How to Succeed in the NBA Without World-Class Athleticism

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 25, 2013

The NBA isn't all about high-flying slam dunks, show-stopping moves in transition and blocks that come far above the 10-foot mark. Players without world-class athleticism can still succeed. 

In fact, a lack of athleticism is just a convenient excuse—an admission that maybe the player in question doesn't have the technical skill or work ethic necessary to thrive.

The history of this sport is littered with relatively unathletic players who have still found great success for prolonged periods of time. From George Mikan to Larry Bird to Steve Kerr to Andre Miller to Steve Novak, players without those elite hops and insane top gears have still managed to carve out niches for themselves. Some larger than others.

Lately, Shane Battier has served as the posterboy. 

From the beginning of his time with the Memphis Grizzlies to his back-to-back titles with the Miami Heat, Battier has carved out a pretty nice career for himself. Based on his physical tools, you'd never expect it, as was the case with TheDraftReview.com's original scouting report (touched up for spelling and grammatical accuracy):

Not super athletic, has gotten this far based on his fundamentals and intelligence...Goes through periods where his jump shot can be inconsistent...Doesn't really defend or play very well against physical players...Can he make the adjustment to playing defense in the NBA? After all, the NBA is faster and stronger than the college game...Even though Battier is a wonderful player, he has played with tremendous talent at Duke in terms of point guards (Wojciechowski, Avery, and J. Williams) as teammates... 

While the small forward will never be an All-Star or a Hall of Famer, he's remained a consistently productive player with a winning mentality. And that's allowed him to make that original scouting report look laughable. In doing so, he's provided future generations with the blueprint for how to succeed without elite athleticism. 

Let's Establish the Whole "Without World-Class Athleticism" Thing for Battier

Even when Battier was just a young forward coming out of Duke back in 2001, he didn't exactly possess elite athleticism. In fact, he was decidedly below average, and he still managed to convince the Memphis Grizzlies he was worth drafting at No. 6. 

Take a look at Battier's numbers in the main measurements compared to the top results in his draft class and the average of the 140 small forwards' numbers in DraftExpress' database

Regardless of the category, Battier didn't exactly thrive heading into the NBA. 

He was at his best in the lane-agility drills, where he finished behind only Martin Rancik among small forwards in the 2001 draft class. However, he was just about average in the 3/4-court sprint and struggled tremendously in the jumping tests. 

Even back then, when Battier was a relatively spry 23 years old, he wasn't a stellar athlete. He was average, at best. 

The same was true when he was in high school, playing for Detroit Country Day. As you can see from both the rebound/follow-up layup and the ensuing block, Battier simply didn't elevate like you might expect from an elite prep prospect. 

The scary part is that small forwards have only gotten more athletic in the game. There's a noticeable difference during even the past decade, as physical marvels like LeBron James, Paul George and Jimmy Butler have started taking over the league to varying degrees. 

By the standards of a typical human being, Battier is an exceptional athlete. However, he doesn't stand out in any discernible way when compared to the backdrop of insane leapers and runners that make up the upper echelon of NBA players. 

For these purposes, that's the functional definition of an unathletic player: a guy who doesn't stand out in the NBA crowd when he runs, jumps, changes direction or uses other physical tools typically thought of as requiring athleticism. 

Even still, Battier has been able to carve out a successful career for himself, largely by following the next three principles. 

1. Develop One Extremely Marketable Skill

Any player who wants to succeed in the NBA must develop a calling card. It's rare to find jack-of-all-trades-type players who thrive over a long stretch.

Those players do exist, but they don't typically remain living, breathing Swiss Army knives for too long. As their careers progress, they typically start honing in on a particular facet of their game, hoping to make it their one extremely marketable skill.

When Battier entered the league, he was a nice, well-rounded player. During that rookie season for the Grizz in 2001-02, he averaged 14.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.0 blocks per game on 42.9 percent shooting from the field and a 37.3 percent mark from behind the three-point arc.

The points, rebounds, assists and steals remain career highs, but that's more a function of playing time than anything else. Battier quickly realized that he was never going to be a superstar, and he instead starting honing his premier skill: his three-point shooting. 

Above, you can see the percentages of Battier's made field goals over the years that have been two-pointers (red) and three-pointers (yellow).

At the beginning of his career, the Duke product was very much a typical NBA marksman. He shot effectively from behind the three-point arc, but he still scored in many other ways. That changed during the middle of his career, when a little more than half of his makes resulted in extra points. 

During the 2012-13 season, Battier took everything to an extreme; 89.5 percent of his makes came from downtown, which is an absolutely insane percentage. We'll have to wait and find out whether it's a sustainable one, but it's made one thing quite clear: Battier has recognized his primary calling card, and he's worked on it so much that he's been able to remain a productive player over a decade after he entered the league.

According to Synergy Sports (subscription required), Battier averaged 1.1 points per possession during his most recent campaign with the Miami Heat. That's good enough for him to rank 12th in the NBA—a spectacular number for someone who's become an upper-tier role player as Father Time takes hold of his career. 

It's not his ability to finish at the rim that has made him so efficient, though—his prowess from behind the arc is what does the trick.

In spot-up situations, Battier averaged 1.21 points per possession, ranking him at No. 25. He managed to drill 139 of his 329 three-point attempts when spotting up, which comes out at 42.2 percent. That includes both the regular season and postseason.

Battier's three-point shooting complemented the rest of his game during his prime, and it's allowed him to maintain his status as a rotational player even at the ripe old age of 34. All players without elite athleticism must similarly develop one extremely marketable skill, though it doesn't necessarily have to come from behind the arc. 

Of course, no true one-trick pony can make it in the league for too long without falling squarely into the realm of "role players," which is why these guys must also...

2. Learn How to do the Little Things 

When you can't soar above the rim to complete easy dunks in transition or use your superior athleticism as an advantage in the half-court sets, it's all about making your mark with the little things.

No roster can win a title without the proverbial "glue guy," even if it's absolutely loaded with talent. The locker-room presence who is willing to do the little things can be just as valuable as the star player on some nights.

That's what has allowed players like the Oklahoma City Thunder's Nick Collison to stick around and make contributions that don't necessarily show up in the box score. Along those lines, there's a fantastic quote from a New York Times article by Michael Lewis about Battier: 

Battier’s game is a weird combination of obvious weaknesses and nearly invisible strengths. When he is on the court, his teammates get better, often a lot better, and his opponents get worse — often a lot worse. He may not grab huge numbers of rebounds, but he has an uncanny ability to improve his teammates’ rebounding. He doesn’t shoot much, but when he does, he takes only the most efficient shots. He also has a knack for getting the ball to teammates who are in a position to do the same, and he commits few turnovers. On defense, although he routinely guards the NBA’s most prolific scorers, he significantly ­reduces their shooting percentages. At the same time he somehow improves the defensive efficiency of his teammates—probably, Morey surmises, by helping them out in all sorts of subtle ways. “I call him Lego,” Morey says. “When he’s on the court, all the pieces start to fit together. And everything that leads to winning that you can get to through intellect instead of innate ability, Shane excels in. I’ll bet he’s in the hundredth percentile of every category.”

I'd recommend reading Lewis' article in entirety, but the general thrust deals with Battier's value superseding traditional box-score numbers. If I may hone in on one specific angle, let's look at the forward's willingness to step in and take a charge.

No play in basketball is fraught with more risk.

You're asked to slide over and get directly in the path of a grown man barreling down the court at full speed. It's going to hurt, and there's a solid chance that you'll be called for a foul rather than draw one, seeing as the referee's call is so inherently subjective. 

Maybe it's because of his training under Mike Krzyzewski. Maybe it's just due to his outstanding do-what-it-takes mentality. Battier has always been willing to put his body on the line and take the charge. 

Even during the 2011-12 season, his first with the Miami Heat, Battier wasn't afraid to sacrifice his aging body. No qualified small forward (20 minutes per game) averaged more charges drawn per 40 minutes, according to Hoopdata.com

Just as every player with less athleticism must do, this non-statistical ace has been willing to do the little things, regardless of how little public recognition he receives for his actions. 

This applies to defense as well, although Battier is aided by his slightly above-average lateral quickness. Throughout his lengthy career in the Association, he's consistently taken on the challenge of guarding the league's best offensive players. 

By maintaining constant awareness of the court and being willing to do the dirty work, the former Blue Devil has thrived in the role. Even at 34, he's remained a top-notch defender.

As shown by Synergy Sports (subscription required), opponents shot only 37.8 percent against Battier throughout 2012-13, and he thrived in particular when guarding either post-ups or the roll man in a pick-and-roll set. But even that doesn't give a true pictue of Battier's defensive value. 

His primary asset is his cerebral awareness.Battier isn't afraid to leave his man when the situation demands it, and he thrives making everyone around him look better. That's part of the reason why, according to Basketball-Reference, the Heat allowed one point fewer per 100 possessions when Battier was on the court in 2012-13. 

Obviously, his quickness, instincts and willingness to get physical when the situation demands it helps, but his awareness is still his biggest calling card on the less glamorous end of the court. 

In fact, improving his team's defense is a trend that has been present throughout his career, as you can see above. With slight exceptions in 2011 and 2012, Battier's team has always been better defensively with him on the court.

Earlier in his career, it wasn't even close. Looking at the small forward's raw numbers and test scores, you'd never guess this was possible. It just goes to show what can happen when a player focuses on doing all the little things.

Plenty of players have accepted that they must do these "little things," but there's a massive difference between accepting it begrudgingly and fully embracing it. The latter is what pushes the truly determined guys over the top, even when they can't actually jump, well, over the top.

This applies to action both on and off the court, which is why they also need to... 

3. Mind the Data

If you're not blessed with elite athleticism, why wouldn't you do everything possible to gain an advantage? 

That's exactly what Shane Battier did by becoming one of the first players to fully embrace advanced statistics as a means to improve his on-court performance. If he could understand players' tendencies and his own strengths and weaknesses, then he could apply them and gain a bit of a head start against the rest of the playing field. 

As Battier says at 1:05 in the video up above, analytics help "mitigate risk. If you can reduce your risk in a basketball game and limit the things that beat you...obviously you're going to be more successful as a player."

This brings up one more pertinent quote from Lewis' article on Battier: 

The ideal outcome, from the Rockets’ statistical point of view, is for Bryant to dribble left and pull up for an 18-foot jump shot; force that to happen often enough and you have to be satisfied with your night. “If he has 40 points on 40 shots, I can live with that,” Battier says. “My job is not to keep him from scoring points but to make him as inefficient as possible.” The court doesn’t have little squares all over it to tell him what percentage Bryant is likely to shoot from any given spot, but it might as well.

Players without world-class athleticism are at an inherent disadvantage, which makes mitigating risk even more important—no movement can be wasted, and no decisions can be flawed. Figuring out a scouting report and applying it, as Battier discusses above in the Lewis passage, is crucial.

More players are starting to embrace this statistical side of the game, and that's why you'll see guys with limited athleticism continue to flourish even as the league grows increasingly athletic. In many ways, this step of the process serves as a microcosm of the blueprint this type of player must employ. It's all about maximizing the physical gifts you do have. 

Whether you're working with analytics to gain a mental advantage, attempting to do all the little things in spite of the fact that they might not be properly credited, or developing your one true calling card, everything is done in an attempt to make a lot out of a little. 

Battier is the prototypical example of a player who has done exactly that, but he wasn't the first. He most certainly won't be the last, either. With Battier's career winding down, it's almost time for a new player to become the posterboy of the unathletic studs. 

Will it be a younger player who's already in the league? Could Jared Dudley step up and accept the torch now that he's in a promising situation with the Los Angeles Clippers? What if Jimmer Fredette breaks out during his third NBA season? 

The next Battier could also be a player who has yet to hit the Association ranks. He could very well be someone like Doug McDermott, still set to dominate college basketball at Creighton for another year, or even an incoming rookie. Deshaun Thomas, Matthew Dellavedova and Kelly Olynyk could all fit the mold.

Whoever he may be, he is out there. You won't find him filling up highlight reels on YouTube like Andrew Wiggins and Aaron Gordon, but he's lurking, waiting for his opportunity to strengthen that premier skill and start doing the little things.   

And just like with Shane Battier, something tells me that's exactly how he likes it.