Nature, Nurture, and the NBA Draft

Rob MahoneyNBA Lead WriterJune 19, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 25:  Anthony Davis #23 of the Kentucky Wildcats and Perry Jones III #1 of the Baylor Bears vie for posession during the 2012 NCAA Men's Basketball South Regional Final at the Georgia Dome on March 25, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Basketball personality isn't totally akin to human personality, but there are enough parallels to extend the nauseatingly omnipresent nature vs. nurture debate to the hardwood. And, while there are surely extremists committed to either end of the spectrum, the closest thing we have to a representative truth lies in a healthy, happy medium.

Innate physical ability and talent—manifested in shooting touch, coordination, body control, synaptic response, etc—plays a huge part in defining a player's potential, but they don't determine everything. In most cases, even elite talent needs to be groomed by the right coach in the right circumstances: Kevin Durant false-started under P.J. Carlesimo; LeBron James didn't take many substantives steps forward until the Cavs hired Mike Brown; and Kobe Bryant only made the leap when the Lakers hired Phil Jackson.

Some of that is just the developmental coincidence of young players coming of age in a time of transition, but we shouldn't underestimate the impact that the right coach and the right system can have on a player. Talent alone is enough to make one very good (in basketball, or in any trade), but greatness needs to be cultivated. 

At the same time, players are hardly blank slates; they come into the league with skills, experiences and more than a few bad habits. They grow into their NBA selves, and although that growth is guided by the teachings of a coaching staff, even the best instruction can only harness what is already there; even a genius in skill development or motivational tactics is nothing without raw materials.

So, even the most highly effective nurturers are subject—in a sense—to what is already there. A team with a good culture can stoke work ethic or keep a particular player in line, but only with concession from the player himself and allowance within that player's skill set.

In short: There's ample room for NBAers to grow as players and professionals, but "ample" doesn't mean limitless, nor does it refer to a potential for gain without structure.

Rarely is that fact more relevant than with this summer's draft class, where there are a wide variety of talents with sound claims to being utilized incorrectly on the college level. Perry Jones III could prove to be a far better pro than he was an NCAA player, provided he lands in the right spot. Thomas Robinson has such a wide range of NBA possibility that it's baffling. Harrison Barnes still has the talent to be a tremendous pro, but needs the stars to align more than just about any other high-profile prospect in this draft class.

Even Anthony Davis needs an ideal situation in order to develop to the fullest, even if he has a significantly greater margin for error than some of his more dicey draft classmates. It's all about finding that balance; it's never going to be a perfect middle, but players need enough help from a prospective employer to come to terms with their own potential.

The spectrum, as it were, is different for every player. It's a combination of nature and nurture in some dynamic formula, tailor-made to the unique context that each individual demands.