Poll a group of 10 sports journalists, bloggers, and fans about how they define the term "athletic" as it pertains to the game of basketball and you're likely to get 11 different answers. But that hasn't stopped the term from being one of the most commonly used attributes to describe a player when evaluating current and potential NBA players.
Everyone would agree that Blake Griffin and Dwight Howard are very athletic, and conversely most would agree that Al Jefferson or recently drafted Kelly Olynyk are not. After all, Griffin and Howard sky through the air resulting in thunderous dunks while Jefferson and Olynyk pivot their way to success. But if you define athleticism through common examples or extremes, then I hate to say it, but you need to expand your view of the term "athletic."
A more complete definition
The advanced statisticians, obsessive bloggers, and lovers of the game know, even if they can't express it clearly, that athleticism goes much deeper than that. For me, I think Vern Gambetta's definition is the most comprehensive:
Athleticism is the ability to execute athletic movements (run, jump, throw) at optimum speed with precision, style and grace while demonstrating technical competency in the context of your sport.
It captures the fact that it takes more than just jumping high or running fast to be athletic, and the nuance of the definition is even more interesting. Using the term optimum which literally means "the best of all outcomes" seems to imply that jumping the highest or moving the quickest isn't necessarily ALWAYS the best of all outcomes. Gambetta elaborates by adding that "precision, style, and grace" are essential to defining athleticism but to me precision is the most important. It implies being able to be consistent and repetitive in your actions as a key component of being athletic. Lastly, Gambetta uses the term "technical competency in the context of your sport." I interpret this to mean that Gambetta feels that a player who physically measures to be less "athletic" under the common use of the term may actually be able to acquire a greater athletic ability through practice and study of the game they play.
Bradford Doolittle's "Applied Athleticism" score
Bradford Doolittle of ESPN.com took a slightly different approach back in March and attempted to quantify an individual's and a team's "applied athleticism." Doolittle explains his methodology:
Athleticism in a dictionary sense is a descriptive term that normally describes things like speed, quickness and jumping ability. Those physical qualities are measurable, too, and scouting websites have published and archived that kind of data for NBA prospects for several years. But that's not what we're talking about. We're talking about what I refer to as "applied athleticism." In a nutshell, I don't want to know a player's vertical leap. I want to know how well he translates his hops into measurable basketball production like rebounds and blocked shots.
The end result is "ATH," a statistical measure that attempts to quantify each player's production in categories that are most associated with athleticism. I've found it to be useful for things like translating how a player's statistics might change when going from one professional league to another, or from college to the pros, or from a smaller role to a bigger one. By weighting each player's ATH rating by minutes played, we can also calculate the metric for teams.
Doolittle's application of ATH results in the Denver Nuggets having the highest applied athleticism score in the NBA last season. His top 5 however show just how different measuring team's based on ATH vs. the more simple definition of the term can be (highest ATH players for each team):
- Denver Nuggets (Kenneth Faried, Andre Iguodala, Ty Lawson)
- Utah Jazz (Derrick Favors, Paul Millsap, Demarre Carroll)
- Miami Heat (Dwayne Wade, Lebron James, Chris Bosh)
- Los Angeles Clippers (DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe, Blake Griffin)
- Boston Celtics (Paul Pierce, Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger)
Most of the names on this list are of no surprise, however a few names jump out at me: Paul Millsap, Paul Pierce, and Jared Sullinger. Under the more common use of the term "athletic" I don't think any of these players would be examples I'd commonly go to, and yet all 3 have very good technical competency for the game and Pierce especially has always been known to play "optimally." To me, Pierce often looks like he's playing in quick sand and yet he always seems to find the right position to be in to get his shot off over bigger, faster, quicker players.
Is Greg Monroe "Athletic"?
In the lead up to draft night in 2010, Monroe was commonly described as having "below average athleticism" and his combine numbers appeared to back that up. He measured near the bottom of his class in both lane agility and 3/4 court sprint, and was only 1 inch off the lowest measured max vert among all bigs in his class. With the benefit of Draft Express, we can actually see where Monroe ranks all-time in the various physical measurements as well as which players measure similarly to Monroe. Based on all power forwards who were drafted since 2000 when Draft Express first started consistently capturing the four key athletic measurements from the combine (Max Vert, Bench, 3/4 sprint, and lane agility), Greg Monroe ranks in the bottom half for 3/4 sprint, bottom 20 percet for agility, and bottom 10 percent for max vert. The only area where Monroe measured favorably was in the bench press where he finished in the 35th percentile for power forwards. He ranked just ahead of Brian Scalabrine, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Mike Sweetney while trailing behind Mark Madsen and Chris Bosh. So based on the traditional measurement, Monroe shouldn't be considered athletic.
Traditionally speaking, Monroe is not athletic compared to Blake Griffin, Josh Smith, or even Chris Kaman! Monroe isn't athletic, or at least not as athletic as those players. Doolittle's ATH however indicates that Monroe was the 94th most athletic player in the league last year -- or roughly in the top 25 percent -- and one of Detroit's three highest ATH players. Detroit as a team ranked right in the middle of ATH, although that definitely wouldn't have happened without Andre Drummond's arrival, as he ranked 7th in the league. Josh Smith was also the 3rd-highest ATH for his team but ranked only 21 spots ahead of Monroe across the league.
If we consider a player's ability to rebound, get steals, and block shots as an indication of their applied athleticism, then the answer changes -- Greg Monroe is athletic. Among all bigs, Monroe was 9th in rebounds per game and 4th in steals per 36. Offensively, Monroe had the 4th best assist rate, and was a top 10 scorer. Simply put, statistically, Monroe shows he has solid athleticism at both ends of the floor.
More often than not, I think people confuse "explosiveness" with being "athletic." Monroe is definitely athletic, but my one criticism is his lack of explosiveness. This lack of explosiveness is clear in Monroe's low blocked shots numbers, but it doesn't seem to impact the other aspects of defense that are important to a big man -- specifically, rebounding and forcing turnovers. Offensively Monroe is known for a quick first step which would indicate his explosiveness may only limited to vertical leaping and not necessarily forward movement.
Zach Lowe, in a recent piece for Grantland, took Greg Monroe to task for apparently lacking any ability to play defense whatsoever. He spent time walking his readers through 2 or 3 specific plays where he places all blame on Monroe by utilizing well-timed still images of Monroe out of position on a rotation or failing to hedge a pick n roll properly. The conclusion I gathered from Lowe's piece on Monroe was that he felt Monroe's defensive woes stem from a lack of quickness, knowledge, commitment, and awareness (seriously, read the piece for yourself). He even goes as far as to say that Monroe's inability to defend was one of the reasons for not playing Drummond. Or in other words, Greg Monroe lacks athleticism, and that lack of athletic ability at the defensive end actually limited our team's ability to get Drummond more minutes (we'll ignore the fact that Lowe just recently discussed Greg's counterpart Andre Drummond on Bill Simmons' podcast where they agreed that Andre wasn't in good enough condition to play more minutes than he did last year).
But if you've been following along for this long now, then hopefully you already agree that this isn't the case. The numbers indicate otherwise, and those of us who suffered through every game last season know that Monroe's pick-and-roll defense is better than advertised. To revisit Gambetta's definition, Greg exhibits an ability to move optimally on the floor for a power forward in today's NBA and has exhibited this movement at both ends of the floor. That's not to say he's the fastest or quickest, but he does utilize his strengths to his advantage consistently. He does so with technical competency of his sport and with grace, style, and precision. Greg Monroe is absolutely athletic by this definition of the word. Just try to convince me he isn't: