Slam dunk: Playing and thriving among the giants of NBA basketball... Why height isn’t sole deciding factor for hoop dreams
Consider the following reality: In a sport where there is a one in seven chance of making it to the highest competitive level if you are a 7-foot tall American male, the player who achieved the distinction of being the first to receive a $200 million contract is a player that is generously listed at 6 feet, 3 inches tall.
This begs the question – in the modern world of position-less basketball, how much does height really matter? Additionally, what skills do the players not born with the naturally genetic trait of height master in order to succeed and have long careers at the highest level of professional basketball in the NBA?
In a sport where the goal is 10 feet above the ground, it would make sense and be logical that height would be the primary trait prioritised and correlating with success.
While certainly true in some regards, there is no ceiling (literally) on the potential of players who are highly skilled, regardless of their size. With the popularity and rise of three-point shooting in today’s NBA, the impact that players who aren’t height outliers can still have on the game is clearly obvious through players like Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry.
The superior skill level of these players is clearly on display as they have become proficient in attempting shots from further and further ranges, skewing the spacing and range of defenses designed to contain them.
Defenses are so thoroughly stretched out by the shooting ability of these relatively diminutive (both players are generously listed as 6 feet, 3 inches tall) players, that it results in open space for their teammates to score easier baskets with them on the court.
So, it is therefore obvious that elite 3-point shooting skill is one way in which players that are closer to six feet tall can compensate for what they lack in height when compared to their much taller counterparts.
There are many players throughout history that have not possessed height who thrived in the NBA.
The name Isaiah Thomas comes to mind, referring to two different players, each of whom possessed similar intangible qualities that helped them thrive in this league of giants.
While lacking extreme height, the Isaiah Thomas of the Detroit Pistons teamed with Joe Dumars to form one of the most feared backcourt combinations of all time, winning two championships for the Pistons during their heyday as the “Bad Boys”.
The “other” Isaiah Thomas, drafted in the current era, embodied many of the similar intangible qualities of determination, focus, and toughness, shown during the long list of accomplishments he achieved during his (potentially still ongoing) NBA career. These two examples reflect the importance of intangibles in basketball success, despite any lack of extreme height.
Another physical trait that can compensate for lack of height is the “length” or “armspan” of a player. In fact, as was explored in an earlier piece on the evolution of NBA talent selection, many players are drafted based on having superior length for their position rather than solely for being tall.
As three-point shooting continues to space out offenses further and further, defenders with the length to shrink the court become a priority. In fact, the combination of quickness and length in a player continues to be prioritised as teams seek to gain a competitive advantage.
An example of a first-ballot Hall of Fame player with below average height, but elite length and quickness is Dwyane Wade. From these examples, it is evident that height is certainly not the only factor that can influence success in basketball.
It is certainly possible to compensate for a lack of height in other ways such as skilled three-point shooting and dribbling ability, along with length and the intangible qualities of toughness, mental resilience and leadership.