Defining Athleticism in the NBA
Part I (perhaps, of an on-going series)
What makes Steve Nash a Great Athlete?
David Friedman’s article, “Is Steve Nash the Best Athlete in the NBA?”, in 20 Second Time-out, asks and then seeks to answer this exact question. In reference to some of David’s own thoughts and ideas, this is my take on the matter.
- Friedman: … Williams is undoubtedly faster than Nash and Boozer is bigger, stronger and a better jumper than Nash but in a confined space–and with a “head start” based on the ability to anticipate or read a play–Nash beat both of them. While it’s True to observe that [Carlos] Boozer is bigger, stronger and a better jumper than Nash, it is False to observe (incorrectly) that [Deron] Williams is faster than Nash, because he is not.
- Friedman: Obviously, you have been around the game a long time as a player and as a coach. Have you ever seen someone who when you first met him had what you might call ‘bad’ hands and then at some point that person developed ‘good’ hands?
D’Antoni: No, not really. You might see some improvement over the years but never to the point where you’d label him as someone who has ‘good’ hands. You either have ‘good’ hands or not.Friedman: So that is something that is an athletic ability.Thus, the implication is that David believes something which qualifies as an “athletic ability” – i.e. like having “soft/good hands” or not – is something which is strictly inherent and, therefore, cannot be improved over time through repeated practice.This is a patently False/inaccurate perception.
Friedman: Anyone can tell if someone is fast or has a great vertical leap; that is something that is obvious and you don’t have to be specially trained to see that. ‘Hands’ is a more subtle thing. This is a False/inaccurate observation regarding the limited ability of others to discern correctly just “how fast” a specific person may be … relative to his opponent, at a specific basketball position. The fact is … relative to other Power Forwards or Small Forwards, Larry Bird, at his size & strength, was just as fast or faster (in an imperical, linear sense) than the vast majority of players who checked him in the NBA. In fact, one of the unusual aspects to Larry Bird’s “game” was just how AWKWARD and slow he “LOOKED” to the untrained observer’s eye while running at his Maximum Speed, which was actually, relatively fast, in comparison to his individual match-up, within a given possession.
D’Antoni: I think that just knowing how to play the game is an ability or talent that you are born with. It is like playing cards. Everybody knows the basic rules of a card game but then you have really good players who have an ability to assimilate things; I don’t think that you teach that finite thing of being a great card player. The ability to ASSIMILATE things is crucial … and the MOST IMPORTANT aspect of what it takes to separate oneself from the pack of other “just as good or better” athletes at an elite level of competition.
Friedman: Strength is not the first thing one thinks of with Nash, primarily because bigger guards like Chauncey Billups or Deron Williams can use their size to back him down–but Nash is wiry strong and this strength reveals itself in subtle ways.
Steve Nash is not “wiry strong”.
Stacey Augmon (bigger) was “wiry strong”.
Allen Iverson (smaller) is “wiry strong”.
Chauncey Billups (6-3, 202) is stolidly (physically) strong … for his height. Steve Nash (6-3, 178 ) is … pound for pound … plenty strong for his height and weight.
Friedman: A good illustration of this is a play that took place with a little less than three minutes remaining in the third quarter of Wednesday’s Phoenix-Utah game. Nash dribbled down court at full speed and Matt Harpring picked him up at the top of the key. Without breaking stride, Nash drove hard to the left, got all the way to the rim, stopped, jumped off of his right foot while fading backwards, and then made a short bank shot over Harpring’s outstretched arms. There are several important things to understand about why this was such an athletic move: (1) Harpring is 6-7, while Nash is 6-3; (2) Nash is right handed and most right handed players are more adept at jumping off of their left leg; (3) Nash stopped and jumped so quickly–and with just the right amount of fade–that Harpring could not recover. If Nash had dunked over Harpring, then the play would be shown five times and everyone would talk about how athletic Nash is–but what Nash did is an extremely difficult athletic play and he does those kinds of things on a regular basis; that is why he can shoot such a high percentage despite playing in a league in which so many players are allegedly more “athletic” than he is. If you don’t think that this move took athletic ability, then the next time you are on a basketball court, try it yourself–it’s not nearly as easy to do as it may sound or look. This is a fine example of Steve Nash’s level of ATHLETICISM, which is actually outstanding … on The Horizontal Axis/Plain.
Friedman: Talking to Steve Kerr and Coach D’Antoni, they mentioned things like your balance, your vision, your hands–that those things are really athletic skills and athletic abilities as well. Nash: Court vision, rhythm, balance, timing, agility, creativity I think are all parts of athleticism, not just explosiveness. Friedman: Steve Kerr mentioned something to me that he called the ‘ball and stick’ test for athletic ability: if you give someone a ball and a stick–a baseball bat or a golf club–what can he do with it? He said that from that standpoint you might be the best athlete in the league or at least one of the better athletes. What do you think of that? Nash: I think that you have to incorporate everything. You can’t just say that athleticism is explosiveness. It’s explosiveness, it’s coordination, it’s balance, it’s all of those things–like I said, even timing and creativity. Obviously, I think that there is a lot more to it…but it doesn’t really matter. (The) Steve Nash (whom I know, personally) is one of the very best athletes in the world … who is set apart from others (within his field) because of his Rare ability to carry forward his complex skill set, with full Ambidexterity & Balance, at His Maximum Speed, which others can only execute effectively at a speed well below Their Own Maximum. This is THE Gift of Nature that has been bestowed on Steve Nash – i.e. exceptionally well coordinated “Maximum Velocity, Complex Skill Set Retention/Execution” – which he’s developed through sheer hard work to the best of his ability.