Basketball talent study shows size & speed don't really matter

How do coaches and scouts identify talent in young basketballers?
Monday 2 October 2023

Being extra tall or able to run fast are not what basketball coaches look for when identifying the next Michael Jordan, according to Victoria University (VU) research.

Instead, good decision-making – both on-court and off-court – was rated highest by a group of 40 high-performance youth basketball coaches surveyed and interviewed in four countries about how they identified future talent.

VU senior researcher and Maribyrnong Sports Academy Senior Sports Scientist, Dr Paul Larkin said the study showed natural biology, height, and athleticism were not considered by the coaches and scouts to be as valuable as other qualities.

“Good decision-making skills mean a player can make the right decision at the right time on-court, and then translate this ability to make great lifestyle choice decisions off-court, such as eating and sleeping right,” he said.

The researchers asked the scouts and coaches from Australia, Canada, the USA and Great Britain to rank a list of 48 attributes in categories related to technical abilities (such as layups and jump shots); physical traits (acceleration and agility); tactical skills (decision-making and anticipation); and psychological aptitudes (leadership and determination) when identifying talented players.

While other basketball research has highlighted the influence of anthropometric attributes (measurement and proportions of the human body) as important in making a great player, the VU research showed coaches and scouts did not agree.

“In contrast to most research in this area which highlights height, limb length, flexibility, fitness, and sprint performance as determinants of success, we saw limited acknowledgement from the coaches of their importance,” he said.

Coaches indicated that these physical attributes are not critical in isolation, and many can be developed once a player is in a talent development program.

Nearly two-thirds of the top 15 qualities the coaches rated as very important or higher were from the technical or psychological categories.

Offensive play skills, such as the ability to perform a layup or shoot were rated highest among technical abilities, while composure, adaptability and concentration were the top attributes in the psychological category.

Decision-making was one of only two attributes from the tactical category on the list of leading attributes, and the only attributes from the physical category in the top 15 were work rate and balance.

Dr Larkin said one practical implication of this research is that coaches consider developing training programs and activities that focus on improving players’ decision-making and psychological skills.

Other researchers who contributed to this research are Madison Sanford and Scott Talpey (Federation University); Adam Gorman (Queensland University of Technology); and Matthew J. Reeves (University of Central Lancashire).

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