For those that think athleticism trumps all when it comes to the NBA, tell me where DJ Stephens ranks among the greats?
Is he a better basketball player than Larry Bird?
Now that we settled that argument, let’s talk a little more about the importance of awareness and what that really means.
In most elite levels of competition, there are very narrow margins for error. And the person/team that strikes first, or seizes an opportunity to create an imbalance in power will most likely win. Being aware of what is going on, and more importantly, what will happen is one way to tip the scales in your favor. Awareness is such an important factor that the video game gurus have long since created it as one of their main categories of ranking players. Scouts try to discern the quality all year long while watching college and International prospects. It used to be one of those, I know it when I see it but can’t measure it metrics…but a handful of teams have started to get creative in ways to capture awareness.
Theo Epstein called it “neuroscouting stuff” and when he was in Boston, the Red Sox partnered with NeuroScouting LLC to further sharpen his draft model and create another advantage. In Tom Verducci’s The Cubs Way, the evaluation process goes into greater detail about how the Red Sox and NS were able to crack into the visual/neural pathways and draft players who tested well on certain tasks…and train those who didn’t test as well that were already in their farm system. There’s obviously more science to it, and if you want to learn more, go read up on it, it’s fascinating stuff.
NBA teams have followed suit and have implemented techniques to tease out this information. It has helped dispel false narratives on certain players having a low BBIQ when the reality was that the brains didn’t process the information it received at the speed necessary to “see a play develop.” Player X may have known exactly what to do, but because his reaction time was slower than required, it looks like the opposite to the untrained eye.
The good news for those players is that there are resources at their disposal to improve these abilities. So the “instinct” that certain players like Jason Kidd, LeBron James, Rajon Rondo all came out of the box with, can be added to the arsenal of players who didn’t come equipped with it. It’s teachable and can be improved, with deliberate practice.
To get to the title of this post, there are many reasons as to why awareness on the court is important. We don’t want to spend 10,000 words going over every minor detail in how it can help. And interestingly enough, that’s the whole point. NBA teams want to find players that don’t have to spend hours and hours reading scouting reports and watching film to determine how to defend certain players, sets, etc. They also want coaches to be able to break down the information into chunks that are digestible. This minor detail is the difference between being very good, and being the best.
Plenty of people have broken down the greatness of LeBron James. He does things that most players never dream of, and that’s because he’s a Grandmaster of basketball. Per usual, Cleaning The Glass has some great visuals of what we mean, here. (If you don’t have access to it, pay for the damn membership already!) LeBron has the ability to understand where the 9 other players (and 3 refs) are at all times and recognizes patterns and formations better than anyone we’ve ever seen. Opposing teams and coaches are constantly trying to mix things up with him to keep him guessing…it hasn’t really worked well yet. Anyway, LeBron does a better job of fully understanding how the pieces have to move on the court given the current situation.
Players often talk about the game slowing down for them, and LeBron sees everything in slow motion. In Josh Waitzkin’s The Art of Learning, he talks about the difference between the Grandmaster and the expert,
There is a huge amount of information which is fundamental to deciphering the dynamics…For the Grandmaster the list is very long. For the expert, it is relatively short. But more importantly, the Grandmaster has a much more highly evolved navigational system, so he can sort through his expansive network of…knowledge in a flash, while the expert has to labor through a much smaller amount of data with much more effort. The Grandmaster looks at less and sees more, because his unconscious skill set is much more highly evolved.
We think this accurately captures LeBron. He’s playing chess while the rest are playing checkers. And he’s a Grandmaster. His near steal on DeRozan coming from the weak side as DeRozan spun away from LeBron in the 5/1 playoff game was such an underrated move that we couldn’t find a clip of it to help you visualize what we’re talking about.
Circling back, the NBA has 82 games with some practices mixed in every now and then. When teams aren’t playing, they have minimal time to physically be on the court as they need to rest their bodies in order to function at their optimal level. It’s a bit of a Catch-22, but that’s one of the separators. The ability to see more with less means you are operating at a higher level than your opponent, and will likely win the match.
As NBA offenses and defenses improve and evolve, it’s even more important for players to have a high level of awareness on the court. The concept of team defense is just that, all 5 players need to be on the same page to stop the ball from going into the hoop. If you have a Grandmaster on your side, he can help his teammates out on the court. Just like Rajon Rondo did here, in one of our all-time favorite NBA moments. Rondo knows the score and situation, it’s the end of the game and his team is winning by 3 points, 2 point baskets don’t matter to them as they won’t lose if one is successful at the buzzer. He places/directs his teammates/pieces into positions of strength for this specific end-game scenario. His vast knowledge and ability to recognize the value of certain areas of the floor, regardless of where his opponents were standing prior to initiation, is awareness at its highest level. Rondo doesn’t have psychic abilities, but in this instance it appears that he does because he saw more with less.
As the floor continues to gets spaced out more and more, coaches and players are creating even more nuanced patterns and movements in an attempt to manipulate the defense into imbalanced positions. This is nothing new to humans, every battle/war is won and lost with certain maneuvers. The NBA is no different from a tactical standpoint. And the teams that employ more Grandmasters throughout their Basketball Operations department, they’ll be the ones standing tall after the final buzzer.