Overcoming “Undersized” in the NBA for Guards
The NBA is made up of players of all shapes, sizes and skill sets that set them apart on their respective teams and within the league for their attributes. At the guard position there have been some absolute mismatches in size throughout NBA history—perhaps none greater than 6’9” point guard Magic Johnson. Everyone knows about the prototypical point guards who excel in the league like Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, and Deron Williams, but what about the outliers on who aren’t as vertically gifted? How is it that they are able to match-up and/or thrive in the league dominated by a “type” of all-around guard?
From our observations, the typical NBA point guard’s ideal height is 6’3” +/- 1” (give or take an inch) and is around 190 lbs. +/- 15 lbs. The typical NBA shooting guard stands about 6’5” +/- 1” and 205 lb. +/- 15 lbs. This means that if a point guard stands just under 6’2” or a shooting guard is under 6’4”, they are technically undersized relative to NBA competition at their position.
However, being undersized is not an overwhelming hindrance or dooming factor on a player’s career. Conversely and true to Darwin’s natural selection of “only the strong survive,” it allows players to utilize their gifts and adapt to play the game in a different way that puts pressure and forces those “prototypical size guards” to adjust to their styles. Here’s a closer look at the stronger contributing factors for undersized guards to perform well in the NBA.
It has been frequently stated and is relevant to almost any sport: speed kills. While some players may not be of ideal size, they are more grounded with a lower center of gravity and have the ability to churn those legs quicker to get around the court. That quickness can be used to penetrate defenses, carve out space with those swift feet for a jumper or blow by their man with a quick first step. These jitter bugs are tough to hang with on the court because they are so fleet of foot.
When observing players in the league who apply speed at a high level, you have to look no further than Earl Boykins. Standing at only 5’5”, Boykins uses that pedestrian speed coupled with elite quickness to get where he needs on the court and get his shots. At the off guard position, Monta Ellis is a burner who can get wherever he desires and has thrived as a franchise swingman for the Warriors because of that uncanny speed. Going a bit more under the radar for a player who is in the league because mostly of that quickness, Ish Smith has been a decent back-up for Memphis with his ability to penetrate and create. Look for incoming rookie Norris Cole of the Miami Heat to have a similar impact with that breakneck speed. A lot of players in the league have great natural speed and quickness, but these are some of the elite who keep defenses on their feet.
Undersized Guard Examples: Monta Ellis, Earl Boykins, Ish Smith, Darren Collison
We recently took an in-depth look at wingspan and what makes it “freakish”, finding that an 8.4 percent wingspan greater than height differential qualifies as “freakish.” Even those players who are just below that in the seven percent or greater mark still have astonishing natural wingspans that can be used to manage the perimeter. On offense, that added length can help players get their shots off above the defense or extend to finish at the rim. On defense, the length helps coral their man and can help them swoop in on passing lanes for easy pick-offs.
At 6’1” with a ridiculous 6’9” wingspan, Rajon Rondo has an unusual length that is roughly 10.9 percent greater than his height. While undersized, Rondo plays much bigger than he really is because of that incredulous wingspan and it shows. Roddy Beaubois of the Dallas Mavericks is a terrific defender and shot contester for the reigning champs because of his length. At 6’2” with a near 6’10” wingspan, Beaubois has a 9.17 percent wingspan greater than height differential, giving him the natural length to be a lock-down defender. While a player may be undersized vertically, they can play over-sized because of their wingspan.
Undersized Guard Examples: Rajon Rondo, Roddy Beaubois, Eric Bledsoe, Will Bynum
What a player lacks in size can possibly be made up in mass if they know how to use it correctly. It's not uncommon to see a prototype 6’3”, 190 lbs. point guard get out-muscled and bullied by a 6’0”, 210 lb. opponent. The extra muscle mass and stout frame of these grounded guards help anchor them and allow them to impose their will on more frailly built players. They may not possess upper tier speed or athleticism, but you can find them using their body to their advantage because of their ability to use their strength and body as leverage.
While barely a six-foot guard, Kyle Lowry is a compactly built point guard who loves to use his body to battle for position in the paint and crash the boards. At 6’3”, Eric Gordon is a naturally crafted specimen who has great raw strength to handle contact and finish at the basket. Kemba Walker gets talked about for his great quickness, but look for him to be a respectable rebounder because of his use of that compact frame with a great motor to get into the lane and steal a few boards from the bigs.
Undersized Guard Examples: Kyle Lowry, Eric Gordon, Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton
When you think about great ball handling, it’s usually the highlight ankle breakers and killer crossovers that come to mind. Dribbling in basketball is much more than that, as it can be used to hold possession, get around the court, set up plays for teammates, create shots and protect the ball on the way to the basket. You don’t have to be the flashiest player with the ball in your hands to make an impact, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
Brandon Jennings is an exciting ball handler capable of breaking off the defense in isolation and is a wizard with the ball in his hands. He can cross you over, use that inside-out dribble, spin move through the lane and step back with the best of them in the league. Jeff Teague is a promising up-and-comer for the Atlanta Hawks who pairs jarring quickness together with some sick handles. His ball handling isn’t always noticeable during games like most players, but during pick up games they really get displayed.
Undersized Guard Examples: Brandon Jennings, Jeff Teague, Jonny Flynn, Mike Conley
The sixth sense in basketball is IQ: court vision, awareness and play making. Every NBA point guard has it to some degree, but this is what can really differentiate players from the rest of the pack. Their ability to pass out of a crowd for an immaculate assist at the other end of the court or find a player out from half court for an alley-oop pass all qualify as court savvy plays, but it’s the ones who make those plays time and time again that stand out. These players use creative passing ability to keep their teams in games and more often than not, win them.
Perhaps no player in the NBA is more court savvy and aware than Chris Paul, who blows teams away with his ability to read the defense and set up plays for his teammates. At arguably six foot, CP3 is a true floor general who runs the show and makes plays at a high level. Not to be outdone, Rondo is frequently mentioned as one of the premier playmakers because of his uncanny court sense and unselfish style of play. While not incredibly undersized, though just a tad under that “average” mark, Kyrie Irving is a game changer who can change the Cleveland Cavaliers fortunes.
Undersized Guard Examples: Chris Paul, Rajon Rondo, DJ Augustin, Tony Parker
From “the guys you don’t want to leave open” department, the deep-ball shooters are the game changers who can help erase a deficit in a matter of a few possessions. They pose a threat to the defense with their inexplicable shooting range and dead-eye accuracy from beyond the arc. Some of them are gunners who can get hot in a hurry and others are selective shooter who can knock down the spot up, but what they have in common is their ability to light it up from three.
While a generous six foot, Aaron Brooks has upstanding quickness and creating ability to isolate and get off a quality three-point look for himself. He led the NBA in three-point makes in the 2009-10 season and it wasn’t even close as he hoisted 6.4 shots per game. On the other side of the coin, Jameer Nelson has always been a high percentage shooter hitting 39 percent of his career attempts. Many are expecting Jimmer Fredette to step in as the next great three-point shooter threat in the league based on what he did at BYU.
Undersized Guard Examples: Aaron Brooks, Jameer Nelson, Ty Lawson, Eddie House
Pick and Roll Play
The bread and butter play of the NBA that is run roughly one out of every five plays in the league, the pick and roll is a staple of all levels of basketball. The ability to execute this simple play can go a long way for a team in the standings. Making the turn after the screen for a quick lane to the basket, pull up jumper or pass to the screener in a split second can be a crucial decision that makes or breaks the possession. If you have a good decision-making point guard who knows how to play the schematic, then you always have a chance in game.
Looking at undersized guards, no one executes the pick and roll better than Chris Paul. For such a simple set, there are countless ways to run and defend it that makes it one of the more dynamic plays in basketball to game plan for. DJ Augustin stepped up for the Charlotte Bobcats this past season as a full-time starter because of his ability to run the pick and roll to precision. In the 2011 NBA playoffs, Mavs reserve guard JJ Barea diced opponents running the pick and roll and burning the defense when they left him an open lane. One of the most basic plays, yet one of the hardest to defend because of personnel, even at the professional level.
Undersized Guard Examples: Chris Paul, DJ Augustin, Tony Parker, JJ Barea
Some players love to get-up-and-go and flourish at a faster pace. Whether it’s after a made shot, defensive rebound or a turnover, these are the players who want the ball in their hands as soon as possible to push the ball up the floor for a quick score. When you raise the tempo, you catch the defense out of position and usually have a numbers advantage that can play to your favor, making it easier to capitalize on a quick possession. The best up-tempo guards in the league know when to keep it to attack the basket, pull up for a jumper or dish it off to a cutting teammate.
Before being dealt to the Denver Nuggets last February, Raymond Felton thrived for the New York Knicks in Mike D’Antoni’s fast-paced system. He was putting up career numbers with 17.1 points and nine assists per game in his 54 contests, with a strong portion of those stats coming in transition. Ty Lawson, another North Carolina point guard product, already emerged in his second season as one of the better up-tempo point guards in the league. These guards are great at counterattacking height in the half court by pushing the pace in the full court where it becomes less relevant.
Undersized Guard Examples: Raymond Felton, Ty Lawson, Aaron Brooks, Jonny Flynn