There are very few poor athletes in the NBA. Athleticism or skill, often both, are a given at the elite level. But what separates the very best – MJ, LeBron, Steph and Giannis – from the rest, isn’t something you can track by measuring a player’s wingspan or vertical leap.
It’s what goes on between the ears, mental traits, sometimes called intangibles, that determine who ultimately succeeds on the biggest stage.
Now those intangibles have some scientific backing, with a new study from the University of South Australia finding most coaches believe ‘game intelligence’, work ethic, competitiveness and resilience are far more important than physical fitness in determining success on the court.
Study author Michael Rogers surveyed 90 basketball coaches from 23 countries to find out what factors – other than peak fitness – are used to recruit players at the elite level.
“We found 35 performance indicators that coaches considered important and at the top of the list were psychological attributes,” Rogers says. “Coaches look for players who are competitive, have a strong work ethic, are excellent communicators, good teammates and can ‘read’ the game. Being super fit is a given. It is the other traits that make a difference to the scoreboard.”
While stats are commonly used to recruit players, by watching players on the court and observing how they behave off it, coaches can pick up a lot of non-physical factors that indicate whether a player is likely to make the grade, Rogers says.
Of the 35 performance indicators used by basketball coaches, 14 are psychological and four of these – attitude, coachability, competitiveness and work ethic – are considered more important than anything.
Which brings us, as always, to Ben Simmons. The Philadelphia 76ers star’s infamous flameout in last year’s Eastern Conference semis puzzled many but could it be that Simmons, for all his physical gifts – racehorse-level athleticism in a giraffe’s body and skills that include preternatural court vision and a handle that belies his 6’ 10” frame – just lacks the mental toughness needed to thrive in the playoffs, when pressure and expectation are at their highest?
Consider those four critical traits: attitude, coachability, competitiveness and work ethic. Simmons raises red flags in all four.
Aloof and self-satisfied, Simmons often appears content to coast on his physical gifts and get his stats rather than looking critically at his game and working on eradicating weaknesses, namely that mythical jump-shot.
Coachability? Despite constant nagging, possibly even pleading, neither former coach Brett Brown or current coach, Doc Rivers, have succeeded in getting Simmons to shoot in the mid-range or from three-point land.
How about competitiveness? This is a tough one. Simmons has made himself into an elite defender and seems to pride himself on shutting down other team’s stars in one-on-one match-ups – witness his work on Jason Tatum and Damian Lillard. His intensity on the defensive end is admirable. Yet his disappearance in big games goes all the way back to his days at LSU. Perhaps his will to win is stymied by his fear of failure?
Finally, work ethic. Again, difficult to assess from outside. Despite an Instagram account that looks like a teenage boy’s wet dream, with a constant stream of luxury cars and cool swag, Simmons’ teammates insist he does put in the work behind closed doors. But the results don’t back it up. His stats have regressed since his rookie season. If he is doing the work, it’s not showing on the offensive end.
It all points to a player who needs to work on the mental side of his game if he wants to reach his potential.
“Resilience, motivation, and good communication on the court are crucial in separating the ‘best from the rest’ once players reach elite level, according to the coaches we surveyed, says Rogers.
The player who perhaps best embodies the findings of this study? That might be Dallas Mavericks’ star Luka Doncic. Perennially tubby and not blessed with great athleticism, the 21-year-old Slovenian sensation is already regarded by most experts as one of the top five players in the world and the heir apparent to LeBron as the next era-defining star. No one, besides LeBron, reads the game better and his competitiveness is already in the Chris Paul class – in just three seasons his record of game-winning clutch shots is remarkable.
The only question mark is his work ethic – he continues to start seasons likes he’s spent the summer in a Ljubljana nightclub and he’s not a great defender.
Fix those and basketball will have a new king.