20 Second Timeout is the place to find the best analysis and commentary about the NBA.

Friday, June 23, 2023

Definining Athleticism, and Correlating Athleticism With Basketball Greatness

In 2007, I wrote Is Steve Nash the Best Athlete in the NBA?, an article that was not just about Nash specifically but rather an examination of how athleticism is thought about and discussed:

Athleticism is often defined very narrowly. In the context of basketball, athleticism is usually understood to refer primarily to explosiveness laterally (quickness) and vertically (jumping ability); in football, athleticism usually is defined by one's performance in the 40 yard dash and in the bench press. However, this kind of thinking leads to a lot of stereotyping and superficial analysis, usually along racial lines--i.e., Larry Bird being praised for his cerebral skills while Michael Jordan is commended for his athletic ability. The reality is that Bird was a phenomenal athlete, possessing superb hand-eye coordination, quickness for a step (a concept that will be explained below) and better jumping ability than most people seem to think; compare his blocked shot totals to those of legendary leaper Dominique Wilkins (Bird has the edge, with 755 blocks in 897 games compared to Wilkins' 642 blocks in 1074 games)--and while Bird did not have the broad jumping ability of a Julius Erving, he was more than capable of playing above the rim to get rebounds and even throw down some dunks (albeit ones that fans would term "generic"), particularly early in his career.

Nikola Jokic's emergence as not only a two-time regular season MVP but also an NBA champion and NBA Finals MVP provides a great opportunity to further explore athleticism in general, and basketball athleticism in particular. In the popular imagination, it seems that basketball athleticism is defined very narrowly, as noted above. The ability to broad jump--in other words, the ability to take off from one spot, soar through the air, and then dunk the basketball before returning to the ground--attracts a lot of attention and praise, and when a basketball player is described as "athletic," that is shorthand for "He can jump high above the rim" or "He can take off from the foul line and dunk." Most NBA players can execute a generic one handed dunk, so even though dunking may be considered an "athletic" move for a non-NBA player it is not a sign of elite NBA level athleticism--but flying through the air and dunking, particularly if the dunk is accomplished over a defender, is considered to be a sign of elite NBA level athleticism. To some degree, straight-line speed--particularly when dribbling a basketball--is also considered to be a sign of elite NBA level athleticism; a player may be described as "the fastest player in the league from baseline to baseline," and this is meant to indicate that said player has elite NBA level athleticism.

Such narrow definitions and descriptions of athleticism not only fail to capture the full breadth of what athleticism is, but they also fail to correlate athleticism with basketball greatness. Jumping high above the rim, broad jumping or sprinting very fast from baseline to baseline do not have much correlation with basketball greatness unless the player who has such abilities can apply them effectively on offense or defense. 

Broad jumping ability is most useful in creating high percentage scoring opportunities, but it is important that the ability is deployed with an understanding of time/score/game situation. Julius Erving, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant are three players who not only had tremendous broad jumping ability but they each also had a great understanding of basketball fundamentals; for example, Erving's greatness is not defined by his mid-air feats, but by his ability to combine his physical skills with his broad understanding of the game--including knowing when to dunk, and when to execute a different shot or play. Similarly, Jordan and Bryant both knew how to use broad jumping ability in concert with basketball fundamentals to create high percentage scoring opportunities.

Athleticism should be defined in a broader way than just jumping high and running fast. Court vision, strength, hand-eye coordination, mental toughness, agility, and quickness are valuable athletic abilities.

Court vision refers not only to the ability to see what is happening on the court right now, but also to visualize what could or will happen depending on the movements of the other nine players. It has been said that Larry Brown could see where all of the other players were on the court at the same time, and that as a coach he would stop practice if a player were the slightest bit out of position. Brown was a three-time ABA All-Star guard who led the league in assists in each of the ABA's first three seasons before becoming the only coach to lead a team to an NCAA title (Kansas, 1988) and an NBA title (Detroit, 2004). 

Boston Coach Bill Fitch called Larry Bird "Kodak" because it seemed like Bird could take a picture of the court with his mind and know where every player was. Oscar Robertson, Magic Johnson, and LeBron James are three other all-time greats blessed with elite court vision. Jokic is similar to Bird, Robertson, Johnson, and James because he can see plays before they develop; such players can make a pass that creates an opening, as opposed to merely passing to a player who is already wide open.

Strength is an important athletic ability, but not in terms of specific movements such as the bench press or the squat; strength is important in basketball only to the extent that a player can leverage it to gain an advantage, such as better rebounding position or better post position (both offensively and defensively). Moses Malone was a master of the subtle (and not so subtle) application of strength to improve his positioning in the paint to grab rebounds and convert high percentage shots. Players like Malone and Jokic prove that it is not necessary to fly above the crowd to have an athletic advantage over the competition; strength, when properly utilized, is very difficult to counter.

Hand-eye coordination is an underrated athletic ability that enables a player to handle the ball with dexterity even against pressure defense, and to use the dribble or the pass as appropriate to gain an advantage for his team. Dribbling in one place to show off just wastes precious time on the shot clock without gaining an advantage; much of the ball handling that generates praise and social media views is worse than useless in terms of winning basketball. A player's overall body movements may seem awkward, but if that player has finely tuned hand-eye coordination then he can control the ball in a way that defeats even high level defense. When Jokic advances the ball up the court after snaring a defensive rebound, his body movements may not match traditional expectations for grace and athleticism, but his superior hand-eye coordination enables him to control the ball and to make plays for himself and his teammates.

Mental toughness, which could be specifically defined as the ability to keep going when lesser athletes would give up, is another underrated athletic skill. There is research supporting the notion that there is a specific brain region linked to hand-eye coordination, and that there is a signaling molecule (interleukin-6) that generates a feeling of tiredness (in short, it is not our bodies that become tired, but rather our brains signal us to feel tired, or to not feel tired). ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned that Jokic's improved physical conditioning enables Jokic to log heavy minutes without a drop in efficiency/productivity; I agree with that, but would add that Jokic also appears to possess a lot of mental toughness that enables him to persevere through various challenges (foul trouble, the minor injuries that all players face but that affect some players more than others, etc.).

It may be easier to notice differences in jumping ability between various players than to notice differences in some of the other athletic abilities, but differences in hand-eye coordination and mental toughness may be more important than differences in jumping ability. As Charles Barkley has said, a deer can run and jump, but that does not mean that a deer can play basketball.

Quickness is not the same as sprinting speed. Quickness encompasses both mental quickness and physical quickness; it is a tremendous advantage to process events quickly mentally, and then be able to move quickly physically based on openings to pass, shoot, or drive that may only be available for a split second. A player who has a combination of elite court vision plus physical quickness can be very effective even if he does not jump particularly high or run particularly fast.

Agility is the ability to maintain body balance even in seemingly awkward or unfavorable situations. While jumping ability can be measured, agility is more difficult to quantify, and that is probably why an agile player like Jokic is sometimes described as awkward or unathletic; the way that Jokic moves does not fit the stereotype of what an athletic player looks like, but if you observe Jokic you will notice that he rarely falls down, he is rarely out of position, and he repeatedly makes passes and shots that an uninformed viewer may consider to be lucky. If some guy in the park makes one awkward shot every five games, then that is probably luck--but when Jokic makes such shots and passes on a regular basis, it is incorrect to dismiss such plays as luck or to suggest that he is not athletic.

Describing Jokic as unathletic is lazy and imprecise. Jokic has not demonstrated elite abilities in high jumping, broad jumping, or straight line speed, but he has demonstrated elite abilities in terms of court vision, strength, hand-eye coordination, mental toughness, agility, and quickness. I would argue that if one takes a comprehensive view of athleticism then Jokic is one of the best athletes in the NBA; players whose athleticism is limited to jumping high and running fast are not athletic enough overall to match up with Jokic, and that is one reason why Jokic has enjoyed so much recent success both individually and in terms of leading the Denver Nuggets to the franchise's first championship.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

posted by David Friedman @ 11:32 AM



At Saturday, June 24, 2023 5:22:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thank you for this insightful article! Reminds me of Howard Gardner's theory of eight multiple intelligences, the most relevant one here being bodily-kinesthetic, which has to do with hand-eye coordination and agility, and footwork. You're right that, unfortunately, so much talk about "athletics" and "intelligence" has been racially coded. As if a Michael Jordan weren't as cerebrally commanding as a Larry Bird. People forget that no player ever was more fundamentally sound than Jordan.

Nor could we plausibly argue that Dennis Rodman was the greatest rebounder ever, pound for pound, because of his pure athleticism in terms of fast-twitch muscles or superior hops only. The man had a genius for reading angles off missed shots, for thus anticipating where exactly to be to snag the rock. No way that average size player, by NBA standards, should have been able to lead the league in rebounding year in and year out, except for genius-level basketball IQ.

The type of reductive "athleticism" that you properly denigrate may have a place in pure solo sports like running or swimming or weightlifting. For they are measurable in units of time or units of weight. Very straightforward, the question of who's fastest or strongest at whatever distance or weight. There is a certain clarity to Usain Bolt's supreme athleticism when he's described as "the fastest man alive."

But the debates never end as to who's the real MVP or GOAT or whatever.

Also, going back to Gardner's multiple-intelligences theory, there are "visual-spatial" and "interpersonal" aspects that a great player capable of leading a team to multiple championships must needs have. You allude to the "elite court vision" of Bird, Robertson, James, and Magic. A synonym, obviously, for the "visual-spatial" piece. I'd add that Bird and Magic were great interpersonally as leaders of perennial championship teams. We should never underestimate the importance of psychology in team sports like basketball or football, sports that require constant coordination.

I think that the interpersonal piece is what prevents a Lebron James, for all his supreme talent, from being the undisputed GOAT.

John Kruk, the potbellied Phillie, famously said that he wasn't an athlete he was a baseball player. Ah, but he was supremely athletic in terms of the needs of manning first base and making contact with the ball.

At Sunday, June 25, 2023 6:28:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Post script:

You also make a really good point about "mental toughness" or grit. Jokic is as mentally tough as anybody. I could also see some coach nicknaming him "Kodak" for his elite court vision although the nickname might be a bit outdated. But to your larger point, when we understand "athleticism" as a function of various bodily intelligences, surely Jokic is a top-five athlete in today's NBA, if not the best.

I put Jordan and Kobe above Lebron although they're all in the "Pantheon". Jordan and Kobe were better "interpersonally" than Lebron has been throughout his career, i.e. they were better leaders of men. Kobe during his final two championships and one runner-up got more out of the talent around him than Lebron has ever done. By the mid- to late oughts Kobe the youthful hotshot had matured into a commanding seasoned veteran. Also, Jordan and Kobe were mentally tougher than Lebron. (They weren't perfect but there was never a "deer in the headlights" performance like Lebron against the Mavs in 2011.)

You've often written about how there's something missing in Lebron's mental makeup and the same can be said for a future candidate for the "Pantheon" named Kevin Durant. One gets the sense that, if he were mentally tougher, he'd have won more than two championship rings.

I'll leave it there, but thanks again for writing this excellent article!

At Sunday, June 25, 2023 12:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Skeptical about some of the interpersonal leadership stuff. I recall reading that Pippen was a huge locker room influence to counterbalance MJ, who alienated people. Read the Jordan Rules book by Sam Smith, before you call him a great leader. Also his "leadership" benefited from having Phil J, who won 5 titles without him. And where was this vaunted leadership as an exec with Washington and Charlotte's owner? Magic and Bird are also difficult cases, because they had mature and amazing teammates and coaches. Talk to me about Bill Russell if you want to talk leadership; the problem is he was before my time, so I never witness it -- though I believe from what I've read and heard. He won as a player-coach too

At Sunday, June 25, 2023 12:31:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Btw my comment was responding to the prior Anonymous

At Sunday, June 25, 2023 3:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous here from the first two posts on this thread:

I read Sam Smith's The Jordan Rules back when it came out in '91 I think it was and I enjoyed it very much. As I recall, the book took nothing away from Jordan, except maybe it exploded his Madison Avenue niceguy image.

Yes, Jordan's career as team exec and owner have been disappointing. But these are non sequiturs that have nothing to do with the conversation that David introduced and that I expanded upon by bringing in Gardner's notion of "interpersonal" intelligence as it relates to the basketball court. Leaving out Jordan's playing career with the Wizards, we're talking about him as floor general of six championships. Jordan's style of leadership was more along the lines of the Bobby-Knight type of hard-driving hell-raiser.

Frankly, I think that you're confusing "interpersonal" intelligence with likeability. It's fair to say that many of Jordan's teammates thought he was an asshole. But that fits in the Machiavellian style of leadership where he preferred being feared to being liked, let alone loved. His teammates feared him and the rest of the league was terrified of him. We've all heard the war stories of opponents over the years talking about how intimidated they were by him. Great players too. Jordan's ability, to psych-up his teammates especially by taking practice super-seriously, and his ability to psych-out his opponents speaks to his supreme "interpersonal" intelligence.

Again, we're defining "interpersonality" relative to the basic problem of winning championships. No doubt Charles Barkley was way more likeable than Jordan was in the locker room. To your point, so was Scottie Pippen, who was best friends with Horace Grant by the way. Barkley was probably a lot more fun to have a beer with then and now. But when it comes down to winning championships, Jordan had as much interpersonal intelligence as anyone who has ever played.

As for Phil Jackson, no one denies that he was a great coach. But the two greatest shooting guards to ever play the game, with apologies to Jerry West, are the common denominator to his 11 championship rings. Jordan wins multiple championships regardless of Jackson. So does Kobe. You sound like Jerry Krause talking about "organizations win championships".

Where did that get the Bulls?

At Monday, June 26, 2023 1:30:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You're welcome!

I agree with you that just as it can be argued that there are many different types of intelligence it can also be argued that there are many different types of athleticism.

At Monday, June 26, 2023 1:55:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure that I buy "interpersonal" as you are defining it as an athletic skill, or at least not as a purely athletic skill. I think that it falls somewhere in between cognitive intelligence and social intelligence; the ability that you are describing has to do with figuring out what needs to be done to win (largely cognitive) and then inspiring/prodding others to do what needs to be done to win (social intelligence).

The various abilities that I listed in my attempt to expand how athleticism is defined and understood are all primarily if not exclusively useful in the athletic context. For example, Jokic's strength and court vision would not matter much if he become a businessman instead of a pro basketball player. In contrast, the "interpersonal" skills you described could be used in many contexts, including not only sports but also business, politics, military, etc.

Regarding how much Jordan, Pippen, and Jackson contributed to the Bulls' success, I have explored that topic in depth in other articles and that is off topic relative to expanding how athleticism is defined and understood; it is an interesting topic, but not one that I choose to address in this particular comments section.

Regarding Jordan, Kobe, and LeBron, I agree in general with the notion that LeBron is missing something mentally/psychologically, and that this shortcoming prevents him from quite matching Jordan or Kobe. LeBron is taller, bigger, stronger, and most likely faster than Jordan or Kobe, but what separates Jordan and Kobe from LeBron is not athletic skill but rather mindset. Jordan and Kobe focused primarily on winning; narrative was something to be dealt with later, if at all. In contrast, it seems like everything James says or does is calculated to advance a narrative, such as his claim that his one Cleveland title vaults him into being the greatest basketball player of all-time. LeBron has narratives regarding his triumphs, and he also has narratives regarding his failures, as we saw most recently when he and his media buddies tried to destroy Russell Westbrook's reputation rather than speak truthfully about why the Lakers have been largely unsuccessful during the LeBron years (other than the "Bubble" title). I can't say LeBron has no mental toughness, because he has displayed mental toughness in many situations on and off the court--but I can say that when the going gets tough, LeBron seems to be working more on the narrative than on fixing the problem. Jordan once told Kobe to not make excuses about who his teammates are but to figure out how to make it work. LeBron makes a lot of excuses, and Pat Riley's comment about "no more smiling faces with hidden agendas" was quite telling regarding LeBron, even if Riley has somewhat backed away from that stance (or at least declined to reiterate it).

At Monday, June 26, 2023 10:47:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The raw traits of athleticism are height, strength, jumping ability, speed, and quickness. Court vision is obviously important in basketball or any sport, but that has nothing to do with athleticism. That's about understanding the game and being smart. Hand-eye coordination is important, but again, not really athleticism. It's a skill that is learned. Or maybe not even a skill, but a trait. Some people, no matter how much they try to improve their hand-eye coordination, will never be good at it. Mental toughness basically has nothing to with athleticism. All of these things you mentioned are extremely important, but we shouldn't confuse several of them with actual athleticism.

But sure, even if someone is supreme in all areas of athleticism, this person has to know how to use them in the activity they are playing. Bird was obviously a great basketball player, but nobody is going to confuse him with being a great athlete for the NBA. Same with Jokic. They each have height, and some strength, though neither has/had perfected their bodies in a Kobe/Jordan type of way. Bird/Jokic obviously each very smart and skilled. It's not a slight to say either not athletic for the NBA, it's just what it is. There's other ways to succeed. Comparing Bird just to Kobe/Jordan, he's at a huge disadvantage to both even just based solely on athleticism. He had a slight height advantage, but that's it. They were each as skilled at the very least to Bird, and I'd say more especially Kobe.

At Tuesday, June 27, 2023 3:26:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I am not sure how you determined what the "raw traits of athleticism are" or by what means you concluded that the list of such traits cannot include other traits. You attempt to distinguish what you term learned skills or traits from athleticism, but without explaining why it is necessary or accurate to make the distinctions you suggest should be made.

I explained in my article the scientific basis for considering the inclusion of mental toughness in a list of athletic skills. Simply asserting that I am wrong without providing factual evidence or some rational argument fails to persuade.

Your discussion of Bird and Jokic compared to Jordan and Bryant is circular; first you limit what traits can be included in a definition of athleticism, and then you suggest that it is obvious that Jordan and Bryant were more athletic than Bird and Jokic. Jordan and Bryant could jump higher and run faster than Bird and Jokic. If you and others persist in asserting that athleticism is solely defined by running fast and jumping high, then of course from that perspective Jordan and Bryant enjoy advantages over Bird and Jokic--but my main point is that such an artificially limited definition of athleticism is incorrect.

At Tuesday, June 27, 2023 11:38:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Third Anonymous


Athleticism is traditionally defined and understood as an expressly physical conceit, which is probably why you're getting some pushback here.

Something like mental toughness is certainly a characteristic that benefits athletes and makes them better, but so are intelligence, enthusiasm, creativity, strategy, etc.

In the era of e-sports "athletes" some of those boundaries perhaps are more fuzzy than they used to be but if the definition of athletic has expanded to include purely mental attributes then the term sort of loses its purpose, IMO. If mental toughness and court vision count as "athleticism" then at that point it feels like athletic is just a synonym for "good at basketball" rather than its traditional usage as specifically physically exceptional in terms of strength/speed/stamina/agility.

I do agree that something like hand-eye coordination or reaction time, which involve both the mental and the physical, ought to be factored into discussions of athleticism.

I just think broadening the definition of athleticism so far beyond its usual intent defeats the purpose of the term.

At Tuesday, June 27, 2023 5:01:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 5 traits I listed concerning athleticism encompass athleticism, which you also mention all of these except height. I could see agility being included too. And sure, there's other things that can help an athlete, though these things aren't necessarily related to athleticism. And sure, you can improve these 5 traits with training. The 2 big areas in sports or an athletic activity is athleticism or skill. While they can be related and help the other, it's one or the other. Some sports require more skill, but some sports require more athleticism.

Pertaining to mental toughness: you linked your own article that contained a link to an article the general public can't really read. With that said, the passage you shared from that scientific article about mental toughness was a hypothesis. Nothing about that passage is proven or implies anything is proven pertaining to mental toughness. Also, in your article in your own words, you say mental toughness is a skill, albeit an athletic skill. But, normal people show mental toughness daily that has nothing to do with athletics though.

The definition of a word(to go along with the last Anonymous' comments about definitions) should not change over time. What it means perhaps may slightly. There's nothing wrong with keeping the definition of athleticism the same over time. I've never heard anyone include mental toughness or anything mentally as part of athleticism or seen a definition including it. If there is, then the definition of athleticism has changed which it shouldn't. But, like you mention, it's how someone is able to use that athleticism. Other than height, there's nothing to suggest Bird was remotely anywhere near as athletic as Kobe/Jordan. And that's perfectly fine. Bird found other ways to excel. He was smart and very skilled. Hypothetically, someone could have the best mental toughness in the world, but if they're 200lbs overweight, it doesn't matter when it comes to sports.

At Tuesday, June 27, 2023 10:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

First Anonymous here:

If we really want to get down to definitions not changing over time, an ATHLETE is someone who competes for a prize as in ancient Greek contests like wrestling and discus-throwing and so on. The Olympics were and are an epitome of athletics. Basketball is a recent addition to our athletic lexicon thanks to Dr. Naismith.

I think that David wanted to get beyond reductive definitions of "athlete" that would limit the concept to pure physicality in animalistic terms, hence Barkley's quip about the deer that can run and jump but can't play basketball. Fixating on strength, speed, hops, "fast-twitch muscles" and the like, in a narrow way, feeds into racist stereotypes that tend to denigrate Black athletes as physically superior and at the same time frame white athletes as smarter and more driven as if to compensate for their physical inferiority.

I think that David's comparison of Larry Bird and Dominique Wilkins is on point. That Wilkins was not necessarily more athletic than Bird, that is, if we're defining "athletic" in terms of what makes for a Pantheon-level basketball player. Unlike Wilkins, Bird was never going to go head to head against Jordan in a dunk contest. But then again neither Wilkins nor Jordan could have plausibly competed against Bird in the three-point contest, which he dominated. Bird was a 50-40-90 guy, arguably a better pure scorer than Jordan or Wilkins. Also, David made some good points about his quickness and underrated hops. Bird was a better shot-blocker than Wilkins. Go figure!

By definition, the best athletes win the most prizes. But basketball is a team sport so although Elgin Baylor is ringless we still recognize his all-time greatness.

I get the point about athletics being, at bottom, physical. But with "athletes" we're talking about human beings competing for prizes, so surely intangibles like willpower and grit and ability to problem-solve on the fly, are relevant, no?

At Wednesday, June 28, 2023 1:34:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


My contention, as reiterated eloquently by a subsequent Anonymous, is that athleticism is often defined in an artificial, incorrect, and limited manner.

I disagree with your assertions that mental toughness and court vision are not components of athleticism. Even if one accepts your implied premise that purely mental abilities are not components of athleticism, there is evidence (as I mentioned in my article) that there is a biological and physical dimension to mental toughness. To cite a specific example, there is clearly a vast difference in the pain tolerance and willingness to play through injury displayed by Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in contrast to Anthony Davis. The ability and willingness to play through pain is an important component of athleticism; being a successful athlete at the elite level often requires pushing your body to its limits (other, broader examples include having what it takes to survive a marathon or a boxing match that goes the distance).

Regarding court vision, the physical ability to see, process, and quickly react to visual stimuli--whether that stimuli is a thrown baseball, a basketball in flight that could be rebounded, or the other nine players moving at once on a basketball court--is a very important athletic ability. I would argue that this ability is at least as important as the ability to jump high or run fast.

It does not "defeat the purpose of a term" to properly define the scope of said term. I am attempting to broaden our understanding of what athleticism is, as opposed to relying on imprecise and limited perceptions of what athleticism is.

At Wednesday, June 28, 2023 2:35:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Definitions of words change all of the time, for a variety of reasons. I explained why I believe that it is not correct to limit the definition of athleticism to jumping high and running fast.

Bird could not run as fast or jump as high as Jordan or Bryant. If athleticism is defined solely as running fast and jumping high, then Jordan and Bryant were superior athletes. However, under a broader and more accurate definition of athleticism the gap narrows considerably.

I agree that a person who has great mental toughness but is out of shape will not be able to compete at an elite level athletically, but that does not contradict my point: athleticism should not be defined by just one or two traits, but by a larger number of traits. The more traits a competitor has, the more athletic he or she is. A person who is in great shape and has great size, court vision, and mental toughness may do quite well versus a person who can run fast and jump high but is lacking other athletic qualities.

In my article, I did not specifically mention being in shape because most elite athletes are in top notch physical condition. However, there are probably genetic differences regarding the maximum conditioning level each person can reach and sustain--and superior mental toughness enables some competitors to get closer than others to reaching their full potential--so being in shape is an athletic trait worth mentioning in this discussion.

At Wednesday, June 28, 2023 3:10:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

First Anonymous:

Thank you for your insightful contributions to this conversation.

At Wednesday, June 28, 2023 5:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You're very welcome! And thank you, again, for provoking me and your other readers to think more deeply about what "athleticism" really means especially in terms of basketball. I wish that more sports journalists respected readers' intelligence as much as you clearly respect ours. You wouldn't have written this article if you didn't.

Now, you and I have disagreed from time to time - for example, you rate Scottie Pippen much higher than I do - but your analysis is always based on facts and careful observation of the game. Thanks for that and really looking forward to following along your articles next season! Cheers!

At Sunday, July 09, 2023 3:35:00 PM, Anonymous m0rph1ing said...

I appreciate all the discussion on athleticism and agree that the traditional definition does not encapsulate all that it should. I would describe 3 areas of athleticism as raw physical (traditional), coordination, and mental.
Physical would include speed, strength, hops, quickness, endurance, and motor.
Coordination would include shooting, handle, passing, and body control.
Mental would include court vision, toughness, recognition, and anticipation.
All of the above are useful for athletes and less useful for office jobs.

At Tuesday, July 11, 2023 12:06:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I agree with you that athleticism should not be solely defined by the categories that you describe as "physical," because there are other elements of athleticism that are at least as important.

At Thursday, August 03, 2023 8:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

just read the Nash piece from 2007. some great points, but not sure I believe that hand-eye coordination always translates easily between different sports; e.g., did you see Wembanyama try to throw a baseball (https://youtu.be/KLRvm94HbXI) or Charles Barkley try to golf? I've seen plenty of instances of athletes who are great at one sport but not proficient at others. of course, it seems every NHL player or NFL QB becomes a scratch handicap golfer in 1 offseason, so there's something to it; but it's hit or miss

At Thursday, August 03, 2023 10:19:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You appear to be assuming that Wembanyama and Barkley have the same level of hand-eye coordination as Steve Nash. I would argue that Wembanyama and Barkley may not have that same level of hand-eye coordination as Nash, but they are superior in other types of athletic ability, and those other athletic abilities explain their basketball prowess. Also, I would not read too much into one pitch thrown by Wembanyama, who may have never picked up a baseball in his life prior to that moment.

My larger point is that there is more to athletic ability than running fast and jumping high. I am not suggesting that every great athlete can play multiple sports or that every great athlete has every athletic ability that I listed in equal measure. Some great athletes may only be great at one sport or they may only be superior in a few kinds of athleticism, while other great athletes may have a broader range of superiority.


Post a Comment

<< Home