On the Basketball IQ of 21-Year-Olds

February 6th, 2014 | by Dan Clayton
Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Basketball, it turns out, is complicated.

I mean, there’s a more simplistic, linear way to approach it1, but in the NBA, that route hardly ever makes you very good. Reaching a special level (see: San Antonio Spurs) requires developing a mental reaction time that turns every one of your opponent’s decisions into a sucker’s choice — which of us would you like to allow to take a wide open shot?

Not every NBA player understands the game at that level and at full game speed2. And because of a lot of the ones who haven’t mastered that yet are younger than those who have, we tend to fall for this tempting (but faulty) syllogism that youth is equivalent to a lack of understanding of the game’s intricacies.

It’s a convenient bit of shorthand. It can be a mouthful to say that a team’s offense/defense struggles because it relies on players who haven’t yet learned to read the slew of variables that can influence a single 4-second span of basketball. So we take a shortcut: they struggle because of their “youth.”

But “unready” is not the same as “young.” Plenty of experienced guys play a far less cerebral game, and plenty of youngsters quickly learn how to make reads at NBA game speed. Jazz rookie Trey Burke was recently singled out in a nice feature by ESPN’s David Thorpe, who marveled at how quickly the point guard is recognizing situations and learning to exploit split-second decisions.

“[Burke’s] basketball IQ and his pace of play are far more like a veteran’s,” Thorpe said.

Thorpe cites a particular play as evidence of Burke’s ahead-of-his-time ability to calculate multiple variables and make the right decisions. It’s a play where everybody on the floor has to know what the others are thinking and doing. You can (and should) read Thorpe’s whole breakdown of this play and Burke’s rookie year. The Reader’s Digest version of this graphic is that Burke reads a hard hedge by Wall and goes away from the pick to the left, forcing Gortat to trap. Derrick Favors recognizes this and dives to the lane, pulling Nene from the right corner3. Marvin Williams sees all that and decides to float out to the elbow to give Burke a passing angle. All of this is happening at the same time, but Burke is able to keep track of it and anticipate each movement, so Marv winds up with an open three.


Thorpe rightly gives a lot of credit to Burke. Here’s an excerpt:

The key for Burke is to force Nene to help on Favors by waiting for him to get near the rim, all while making Gortat defend the ball. If Burke fails, Gortat will be able to defend both Burke and Favors, allowing Nene to stay with Williams… It’s the kind of play that veterans make frequently, as it requires the point guard to read multiple players, which is something most rookies aren’t accustomed to doing.

He’s right, of course, but what strikes me about this play is that it’s not just Burke. All five guys had to make those same reads simultaneously. Successful offensive combinations are groups where five guys can all read and react on the same page. Consider this:

  • If Burke doesn’t understand Wall’s intention in jumping the screen, then he doesn’t cut away from the pick and force Gortat’s help.
  • If Favors doesn’t cut (or goes too quickly, too late, or too close to Burke) then there’s no need for Nene to come in.
  • If Marvin doesn’t see his man helping and understand the angle Burke needs for the pass, then instead you wind up with Burke and Favors executing a 2-on-3 in the paint.
  • It’s also worth mentioning that Burks and Hayward have to recognize what the other three are up to and not impatiently do anything to compromise spacing or let those corner guys help.

If four of the players understand and are on the same page but the fifth isn’t, the play breaks down. Luckily, this time they all got it, including the guy with the ball.

And luckily, nobody checked his driver’s license to make sure he was old enough to make such a heady play.

That’s because it’s about the process, not the age. Enes Kanter has six months on Burke (and more NBA burn) yet still requires an extra half second to make far simpler reads than the one described above. And that’s OK, because that’s the normal learning curve for 21-year-olds in the NBA.

Same goes for Rudy Gobert, who is the same age as Burke and Kanter. While he gets a lot of just credit for good defensive instincts, he can struggle to defend within a team construct. He sometimes makes defensive decisions that look like good pickup-game gambles, but that his teammates weren’t expecting, throwing off the whole strategy. Case in point: against the Warriors, Gobert was a defensive pest early, helping limit the Dubs to just 14 points in his nine first-half minutes. In the second half… not so much.

In fact, Gobert had three straight defensive flubs in the fourth quarter that allowed Golden State to erase Utah’s lead. First, there were back-to-back plays where Rudy, the screener’s man on both plays, drops back from the pick and gives Steph Curry way too much daylight to shoot. Both these plays resulted in Curry threes as Burke fought over the screen, fully expecting a hard show.

Curry 3 #1:


Curry 3 #2:


Then, on the next play down, Gobert got caught ball watching 15′ out while Bogut tiptoed around him for a layup to make it 79-77. That’s eight Warriors points4 that we can trace back to this extremely talented and unquestionably well-meaning guy… who just hasn’t learned yet how team defense works.

I point to these three guys because they’re all within a few months of each other in age, so obviously the variable that differentiates their decision-making has nothing to do with youth. Even after a decade of talking to NBA types on a regular basis, I have yet to find a single coach, GM or scout who hates young players. I have met several, though, who prefer to use players they can rely on to make the right basketball play, even when faced by an ever-changing set of variables. Most field teams of guys they can trust to do just that, even, in some cases, at the expense of someone more talented.

That’s why, if I’m a young NBA player, I’d be in a hurry to shed the pejorative connotations of “youth” and make it clear I’m ready to pick apart defenses with my brain AND my body. I’d be studying tape, asking questions all the time, and preparing thoroughly for each opponent.

I’d do what Trey Burke is doing: making people forget his age.

Dan Clayton

Dan Clayton

Dan covered Utah Jazz basketball for more than 10 years, including as a radio analyst for the team’s Spanish-language broadcasts from 2010 to 2014. He now lives and works in New York City, but contributes regularly to Salt City Hoops, FanRag and BBALLBreakdown.
Dan Clayton

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