Talent in college basketball in need of a new definition

Monday February 3rd, 2014

The energy Kentucky's Dakari Johnson plays with is a talent not easily defined by statistics.
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"They came out fighting and we were passive. When you have one team that has real energy and the other team's playing passive, you're getting killed. Talent's out the window."

That was how Kentucky coach John Calipari explained his team's first-half deficit to ESPN sideline reporter Shannon Spake during the Wildcats' game at LSU last Tuesday. Kentucky went on to lose, 87-82.

Calipari was partly right. LSU was indeed playing with more energy, but talent was not out the window. It was very much in the house. LSU just had more of it.

What do I mean? To paraphrase Calipari's good friend Bill Clinton, it all depends on what the definition of the word talent is. In basketball, people tend to define "talent" based on two physical traits: speed and jumping ability. I believe that definition is way too narrow. There are many other variations that can be far more important in determining who wins a basketball game.

Thus, it's time to broaden our understanding of this oft-used but poorly-defined word. Much like ESPN's Jay Bilas reshaped the meaning of the word toughness with his terrific column and book of the same name, I'd like to start a similar conversation that re-boots the meaning of talent. Here are nine categories that should be included the next time you are playing the role of talent scout:

Energy. At first blush, it appears that Kentucky sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein has a lot of "talent." He's tall and graceful and he's quick off his feet, which is why he can be so effective as a shot blocker. But over the last few weeks, Cauley-Stein looks as if he has been sleepwalking. As a result, Calipari has benched Cauley-Stein in favor of freshman Dakari Johnson. Johnson lacks some of Cauley-Stein's physical gifts, but he plays with a lot more energy. In my dictionary, that makes him more talented.

Anyone can have energy while playing in front of a raucous home crowd against a ranked opponent. It takes a talented player to go all-out in a road game being played in a half-empty arena. Tell me before a game which team is going to play with more energy, and I don't have to ask which one has better runners and jumpers. Chances are, the team with more energy is going to win.

Concentration. Physical energy is one thing. Mental energy is quite another. They are linked to a point -- it's harder to concentrate when you're tired -- but they are two separate talents. Being an effective player requires the ability to read the game, see plays develop, recall the scouting report (assuming he has taken the time to study it) and make instantaneous decisions. Quickness is a wonderful asset, but if a player can think quickly, he will get to his desired spot before his opponent does.

In my lifetime, the most talented athlete I've seen in this area has been Tiger Woods. For all the majors that Tiger has won, his most impressive accomplishment was going 142 straight tournaments without missing a cut. Think about how hard he had to concentrate to make that happen, grinding out the last few holes on a Friday when he didn't have his A game. Likewise, think about the number of times you have seen a team lose an NCAA tournament game because of a careless mental error on a late possession. Such mistakes are less likely to occur early in the game when the mind is fresh. It takes a talented player to keep his mind sharp even when his legs are dead.

Discipline. You won't find too many more "talented" big men than Josh Smith. A 6-foot-10, 350-pound junior from Kent, Wash., Smith was a much-heralded recruit coming out of high school. Sure, his body was not in great shape, but he had a dancer's feet and had Velcro hands. It was considered a major coup for Ben Howland when Smith decided to go to UCLA.

Problem is, Smith does not have the discipline to match his innate gifts. His eating and social habits keep getting in the way. Smith transferred to Georgetown, but after a promising start this season, he has been declared academically ineligible. People say that Smith is wasting his talent. With all due respect to the young man, I say he doesn't have enough of it.

The same can be said for former Louisville forward Chane Behanan, a 6-6 junior who was finally booted out of Louisville's basketball program in late December following repeated violations of university policy. Behanan recently announced he was transferring to Colorado State.

It takes talent to restrict your diet, stay away from parties and fulfill your duties off the court. What good is running and jumping if you're constantly overweight, breaking the rules or failing to show up for class?

Work ethic. Not only is this part of talent, I would argue it's the most important part. A player who works hard can overcome physical limitations. If he doesn't, all the "talent" in the world will not get him anywhere.

By any definition, Sam Young was one of the most gifted athletes to play for Pittsburgh. A 6-6 forward from Washington, D.C., Young could have been an Olympic-level gymnast if he dedicated himself. Panthers coach Jamie Dixon will never forget the day Young took his official visit. When Dixon showed him a space with a big gymnastics mat, Young walked onto the mat and did a series of backward handsprings without any effort.

But those talents aren't what led Young to be an All-America by his senior year. He was so devoted to his workouts that he went to a Walmart and purchased an air mattress so he could sleep in the locker room. The way Young figured it, the 20 minutes it took for him to drive back and forth to his off-campus apartment was wasted time. He'd rather be working hard.

If I were Dixon, I would have left Young's mattress in the locker so all future Panthers could see it. Above it I would hang a sign that read: "Sam Young slept here. Dude was talented."

Leadership. What, exactly, makes a good leader? Yes, you've got to have some sis-boom-bah. You've got to be able to call a team meeting and set a good example. But a great leader must also be willing to say unpleasant things, even if the person hearing it is a better player.

It takes a special talent to be able to take charge of one's peers, thereby risking ridicule and hostility. One person who stands out in my mind is Travis Walton, a 6-2 guard from Lima, Ohio, who played for Michigan State from 2006-10. In all my years covering college basketball, I have never seen a player take charge of a practice like Walton did during his senior year. He would stand at center court and bark out orders during drills -- just like an assistant coach, only louder. If Walton saw something that displeased him, he would let his teammates know. All this from a guy who averaged 4.2 points per game during his college career.

I saw a similar display during an informal workout at Duke in September, when senior guard Tyler Thornton ripped into Jabari Parker for making a sloppy play. "That's a b------- turnover!" Thornton yelled. Parker was irritated, but he knew Thornton was right -- and that Thornton had his best interests at heart. You might be thinking it takes a lot of guts for a role-playing senior to talk that way to a future NBA lottery pick. I think it takes a lot of talent.

Conditioning. Yes, this can be developed. If you work hard in the weight room and on the track, you are going to be in better shape. But some athletes have a physiological makeup that prevents them from getting tired the way others do. Much of this is due to biological and environmental factors. There's an expression in long-distance running that says the most important thing a runner can do is choose his or her parents wisely. How else to explain why so many elite marathon runners come from Kenya?

Lots of basketball players put in the time to get into better shape, yet when a game enters its final minutes, some guys are tired, and others are not. The difference isn't always how hard they work. Some players are simply more talented.

Footwork. The ability to react in a fraction of a second, move your feet, and apply your weight without losing balance is another overlooked talent. Look at Kansas center Joel Embiid. He stands 7-foot-1, and he has only been playing basketball for a few years. Yet, his footwork is exquisite. Much of that can be traced his boyhood years playing volleyball and soccer, but it is also innate.

A big man with great footwork can overcome a lot of shortcomings. Think about former Michigan forward Robert "Tractor" Traylor and former LSU forward Glen Davis. Neither had the type of build you would expect in an effective player, but their footwork was so good, they were able to become pros.

I recently asked former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher what made Jerome Bettis a great running back. I expected him to say something about Bettis' strength, but instead he remarked that Bettis had the quickest feet of any player he had ever seen. That, Cowher said, was why Bettis lasted in the league for so long without wearing down, because he rarely took direct hits. That's a rare talent.

Shooting. There are certain basic fundamentals that go into shooting a basketball, but just as no two golf swings are alike, so too does each player have unique nuances in his shooting motion. There is something mysterious about the collection of factors that goes into balance, weight transfer, lift, release and touch, all of which decide whether the ball will splash through the net or glance off the rim.

Yet, too often great shooters like Oklahoma State's Phil Forte, Michigan's Nik Stauskas, Missouri's Jabari Brown or Duke's Andre Dawkins get dismissed as being the result of long hours in the gym. Yes, those guys have put in their practice time, but that does not fully explain their ability to loft the ball into the basket in so many different ways.

On the flip side, consider Ohio State senior guard Aaron Craft. Is there any doubt that he has spent countless hours in empty gyms trying to become a decent outside shooter? Yet, no matter how he huffs, no matter how he puffs, Craft just can't blow that house down. He is gifted in many areas, especially between his ears, but this is one talent he clearly lacks.

Feel. A basketball player makes countless decisions during the course of a game. Most of them are barely noticeable: When to drive, when to hold the ball, when to shoot, when to pass, when to attack, when to slow down, when to set a screen, when to clear out. The game is based on read-and-react action, yet many players never quite establish the feel for the game that enables them to be great.

Exhibit A is Draymond Green, a 6-7, 230-pound forward formerly of Michigan State and currently with the Golden State Warriors. Looking at Green's size and body type, there's no logical explanation for why he should be such an effective NBA player. But his feel for the game leads him to figure out how to help his team win.

The same, incidentally, applies to coaches. Lots of coaches are smart, hard-working and skilled at motivation. But the very best of them can immerse themselves in a game, sense how things are going, and make a substitution or adjustment that alters the game in their team's favor, even if that decision goes against the percentages. If you ask these coaches afterward what was going through their minds at the time, they would be unable to answer. That's because they weren't thinking. They were feeling.

That's talent.

Other Hoop Thoughts

• What a bummer that Arizona sophomore forward Brandon Ashley is done for the season with a broken foot, which he suffered in the opening minutes of the Wildcats' loss at Cal on Saturday night. Ashley was Arizona's third-leading scorer and rebounder, but the real reason this injury is so costly is because it hurts the team's depth. Sean Miller was only using a seven-man rotation as it is; his other four starters each played at least 35 minutes against Cal. That is not sustainable in the long term. Considering how wrong we were to write off Michigan after Mitch McGary got hurt, I'd caution against overreacting to Ashley's injury, but make no mistake: This is a very serious blow to Arizona's national championship hopes.

• Don't expect too much from Chris Walker, the freshman forward who will finally play for Florida Tuesday night against Missouri. But even if Walker can only give the Gators 10 minutes off the bench, during which he grabs some rebounds and blocks a couple of shots, he will make a team that is already very good a little bit better. And often times, that little bit is the difference between an Elite Eight and a national championship.

BELLER: Florida gets Walker back and moves up to a well-deserved No. 1 seed

• Add San Diego State sophomore forward Winston Shepard to my All-X factor team. He is still not a good outside shooter (just three made three-pointers all season), but his shot selection is vastly improved, and he's the only player on that roster who can offer a scoring complement to senior guard Xavier Thames.

• Remember, these are the Dog Days of February. We always see some crazy upsets this time of year. What, exactly, was Michigan State playing for on Saturday when it lost 64-60 to Georgetown at Madison Square Garden? Nothing. The Hoyas were trying to save their season. Ditto for Kansas' loss at Texas. I still think the Jayhawks' season will end at the Final Four in Arlington, and if the Spartans ever get fully healthy, the same fate awaits them.

• Speaking of which, Michigan State is hoping to get senior center Adreian Payne back this week. It's hard to believe that it has been a month since he last played in a game. Payne has been nursing a foot injury, but it's obvious that Michigan State needs him to return to the lineup and stay there.

• It's tough to see Marcus Smart struggle like this. Over his past four games he's shooting just 24.5 percent from the floor and averaging 14.3 points per game. He's a great competitor who turned down a chance to be a top-three NBA draft pick so he could try to take his team to the Final Four. This is a classic case of a guy wanting something too much. Hopefully, Smart will relax and start to make some shots, because that 39-point performance against Memphis on Nov. 19 feels like a loooong time ago.

• Checking in on the latest Earnest Ross three-and-free-meter: Against Kentucky on Saturday, Missouri's 6-5 senior guard, who is making under 30 percent from three-point range, attempted six three-pointers and four free throws. Missouri lost the game. Not a coincidence.

• Where have you gone, Frank Kaminsky?

• Can't remember the last time a game was so mega-hyped like that Syracuse-Duke game ... and then exceeded it. What a great night for college basketball. I'd be up for those teams meeting three more times, including at the Final Four. Sound like a plan?

• Anyone else notice that Saint Louis is 20-2? The Billikens' only losses came against Wisconsin and Wichita State. That's what a starting lineup of five seniors will do for you.

• Rough week for Pitt. Two good teams on their home floor, two losses to Duke and Virginia. Pitt has plenty of respectable losses, but right now its best win came on a neutral court over Stanford. Underwhelming.

• All of a sudden UMass can't buy a win. After starting out 16-1, the Minutemen have lost three of their last four, including last week at St. Bonaventure and Saint Joseph's. UMass is hard to beat when it is operating at a quick tempo, but if the Minutemen want to be a factor in the tournament, they have to learn to beat teams 65-60, too.

• How fun would it be to have Larry Brown back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since he led Kansas to the 1988 title? His SMU squad took a big step on Saturday by beating Memphis at home, but the Mustangs need a couple of decent road wins to buffer their case.

AXSON: Brown engineeering yet another turnaround with Mustangs

• Two rules that are never enforced: Palming, and the coaches' box. I have to check the rule book just to make sure those rules are still there.

• Speaking of the rulebook, credit my CBS Sports Network colleague Steve Lappas for enhancing my understanding of the traveling call. When Ohio State's Lenzelle Smith, Jr., jumped into the air, grabbed a rebound and fell to the ground late in the Buckeyes' win at Wisconsin, he was whistled for traveling. I thought the call was incorrect because Smith didn't stand up with the ball, but Lappas pointed out correctly that if a player takes possession of the ball and falls, then he has committed a traveling violation. If the player is on the ground and then grabs the ball, he is not traveling unless he stands up with it. Got it?

• We've always known that Tim Floyd is an outstanding coach, but what he's doing at UTEP this season is truly amazing. Since the school dismissed three players, including its leading scorer, for gambling last month, the Miners have gone 6-1 and are now in second place in Conference USA. Betcha didn't see that coming. Betcha Floyd didn't, either.

• Why is it that I've seen lots of coaches throw off their suit jackets in anger but I've never seen one put his jacket on again afterward? Is it considered unmanly to put the jacket back on? Seems to me it's a good idea if only because it gives a guy the option to throw it off again.

• The most inspired performance from last weekend was turned in by Baylor senior guard Gary Franklin. He stepped in for the team's starting point guard, Kenny Chery, who was out with an injured shoulder, and made three huge late threes to push the Bears to a stunning win at Oklahoma State. As for Chery, I loved how he cheered on his teammates so hard from the sidelines. There are lots of things that go into winning, you know.

• Major props to Briante Weber, who became VCU's all-time steals leader over the weekend. Havoc, indeed.

• Bravo as well to Davidson for naming its court after Bob McKillop. Davidson is a wonderful program, and McKillop is a national treasure.

• Finally, in honor of the brilliant actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died on Sunday of an apparent drug overdose, I encourage you to take a few minutes to watch his 2005 Oscar acceptance speech for Best Actor, which he won for his work in Capote. During the speech, Hoffman thanks his mother for staying up late with him to watch the Final Four.

READ MORE: Five games to watch ... Craziest ending ever ... Seth's top 25

Oklahoma State will need Marcus Smart to rediscover his early-season form when it plays Iowa State.
Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Craziest ending ever: Sacramento State 78, Weber State 75 (OT)

By now, you've probably heard about -- and seen -- Sacramento State guard Dylan Garrity's 75-foot heave that beat Weber State in overtime on Saturday night. That, however, was just the capper of what I would contend was the craziest final 15 seconds of any game in the history of college basketball. Here's how it went down:

• With Sacramento State leading 71-70 in overtime, its coach, Brian Katz, was called for a technical foul for excessively protesting a call. That gave Weber State four free throws. It made two to take a one-point lead.

• On the ensuing possession, there was a scramble for a loose ball, which ended with Weber State coach Randy Rahe protesting a call himself. He also got teed up. At the same time, a Weber State player called a time out his team did not have. That earned an additional technical foul. So now it was Sacramento State's turn to shoot four free throws. It made all four to take a three-point lead with six seconds to play in OT. Weber State ball.

• With 0.7 seconds on the clock, Weber State guard Davion Berry sank a 25-foot shot to tie the game at 75-all. It looked like they were heading to double overtime.

• After collecting the inbounds pass, Garrity let fly from three-quarters court. Swish. Ballgame.

Go ahead. Find me a crazier ending to any college basketball game, ever. I dare you.

Five Games I'm Psyched To See This Week

Iowa State at Oklahoma State, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN

The Cowboys need this win in the worst way, but more than that, they need Marcus Smart to starting being Marcus Smart again. I'll pick the Pokes because I like desperate home teams, but I don't like their long-term trajectory.

Oklahoma State 77, Iowa State 73

Missouri at Florida, Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Missouri's perimeter maturity might give Florida problems, but the Tigers will be overmatched inside, especially now that the Gators are adding Chris Walker to an already potent mix.

Florida 80, Missouri 70

Ohio State at Iowa, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Both these teams were fortunate to win on the road last weekend over Wisconsin and Illinois, respectively. Defensively, the Buckeyes are marginally better, but offensively the Hawkeyes are exponentially better. Plus, the Hawkeyes are playing at home.

Iowa 75, Ohio State 66

Wichita State at Indiana State, Wednesday, 8 p.m.

Upset Watch, take two. When these two teams met in Wichita a couple of weeks ago, the Shockers won by 20. Indiana State is still in second place in the Missouri Valley Conference, so this remains the game the Shockers are most likely to lose -- if they lose -- in conference play. I say it happens, finally.

Indiana State 66, Wichita State 64

UConn at Cincinnati, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN

The Bearcats made me a believer by winning at Louisville last week, but I was just as impressed that they avoided a trap-game loss by grinding out a win at home over South Florida on Sunday. UConn is playing better of late, but the Huskies' lack of physicality hurts them on the road. And you know the Bears are just dying to get physical.

Cincinnati 74, UConn 68

This Week's AP Ballot

(Last week's rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Syracuse (2)
2. Arizona (1)
3. Florida (3)
4. Michigan State (7)
5. Wichita State (5)
6. San Diego State (9)
7. Kansas (4)
8. Cincinnati (13)
9. Michigan (6)
10. Duke (23)
11. Iowa (8)
12. Villanova (12)
13. Louisville (17)
14. Texas (25)
15. Kentucky (11)
16. Iowa State (19)
17. Oklahoma (15)
18. St. Louis (20)
19. UConn (21)
20. Creighton (24)
21. Virginia (NR)
22. Memphis (18)
23. Pittsburgh (22)
24. Oklahoma State (10)
25. New Mexico (NR)

Dropped out: Wisconsin (14), UMass (18)

The first riddle I had to solve this week was what to do with Arizona. Clearly, the Wildcats should not keep their No. 1 ranking, but given that they lost Brandon Ashley in the opening minutes; given that Nick Johnson was clearly hobbled during a 1-for-14 shooting performance; and given that Cal still needed a late jumper to win the game at home, it didn't make sense to penalize the Wildcats too much. Yes, they're a diminished team without Ashley, but we can't just assume they're going to lose a ton of games without him. So for the time being, I'm giving the Cats the benefit of the doubt. As the Zen Master says: "We'll see."

Duke was my biggest mover-upper after its two outstanding road performances last week. The Blue Devils dominated Pitt in the second half, and they took Syracuse to the wire in the Carrier Dome. If you watched that game -- and I know you did -- then you know that the Orange was no better. They just won. Can't wait for round two.

You'll also notice that I am sticking with my pledge not to rank Wichita State higher than No. 5 due to the weakness of their competition. If the Shockers keep winning into March, that is going to be difficult line to hold, but we're a long way away from that.

It's hard to believe that Wisconsin and Ohio State were both ranked in the top five just a few weeks ago, yet neither has a number next to its name on my ballot. Virginia, which is in second place in the ACC (two games ahead of Duke) and won at Pitt on Sunday, was an easy choice to be added. I went with New Mexico at No. 25 because frankly, I did not see many good choices. Gonzaga is probably my first team out. The Zags have won six straight since their hiccup at Portland, but because the West Coast Conference is not real strong, it is hard for them to notch rank-worthy wins. They will, however, have a great chance on Saturday when they play at Memphis. That one should be fun.

Among the other schools I considered ranking were VCU, which is now 18-4 and plays back-to-back road games at St. Louis and UMass in two weeks; SMU, which put itself into the NCAA tournament picture with that win over Memphis; Southern Miss, which is 19-3 and tied for first place in Conference USA; and LSU, which beat Kentucky and Arkansas at home last week but has too many bad losses to be ranked as of yet.

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