Wingspan is a valued physical trait because it allows players to compete beyond their actual size in nearly all facets of their game. Even the littlest bit of added length can be an advantage over a counterpart with similar stature and physical traits.
That added wingspan can give you the extra inch to finish at the rim, the ability to swoop in on a passing lane, catch a piece of an opponent’s shot or allow a player to get a shot off over a defender.
Whether it’s a guard or a big man, wingspan can become an outright asset and compliment to a player’s game because of their ability to use this advantage well.
Every June during the NBA Draft, we routinely hear Jay Bilas gush about the crazy arm length that incoming NBA prospects possess. This year, Bilas mixed up his body part wonderment and analysis, but it’s a considerable part of the job, as wingspan is largely the focus of most prospects outside of size, weight, athleticism and skill set that gets focused on by teams and scouts.
Bilas might be the easiest target to make fun of in regards to overuse, but there is a lot of merit to what length can bring to the table in the NBA.
Every year the word “freakish” gets thrown around in reference to a player’s wingspan, even if it’s just a little bit above normal. This got us inquiring as to what exactly qualifies a player’s wingspan to be tangibly labeled as “freakish?”
In addition to that question, do players with greater wingspans have an advantage when it comes to picking up blocks and steals? How much exactly do physical attributes enhance a player’s abilities against fundamentals and instincts in that regard?
While we couldn’t find an all-encompassing answer (and no one has or probably ever will), we were able to draw some conclusions with data sets that we put together, compared and analyzed.
To calculate a prospect’s wingspan differential, we took their measured arm length from fingertip to fingertip and divided by their height with shoes. Since the game is played on court in shoes, we chose this as our as preferred height measurement standard.
While it might not be the most natural measurement in regards to a player physically, it is the most organic and relevant to the game. From there, we subtracted that number by one to give us the “percentage of wingspan greater than height.” This shows how much longer their wingspan is relative to height.
This equation reflects the length advantage relative to their size as opposed to just their raw length. For example, Greg Oden stands at 7’0” with a 7’4” wingspan, making for a 4” differential that comes in at 4.8 percent greater than his body, which is “average” by our scale.
Will Bynum has the same 4” differential in his wingspan (6’0” with roughly a 6’4” wingspan); his differential coming in at 5.3 percent, which measures as “above average” by our metrics. While that 4” is advantageous to Oden as a big man, it is comparatively more advantageous to Bynum because of his length relative to his body at a foot shorter.
Used was a database of player wingspan measurements beginning in 1999 provided by DraftExpress, who does an excellent job of archiving draft information, as well as statistical information from NBAStuffer.com.
This gave us a sample of 323 NBA players, past and present, to apply this equation and extract data from. To our knowledge, accurate record or consensus measurement were not made available to the public before 1999, which unfortunately left us without big names prior to the ’99 Draft like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, etc.
The DraftExpress measurement set we had also had a few notable player measurements missing, perhaps none more important Celtics star PG Rajon Rondo, who is 6'1" with a reported to be around 6'9"-6'10". Even with a 6'9" wingspan, his differential would be 10.9%, which would come in as the largest in the NBA. However, therein lies the problem, as some players do not have a consensus wingspan measurement. Nonetheless, with 323 NBA players with confirmed measurements, the data is still extremely reflective of the wingspan classifications.
Above are our metrics for the different wingspan differential classifications.
It seems though that wingspan isn’t a logical determinant in making a quality player. In the “elite” wingspan tier beneath “freakish” (the next 15 percent of players with a differential of 6.4-8.39 percent), only six of 61 players have ever made an all-star team to date.
In making our evaluations from the data set, we qualified “freakish” for the top five percent of the “wingspan differential greater than body” players, which ended up being 8.4 percent or greater. With the standard set for what is “freakish” based on our measurement, eleven players met the criteria. Those players with “freakish” wingspans are listed above and below if you can't make out the chart.
In some players, wingspan is clearly more apparent than others. While Detroit Pistons forward Jason Maxiell could be considered a shrimp at 6’6” for a post player, he makes up for it considerably with his monstrous 7’3” wingspan, which is greater than 10 percent of his height. This length allows him to play bigger than he really is.
While most players his size might have a standing reach of eight and a half feet, Maxiell’s is closer to nine. His length is very noticeable during some magnificent plays in his career that support his explosive leaping ability, strength and toughness.
Even though Maxiell is a solid role player in the paint who adds some great post defense, and his wingspan is a considerable reason, it’s also not enough to get him more than 21 minutes per game through his career. His wingspan differential is tops in the league, but it doesn’t make up for the size discrepancy or lack of consistent offensive play.
Three of the prospects on the “freakish” list (Bismack Biyombo, Kawhi Leonard and Marshon Brooks) were part of the 2011 NBA Draft class and have yet to take the court. Kawhi Leonard is noted more for the size of his hands, but he also has considerable length with his arms spanning 8” greater than his height.
Biyombo put that monster 7’7” wingspan on display at the 2011 Nike Hoop Summit with a game for the ages, amassing a triple double in points, rebounds and double-digit blocks on a good portion of the upcoming 2012 NBA Draft class.
Meanwhile, Brooks is a dangerous scorer with a lengthy wingspan at 9.1 percent over his afforded size that should make a difference for the Nets this upcoming season. What’s clear is that wingspan will be a slight contribution to these prospects’ foreseen success but not an overbearing factor that will “make” their NBA careers.
Here are some notable players and their respective percentages for each range outside of the “freakish category:
Average: Darko Milicic (4.78 percent), Chris Bosh (4.57 percent), Michael Beasley (4.75 percent), Deron Williams (4.47 percent), Richard Jefferson (4.17 percent).
Modest: David Lee (3.57 percent), Al Horford (3.54 percent), Jrue Holiday (3.48 percent), Andrew Bogut (3.16 percent), DeMar DeRozan (3.09 percent).
Subpar: Kevin Love (2.10 percent), Kwame Brown (1.76 percent), Joakim Noah (1.47 percent), Monta Ellis (-0.67 percent), JJ Reddick (-1.99 percent).
Notable Upcoming Prospects: Anthony Davis (7.31 percent), Andre Drummond (7.22 percent), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist(6.33 percent), Jared Sullinger (6.17 percent), Harrison Barnes (3.75 percent), BeeJay Anya(16.3 percent—7’9” wingspan on a 6’8” forward).
With respect to defensive statistics such as steals and blocks, we found no strong correlation between wingspan length differential and the stats themselves. In correlation coefficients, “The closer 'X’ is to +1 or -1, the more closely the two variables are related. If ‘X’ is close to 0, it means there is no relationship between the variables” according to SurveySystem.com.
In this case, 'X' would be wingspan in relation to steals and blocks. Plugging the defensive values for this past NBA season for each prospect that was eligible (incoming rookies were not), we found no value stronger than .46 for a correlation.
It doesn’t mean this data was useless in the defensive statistic regard, but it was slightly stronger for blocks and helps conclude wingspan isn’t an overriding necessity for a player to excel defensively, but it doesn’t hurt.
From a basketball perspective, it makes sense that wingspan means as much to a players game as it does in primary measurement essentials relative to height, weight, and body mass index; length is a secondary factor that supplements a prospects game, it doesn’t determine it.
Guards that have longer arms are more likely to swoop in on passing lanes and successfully pick off a pass, but being able to read the play and instinctively act on it is as, if not more, important than the extra inches on their arms.
The reason the correlation might be stronger for blocks is because of the general size and length of attempts in a confined space around the basket, whereas most steals occur on the perimeter in greater open space. The ball is generally going towards one spot on each possession (around the basket), however, steals come at more random locations during possessions.
While not in the “freakish” category, Dwayne Wade possesses a 6’11” wingspan to compliment his 6’4” frame. These measurements account for a 7.25% wingspan differential that he puts Wade in the “elite” category just below “freakish,” but his impact surpasses that classification. In his career, Wade also has 548 careers blocks in 547 games (1 block per game), the most for any NBA starting guard since 1973 when blocks became a recorded stat. While D-Wade is an incredibly gifted athlete with explosive quickness and leaping ability, he also has the defensive instincts and timing to apply that extraordinary wingspan as effectively as any player in the league on the defensive end.
The magic number for a freakish wingspan right now is 8.4 percent of differential between arm length and height. This number is bound to change and adjust over the years as we gain a greater sample size of prospects, but for now, running it on the 323 prospects since 1999 is adequate.
The average NBA Player’s wingspan differential came out at 4.3 percent, so anything above that is going to be reasonably advantageous. Wingspan is a great indicator of length to supplement play, but it will never supersede basketball IQ, skill set or the intangibles to allow one to be successful at the NBA level.
Written by Bjorn Zetterberg
Statistical Analysis by Jarrod Hallmark