Americans increasingly lack height, not fundamentals

The lack of fundamentals in basketball in the United States continues to be a popular story, but David Epstein’s article in ESPN the Magazine pointed out the bigger problem: Basketball favors height, and the U.S. does not produce enough height. 

Scouts continue to import inches — the average height of foreign NBA players is 6-9, whereas it’s a bit under 6-7 for Americans.

On average, many international players make the NBA because of their height as much as their superior fundamentals. Obviously there are examples of great international players, and great tall international players who have great fundamentals, but there are a number of players who likely would not be in the NBA if they were two inches shorter (same could be said for some U.S. players too). For every Porzingis, there is an Omer Asik.

Height affects development in other ways.

A Wall Street Journal study found that nearly half of NBA players have an elite-athlete relative, while fewer than one-fifth of players in the less height-dependent NFL and MLB do.

When this article was published originally, it was evidenced of the importance of genes for elite basketball. This is true, but not in the original way that the article was used. These elite athletes have taller children, on average, and taller athletes have a better chance to make the NBA than smaller ones. These players do not have a genetic advantage in shooting or passing or other skills (probably), but they do have the genetic advantage of height.

As Epstein points out in the article, height is likely to increase more in developing nations that have increasing middle classes, wealth, nutrition, food, etc. than in the western world, which means that inevitably, more tall players will be arriving from currently underrepresented nations. This has as much to do with population size, as fundamentals or talent development.

Round up every American man of viable NBA age who is at least LeBron James’ height, and you could seat them all in Quicken Loans Arena. If China one day has the same average height as the U.S., the number of LeBron-sized men of NBA age would not fit in Quicken Loans; it would overflow the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.

To reach the NBA, you have to have more than height. This is one reason that China and India have not been represented proportionally to their populations and the height of their population. However height is an advantage.

When more Internationals players arrive in the NBA, it is not necessarily a sign that the U.S. is failing at anything more than producing taller people. Rather than worry about decreasing fundamentals, maybe the concern should be directed at the plateauing mean height of the male population.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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