the genius of lebron james

Bill Simmons has an article wondering if LeBron James is a genius, talking about his decision-making and tacit understanding of basketball.

When LBJ participated at the NBA combine as an 18 year old, he was 6’7 1/4 inches tall. Some sources say he has since grown to 6’8″. Since 2000, NHANES has measured heights on 6,267 US men between 18-45. Of these, 8 are 6’7″ or taller (1 in ~750), and 2 are 6’8″ or taller (1 in ~3000).

LBJ also had a 7’0 1/4″ inch wingspan at the NBA combine. This makes his wingspan to height ratio about 1.06, about the average for NBA players, but unusually large otherwise. That is, without even getting into his vertical leap, etc.: he’s got a > 99.95 percentile skeleton just by his height and arm length.

Toward the question of “genius”: two implications seem to follow.

1. More obvious is the potential for vast illusion about the extent to which anthropometrically “elite” people are imagined to be naturally psychologically “elite”.* Of course, extensive efforts are made by coaches and trainers to change the psychology of elite athletics, and, to the extent they are effective, one can end up with processes by which anthropometrically elite people are shaped toward being psychologically elite in terms of traits important to their sport.

2. Less obvious, perhaps, is that the more anthropometrically selective a sport is, the more opportunity there may be for somebody with an unusual psychological profile to stand out for that. Say “the will to win” was a real thing. If a sport was mostly about “the will to win,” then everybody in the competition would have a hyperdeveloped will to win, and not differ that conspicuously from one another. But, if you have enormous anthropometric selectivity just to get in the pool of the potentially elite players, then the idea that there could be significant psychological difference among those remaining seems much more plausible. In other words, that NBA players are such physical freaks relative to the general population actually makes the notion of their being psychological freaks relative to other NBA players more likely.

* By talking about people having “elite” traits, I mean they are uncommon in a direction that is beneficial for performance in the domain in question.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

10 thoughts on “the genius of lebron james”

  1. Jeremy, I want to make sure I’m reading the last part right. Are you trying to say that “given that only a handful of people have ideal physical skills for the NBA, they may or may not also have ideal psychological tools? Therefore, someone who has both will have a much larger advantage because some athletes may be pushed towards basketball just due to physical attributes?”

    An interesting comparison would be this article on Roy Hibbert from a few years ago:

    Among other things, Hibbert couldn’t do a push up or run down the court his freshman year at Georgetown. He had one outstanding and rare attribute – height – which got him a scholarship offer. Eventually he developed a work ethic to try and build other physical skills and sound decision making to best take advantage of his height.


  2. Yeah, I haven’t thought it all the way through, but I think that’s what I’m saying. I just skimmed the Hibbert piece, but, it also emphasizes how much stake there is for other people in trying to influence the psychology of somebody who is that anthropometrically elite. So say somebody has the potential to display an extraordinary work ethic if given the right environment. There’s going to be a lot more effort on the part of others to figure out that environment for somebody who is 7 foot tall than somebody who is average height.


  3. Here’s some of the same discussion about Michael Phelps:

    I think when we look at the tiny margins of difference in height or commitment generating an extra two points in a basketball game or .003 seconds in a front crawl, causation indecipherable. Moreover, I wonder whether such findings would suggest much out of sample prediction for the mechanisms affecting us mortals.


  4. Hmmm. I’m not a sports fan and not giving this a lot of thought, but I do know several of really tall people who do not play basketball. My 6’4″ brother is not NBA tall, but tall enough everyone thought he would be a HS BB player. Long arms too, 36″ sleeve, I don’t know how that computes to wingspan. But his hands are small, not much larger than mine and much smaller than my spouse’s; he can’t palm a ball and was no good at basketball. He was a runner. So there’s more to anthropometrics than just height or wingspan. But that isn’t your point.

    I can think of quite a few other really tall men (6’6″ or taller) who were not athletic and never went near any sport. So you have to at least care about the game or not be hostile to it.

    But the quote about game genius does not seem to be about will to win or something you can nurture, but about feel for the game, which might be more like how a top chess player sees a board. The conjunction of anthropometric extremity and game sense extremity could be rare. Presumably the psychological trait of seeing the game and having an intuition for it would tend to attract someone to the game.

    Not sure whether this actually adds anything to the discussion.


    1. OW, I think that this supports Jeremy’s argument. By definition, there is a limited pool of people with abnormal height. Some will have the desire to play basketball, some won’t — that will limit the pool further.

      Say that the distribution of psychological profiles in the pool of abnormally tall people and is the same distribution of psychological profiles in a pool of people randomly drawn from the population (e.g., NHANES). 952 men are required to fill out the rosters of the men’s NCAA tournament every year, and being tall is a physical requirement for 80% of those players, so the NCAA (as a whole) needs to select 762 tall men. Because there are so few tall men and even fewer that *want* to play basketball, then if you selected the 762 men in ranked order of psychological “genius,” then the 762nd man you select would have a lower psychological “genius” profile of 762 men drawn from the population at random.

      Of course, tall boys (who are more likely to become tall men) will be selected for more attention based on the potential to master the game, making them more likely to get a “feel for the game” (in the chess player sense) than the average boy picking up sports. Thus, Jeremy’s analogy to biology/environment interactions.

      I am pretty sure that I haven’t added anything to this conversation. But since it’s written, I’m posting it anyway.


      1. Mike’s mostly got what I’m trying to say. Although I would point out two things:

        1. 6’8″ is a *lot* different from 6’4″ in terms of how common it is (and 7’0″ is a *lot* different from 6’8″–maybe more on this later).

        2. I wonder what % of people who are 6’8″ and above who could conceivably be good at basketball don’t give it a serious shot. There’s such rewards in being good at it, and people really like to be good at things, and one has got such a strong leg up on it.


      2. You could make a list of star athletes and make an index comparing how many SDs they enjoy on a number of measurements relative to the mean of their peers in the sport.

        Also, if we are just making up scientistic fairytales here to rationalize stardom, there should be an analogue of this kind of dialogue (I was a rapper in a former life) in the sports press from Sometime Long Long Ago.


      3. This exchange led me to read up on Ron Taylor, the 7′ guy who graduated from my high school a year ahead of me. Not a particularly gifted athlete (he kind of lumbered around the court, as I recall) but he was recruited by USC and started the same year as Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul Jabbar) started at UCLA. Alcindor scored 56 points in their first meet-up. Taylor kept playing, apparently was drafted by the NBA but never played for them; he played basketball in Australia for a couple years and is now an actor.


  5. I skimmed the Bill Simmons article, and I’m wondering if there are multiple definitions of genius in there. In one part, he discusses Jordan’s ability to psych out opponents, to read them, etc. In another, he discusses LeBron’s strategy, decision-making, planning out his movements and “not wasting an ounce of energy.” And in yet another, he separates out the different kinds of genius of Jordan and Kobe (what they do is naturally good for the team) from the genius of Bird and Magic (they help build a team and fit themselves into the strengths and weaknesses of their teams).

    Doubtless to say having good intuition of all of these things probably makes someone a particularly special player.

    Speaking of genius and sports, Benjamin Morris at FiveThirtyEight has been absolutely obsessed with the statistical outlier that is Lionel Messi:


  6. Bill James discussed this regarding Reggie Jackson and other players, the idea that Jackson felt his hundreds of home runs were evidence of an excellent moral character and not merely excellent strength and coordination and lots of practice.


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