Today I found myself in a discussion with someone who was arguing that Luka Doncic will be a bust, because he lacks athleticism. This person was convinced that athleticism was absolutely essential to success in the NBA, going so far as to say "Not being super quick and/or athletic is a big flaw in the NBA. It is what turns potentially great players into mediocre ones."
This struck me as odd, since it seems trivially false. Hell the last year's MVP runner up and this year's likely MVP James Harden was viewed as having questionable athleticism when he was drafted:
A lot of Harden's efficiency comes from an area that most probably wouldn't expect it to. In spite of his perceived athletic limitations, Harden was a terrific finisher around the basket this season. - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/James-Harden-1241/ ©DraftExpress
Gordon Hayward, last year's premier FA, regarded as one of the best SFs in the game right now faced similar concerns:
His status as a small conference star with questionable athleticism elicits a wide spectrum of opinions when projecting him to the next level. - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Gordon-Hayward-5514/ ©DraftExpress
Last year's DPOY and 3x all-star Draymond Green's draft profile is worse than either of those (and, in hindsight, completely hilarious):
Despite this acclaim, Green fell victim to the standard talk-yourself-out-of-him evaluation that often happens to "low upside" upperclassmen, including here on DraftExpress: "Isn't quick or athletic" "Too small to play power forward ... Too slow to defend small forwards." - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Draymond-Green-5859/ ©DraftExpress
"But Viliphied," came the counterargument, "those are clearly outliers. They OBVIOUSLY have the requisite athleticism to succeed in the NBA. The scouts just missed it at the time."
My first response was "yes, and it's entirely possible that they're missing on Doncic too, so consigning him to doom because he 'lacks athleticism' is misguided." but then I thought "Well, maybe they have a point. Maybe they are outliers, and plus athleticism is required to play the wing in the NBA." So I did a little digging.
I went over to ESPN's RPM* leaderboard, sorted by "wins" and had a look at the first page of results.
In the top 40 players, there are 10 SFs:
Otto Porter Jr
Of those 10, four (James, George, Durant, and Tatum) were scouted as having plus athleticism. The other six all had athleticism listed as a weakness or concern about their ability to translate their skills to the NBA. (well, 5 did. Joe Ingles was not drafted, and thus has no draft profile to pull from, but come on. No one is mistaking him for a plus athlete. One of his nicknames on b-r is "Slow Moe Joe" for cryin' out loud). See if any of these sound familiar:
Middleton's first step off the dribble is not very impressive and he rarely gets past his man in isolation situations - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Khris-Middleton-6332/ ©DraftExpress
On the defensive end, Middleton still possesses many of the same issues we identified last time we profiled him, as he struggles to move well laterally and is prone to frequently being beat off the dribble in isolation. - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Khris-Middleton-6332/ ©DraftExpress
Against the tougher competition, Covington's game becomes decidedly more one-dimensional, as he just doesn't have the skill, strength and athleticism to consistently contribute outside of his superb outside shot. - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Robert-Covington-17037/ ©DraftExpress
Otto Porter Jr:
Not a particularly quick or explosive athlete, and also lacking significant strength, Porter struggles to blow by opponents in half-court situations purely using his first step - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Otto-Porter-6528/ ©DraftExpress
Porter finds other ways to impact the game, though, as he's one of the smartest and most polished prospects in this draft class, which is impressive considering he's still only 19 years old. - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Otto-Porter-6528/ ©DraftExpress
Anderson's "slo-mo" nickname wasn't given by accident, as he indeed lacks much in the way of the quickness or explosiveness you typically associate with NBA guards. His first step is average in the half-court, as he relies heavily on his terrific timing, ball-handling and hesitation moves to create an advantage, something that can be negated by better defenders. Will his passing ability be as effective if he's unable to get by opponents at quite the same rate? - Source:http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Kyle-Anderson-6177/©DraftExpress
Harris's lack of elite athleticism and size raises some questions about his defensive potential and one-on-one scoring ability at the next level, but he's extremely crafty, plays within himself, and has a maturity about him that is uncommon in a player who won't turn 19 until July. - Source: http://www.draftexpress.com/profile/Tobias-Harris-5740/ ©DraftExpress
A lot of those could be lifted as-is and put into a Luka Doncic draft profile and no one would even question it for a second. Now, does this mean that his athleticism isn't a concern at all? No. Does it mean he's guaranteed to be a top-40 player or top-10 SF? Of course not. What it DOES mean is that perhaps elite or even good athleticism isn't as necessary to success in the NBA as many people seem to think, and perhaps we should be more forgiving of a perceived lack of athleticism in prospects, especially if they make up for it with skills like playmaking ability, elite passing, or high BBIQ.
*I have my issues with RPM and don't completely trust the rankings, but it works pretty well as a catch-all, and you can be pretty confident that players ranked highly in RPM played well, at least as much as any other catch-all stat.