t put his elbow through the rim anymore, he can’t blow past guys anymore, so no he can’t attack the basket everynight.

        Call him soft, but he playd 70+ games in 9 out of 11 seasons (rookie year was lockout year).

  3. zackd2 - Mar 5, 2011 at 1:39 PM

    So not practicing is why McGrady’s shoulder, back and knees failed him?
    If he didn’t get hurt at 28 and put up 5 more legit seasons he’d be a HOF.

    • musilly - Mar 5, 2011 at 3:04 PM

      Exactly right. McGrady won the “genetic lottery” in NBA terms by being tall, long, agile, etc. He also lost it because there are simply structural problems with his body. He was born injury-prone. Similar to Oden. Let’s celebrate the fact that McGrady lasted long enough to put together some special seasons. It doesn’t even make much sense to say that he failed to “reach his potential” when his potential greatness (great basketball body) has always been inextricably bound up with his potential fragility (his body’s structure problems). To call him “lazy” is to be intellectually lazy/dishonest/stupid (take your pick).

  4. zackd2 - Mar 5, 2011 at 7:20 PM

    I do buy the theory that some guys can be good too soon. Look at all the athletic wing players who can’t shoot jumpshots or 3s. They played in AAU and High school for years where they could just run by and dunk over other “normal” 15-17 year olds.

    Look at DeRozan. Spends more time working on dunks for the dunk contest than 3s.

    • borderline1988 - Mar 5, 2011 at 8:28 PM

      I agree with the premise, but you’re very wrong about Derozan.
      He works hard on his mid-range game, and if you watch any Raptor games (which I doubt you do), you’d realize that the biggest improvement in his game by far, is his jump shot from 10 – 18 feet out.
      He’s also getting a tighter handle. True, his 3-pt shooting isnt getting better, but that’s overrated at this point.
      Certainly not a pure dunker. Looks like a carbon copy of Richard Jefferson to me. Good athletiscm, excellent player on the break, can hit jump shots, can create his own shot to a limited extent, but just not good enough in any one area to be a superstar.

      • zackd2 - Mar 5, 2011 at 8:54 PM

        Sorry I dont watch the Raptors, but I looked it up on and yes his 10-15 ft %has improved alot, but he only averaged 1 10-15 shot every other game last year so is that him improving it or was it a sample size issue becaus he just didnt take it last year ?

        I don’t get how 3pt shooting is overrated from a wing player?

        For the record- Jefferson is 36% from 3 during his career, and is shotting 44% from 3 this year. So carbon copy he is not.

  5. therookie773 - Mar 5, 2011 at 7:40 PM

    Now TMAC should go and play baseball, his apparent first love.

  6. momo988 - Mar 5, 2011 at 8:00 PM

    *tweet* flag on the play – 5 yards for survivor bias
    The only way to make it to such a high level is to be very athletically and technically gifted and bust your ass off or be otherworldly gifted. All of the merely very talented people that don’t have sufficient work ethic wash out well before the NBA. Lebron, Kobe, KG and Dwight Howard dominated at a young age, buy were wired to work their asses off. Others didn’t. Unless I see statistical evidence that being the best at a young age hinders further work ethic, this is purely speculation. In fact, this is the speculation that the A students that have to work harder than their naturally talented peers that were able to get by on less effort with the belief that they’ll be better than them eventually.

    • Chris Carter - Mar 7, 2011 at 12:03 PM

      Lumping Lebron in there as a hard worker isn’t really accurate. Lebron’s general strategy is to try in the beginning, and get cocky/lazy at the end, and blow the game.

      Compare that to Kobe, who wins it in the first quarter, and still goes back in at 100% in the fourth.

  7. loungefly74 - Mar 16, 2011 at 2:23 PM

    whoa…some of those comments were ridiculous!
    “If he didn’t get hurt at 28 and put up 5 more legit seasons he’d be a HOF.”
    “McGrady at least has injuries to blame his decline on, and actually was one of league’s 3 best players in the mid-2000′s.”
    REALLY? you’re kidding me?! T-Mac shot the ball a million times so yeah, he got some points…by the way, that were mostly garbage because his team was always behind. no, no, no, no…t-mac sucked. plain and simple. he brought his teammates down…made none…none of them better. his stats are very mis-leading. the guy is a cancer.
    no doubt he had natural talent but the guy never used it right.
    T-MAC, I ban you to the pool of players who put up of tons of numbers but ultimately were crap…i’m looking at you stevie franchise, starbury, VC, AI…and going old school here, mitch richmond!

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