This week, as you watch Oklahoma City and Kevin Durant in the 2012 NBA Finals and read about prodigious performances in NBA teams’ individual workouts, remember that Kevin Durant tested as the 78th out of 80 athletes tested in 2007. Durant famously could not lift 185lbs a single time, and also failed to excel in any of the other tests. Of course, none of those 77 players who were “better athletes” than Durant won the 2007-08 NBA Rookie of the Year, and Durant is the only three-time NBA scoring champ among his draft class.
May and June might be the most frustrating months for me as a basketball fan. These are the months when I receive an email asking if Duke’s Miles Plumlee’s 41-inch vertical jump makes him a 1st Round Draft pick despite an underwhelming six points per game in college or read a report about a player making five consecutive three-pointers in a workout with no defensive players on the court. By this time, basketball scouts, coaches, fans, and the media have forgotten about NCAA performances and are focused solely on workout performances. Of course, as illustrated by Durant, these workout performances tell us very little about future NBA performance. While other 2007 draftees were becoming workout warriors to prepare for the NBA combine and team workouts, Durant was preparing to dominate the NBA.
Basketball is not the amalgamation of tests. Performing better in isolated tests does not transfer automatically to better on-court performance. Increasing one’s vertical jump or box-agility test score says very little about one’s basketball performance. Trainers and NBA decision-makers (apparently) believe that improving many isolated tests equals better performance. However, as Durant, illustrates that is not the case.
Basketball is not played in isolation. Basketball is an open skill; these tests are closed skills. Closed skills are unchanging and self-paced: When Plumlee performs his VJ test, he initiates the movement. When he jumps in a game, he has to react to an external stimulus, generally the ball or an opponent or both. This is a different skill. Someone with a higher max VJ will have the potential to jump higher in relation to the ball or opponents, but not if he reacts slowly or is affected by movement or contact. Also, is a maximum VJ as important as a quick jump? How many jumps in a game start from a static starting position with a self-initiated countermovement to start?
Nobody who watches Durant would question his athleticism despite his test scores. He augments his athletic gifts with cognitive-perceptual skills. He reads patterns in the defense, recalls situations based on experience, and anticipates his teammates’ and opponents’ movements. He reacts quicker to the ball despite his box-agility test score because of these cognitive-perceptual skills. In the individual workouts and combines, these skills are untested.
The combine and individual workouts would be like watching a baseball player hit in a batter’s cage and evaluate him based on his performance against the pitching machine. How much can you really learn about a hitter from a batting cage? In a baseball game, hitters read the pitcher and have to determine the type of pitch and the location in tenths of seconds. In a batting cage, the hitter knows the speed of the pitch and the general location. There is no decision-making process in the batting cage, as every pitch is a strike. The workouts are like the batting cage because experienced trainers prepare players specifically for specific tests, and there is no decision-making required. Is running around a cone and receiving a perfect pass for a jump shot the same as skill as shooting in a game against a defense within the context of an offense, time, and score?
I imagine that Durant excelled in the basketball portion of the workouts, as his shot is effortless, and he proved that was was an expert shooter while at the University of Texas. However, the more important skill is his ability to read the defense to create openings to use his effortless release. When competing against a cone in a workout, how does one measure this ability? In a batting cage, how does a scout evaluate a hitter’s ability to read a pitch or hit a slider?
Because NBA decision makers put such an emphasis on these workouts, there is a cottage industry of trainers who specialize in preparing players to look good and perform well in these planned workouts. The concern is not game performance. The media write about players working on their “point-guard skills” by doing stationary two-ball drills. How does that improve a player’s “point-guard skills”? A point guard is more than an adept ball handler: A point guard must control the tempo, read the defense, understand his teammates, understand his coach, and make decisions based on all these factors and more while dribbling the ball at full speed in a confined space with multiple defensive players. Stationary two-ball drills do not prepare a player for these situations even though they look good.
Even worse, because the NBA uses these workouts to make decisions, the combine idea is filtering down to the college, high school, and youth levels. Now, skill trainers run their own combines and invite scouts (or do their own rankings) because the players that they train will excel in these closed skills because they have prepared for the exact drills. The specificity principle states that to improve in something, you must do that thing. To improve in playing basketball, you should play basketball. However, because of these combines, where players are evaluated on specific drills, the focus changes, as players have to practice the specific drills to improve their performance on the specific tests. Because these tests are basketball-related, we assume that improvement on the drills or the tests transfers to improvement in a basketball game. The transfer is not guaranteed.
Playing basketball is the best way to improve in basketball because expert players possess skill and athleticism, but most importantly the skill to navigate the constantly changing game environment. Five-on-five short-changes players in terms of skill repetitions, which is why small-sided games have such value from a developmental standpoint for young players. Individual and isolated skill practice has some value to improve skills or develop better athletic qualities. However, the improved skills and athletic qualities have to transfer to the game. Isolated block practice has been shown to have limited transfer to new or changing environments, and the combine tests and workouts utilize primarily block-practice conditions.
Working out is not bad. The problem is the goal. We have moved too far away from the game and celebrate feats which may not transfer to improved game performance, while ignoring actual game performance. Individual practice and tests have a place. However, for practice to have value, it must transfer to improved game performance, and these isolated combine tests and workouts are suspect in terms of predicting or improving performance, and nobody illustrates that better than Durant.