"To an outsider watching Pop Herring's basketball tryout in November 1978, it would not have been obvious that the gym at Laney High in Wilmington, N.C., held a player destined to become the greatest in the universe. He was still Mike Jordan then, not Michael Jordan, just another sophomore guard among 50 eager boys competing for 15 spots on the varsity and 15 more on the junior varsity. There was no doubt that Mike Jordan could handle the ball, but his shooting was merely good and his defense mediocre. Mike Jordan was seven or eight inches shorter than Michael Jordan would be, only 5'10" at age 15, and at least one assistant coach had never heard of him before that day. If Jordan distinguished himself at all during the tryout, it was through his supreme effort. He was first in line for the conditioning drills, and he ran them as hard as anyone, and when they were over he wanted to run some more." (From "Did this Man Really Cut Michael Jordan?)

What are the most important factors that distinguish NBA legends from the rest? This is not only of great interest to players and fans, but is obviously also of major interest to team managers, coaches, and talent scouts.

When scoping out talent, scouts look for two main things. First, they look for stellar prior performance-- players who have distinguished themselves among the competition in high school, college, semi-professional, or other professional leagues.

But scouts are not just interested in prior performance. They are also interested in "untapped potential"-- the idea that two equally skilled individuals are different distances from the limits of their talent. The term "upside" is often used to describe this ceiling. For instance, Cleveland Coach Mike Brown justified Anthony Bennett as the number one 2013 draft pick by saying "His standing reach is higher than lots of guys playing power forward in the league, including Kevin Love. He's got long arms... he has a lot of upside."

To help team managers, scouts, coaches, and doctors evaluate the players' untapped potential, there is a "Draft Combine" before every NBA draft. At these events, players participate in a number of physical drills, physical measurements, and interviews. This information is highly weighted in making decisions about draft order. There is an assumption that physical stature and athleticism are markers of untapped potential, and will therefore will continue predicting success in the NBA. But is this assumption correct?

Surprisingly, there has been very little research on this topic. One complication is that it is difficult to partial out untapped potential from various environmental influences when observing performance at a single slice in time. As I noted in a recent article, through the process of skill development, a multitude of factors are always interacting and feeding off each other in complex ways. The current skill level of any individual is always partly a reflection of opportunity, coaching, enrichment, and other environmental factors that facilitate skill development.

So is there any hope in determining what predicts NBA success? A new study sheds some new light on the issue. In the largest study to date on the topic, psychologists Jerad Moxley and Tyler Towne examined whether performance in the NBA is predicted by physical makeup and athleticism while taking into account prior basketball performance.

That last part is critical.

The researchers didn't argue that physical makeup and athleticism is unimportant to NBA performance. That'd be ridiculous. This is an elite sample: over 300 individuals who were skilled enough to have the opportunity to be considered by the NBA as a draft prospect from 2001-2006. Obviously, there are certain physical and athletic characteristics that contributed to their skill development. Instead, the question was whether these variables-- which are conceptualized as "untapped potential"-- continue to predict NBA success or already expressed themselves through prior performance.

The researchers looked at a number of variables, including player position (guard, forward, center), age at the beginning of the next NBA season, college performance (win shares)*, college quality, height, agility, no-step vertical leap, arm span, and weight. Using these variables, they attempted to predict the first three years of NBA performance (from 2007-2010), a critical period where NBA teams decide whether or not to offer a contract extension.**

What predicts NBA success?

Unsurprisingly, measures of physical makeup and athleticism (e.g., arm span and agility) did predict draft order. These variables clearly influence selection into the draft. But crucially, physical makeup and athleticism did not distinguish productive NBA players from unproductive players after taking into account prior performance.

In fact, the only variables that predicted NBA success were youth, college performance, and college quality. These variables predicted NBA performance better than draft order. What's more, while younger players were more productive in the NBA than older players (consistent with this study), younger players were not, on average, better in college than older players.

Therefore, while managers, coaches, and talent scouts incorporate measures of physical makeup and athleticism into their draft decisions, these variables are not reliably related to NBA success. This is consistent with another recent study that found that college performance does a better job of predicting performance than draft position. As the researchers note, draft decisions "may not lead teams to improve as much as defenders of the draft would hope... The problem is not that data is unavailable or that performance is difficult to predict. No, it appears that decision-makers often consider factors... that are not relevant to future performance."

These findings have important implications. Not just for the NBA draft, but also for talent development. A well known finding in the talent development literature is that elite performers almost always had early recognition of their perceived potential by a parent or coach. But these early advantages can contribute, at least in part, to skill differences among players ("Matthew Effects").

For instance, there is evidence in music and sports that early training leads to anatomical adaptations that cannot be acquired past a certain age. Players selected early receive more opportunities at virtual every phase of development, including better coaching, better training opportunities in the off-season, and earlier draft status.

Of course, the study doesn't rule out other individual differences that might predict NBA performance among potential draftees. The researchers didn't analyze every possible measure of skill, such as passing, defense, rebounding, shooting, and creating a shot for others. These factors may have been important in predicting NBA success. Also, many external factors could also have played a role, such as coaching, team-level organization and management, random injuries, and team social dynamics.

But none of these factors may be as important as the biggest elephant in the room. Let's return to Michael Jordan.

A lot has been made of Jordan's "cut" from his varsity basketball team sophomore year in high school. Jordan himself constantly makes a big deal out of this. In reality, Jordan wasn't cut, but just placed elsewhere: on the junior varsity team. The varsity team really needed size, and at the tryouts Jordan was 5'10 (he didn't have his big growth spurt until the following year, when he was placed on the varsity team). What's more, at the tryouts, Jordan didn't really stand out on any of the characteristics the coaches were looking out for.

Well, except one:

"If Jordan distinguished himself at all during the tryout, it was through his supreme effort. "

What if, instead of focusing so heavily on "untapped potential", talent scouts spent just as much time looking for the players with fire in their eyes?*** For instance, what if effort was assessed at the Draft Combine? Of course, other characteristics matter, but we too frequently dismiss the extent to which an extremely passionate and dedicated individual can switch on all the genes necessary to burn brightly.

What truly saddens me is that we are often blind to potential, based on preconceived ideas about how skill develops. Research shows that professionals judge the "natural" performer who demonstrates early evidence of ability to be more talented, more likely to succeed, and more hirable than the "striver", who shows early evidence of high motivation and perseverance, even when both have the same level of achievement.

Maybe it's time to completely rethink this whole notion of untapped potential. Perhaps instead of "untapped potential", we should think about early ability as merely potential that was realized earlier than others. Nothing more, nothing less.

© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved.

* To measure performance, the researchers used a reliable metric of all-around performance called "win shares". In addition to high reliability, this measure also has good face validity. According to this metric, the top five players in the 2012 season are Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook. Additionally, the top 25 players in NBA history in win shares have all been selected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

** For analysis, the researchers looked at three sets of data. Size and athletic measures of each player were collected from an NBA combine performance database at http://www.draftexpress.com. College performance variables were collected from http://www.sports-reference.com, and NBA performance and position data were collected from http://www.basketball-reference.com.

*** Then again, if the coaches at Laney High placed Jordan on the varsity team sophomore year in high school, he might not have been as driven to dominate and prove everyone wrong!

image credit: pic #1; pic2; pic3