NBA Draft Analysis and the Color of a Player’s Skin

I know this is something that everyone has noticed. Typically the NBA Draft predominantly contains players with two different skin colors, black and white — Sprewell and Gugliotta, if you’d rather this conversation take place in the NBA JAM universe.

Seriously, I don’t want to get into any topic that suggests some sort of racism in the drafting analyses, because it works for and against players at the same time, but there is an almost undeniable effort made to force players to fit into a certain type based on their skin color.

I know you know exactly what I mean.

Here’s an illustration. Below, you’ll see two sets of numbers measured at the combine, followed by part of the NBADraft.net commentary. One player is white, the other is black. Try to guess which one is which.

Player 1

  • Lane Agility: 10.87
  • ¾ Court Sprint: 3.16
  • “X’s game is marked by “electricity” and explosiveness. Plays with an undefinable burst, seemingly moving in warp speed while everyone else is standing still.”
  • 10/10 Quickness rating

Player 2

  • Lane Agility: 10.42
  • ¾ Court Sprint: 3.21
  • “Will his lateral foot speed be a liability?”
  • 7/10 Quickness rating

What do those numbers look like to you? To me, it appears that both players are very close in the two quickness measurements, and if anything, the second player is a bit quicker. Player 1 is Kemba Walker and Player 2 is Jimmer Fredette. I’d say these two have extremely comparable games, both creating a lot of offense on their own. Kemba is a better defender and can jump higher, but Jimmer shoots a higher percentage from everywhere and is overall a lot stronger physically.

Sure, the statistics would probably prove it true, but isn't there something else you can talk about?

These two are ranked right near each other on the NBADraft.net point guard ratings (Kemba is 3, Jimmer is 4) and overall ratings (Kemba is 8, Jimmer is 9), so they are clearly near one another in terms of ability, but the analysis forced them into pre-determined roles based on observations made of other players.

Are you ready for the flip side of this coin? The same site also talks about the mental aspect of the game. Here are excerpts the comments about both players:

Walker: “Kemba’s main flaw, other than his size, seems to be his poor decision making,” “he’ll never be mistaken for an orchestrator or true lead guard.”

Fredette: “Very unselfish … Very high basketball IQ … Gym rat, always focused on improving his game … Smart, well-spoken kid that always seems to impress in his interviews” (I didn’t add the …s, those are in there for real. It’s like they got to the end and said “he doesn’t sound white enough, can we add some things?”

Come on. Kemba can’t be a true lead guard? He won the NCAA Tournament just a few months ago practically by himself. The Fredette writeup is literally a mad lib following this pattern: Jimmer Fredette was good in college. He is (white player stereotype)…(another white player stereotype) … (another white player stereotype) … (keep ‘em coming) …

I’m not trying to pick on NBADraft.net, which is a site that I respect and use heavily to analyze prospects. You can find comments like this everywhere. I will admit to using some selective editing in terms of what I copied and pasted, but I did that in the interest of staying concise and I don’t think I’ve altered the overall attitude of the analysis.

You can find similar comments on almost any comparable players, it’s not just Walker and Fredette, but I thought this was a premier pair of players that people would know.

In general, there is a narrative based on a player’s race that gets pushed about that player, regardless of actual on-court ability, draft combine measurements or in-game stats. Here are the typical words or phrases that I’ve noticed, and I know you have too:

Black players

  • Athletic/Athleticism
  • Raw ability
  • High ceiling
  • Quick/ Explosive
  • Natural talent

White players

  • High basketball IQ
  • Works hard
  • Finesse player
  • Intangibles
  • Good decision-makers

The list could go on, but I’m sure you see exactly what I mean. It seems to me like the overwhelming narrative surrounding black players is that they are more impressive physically than the white players; while the white players are more impressive mentally than the black players. You can hear it every year.

Kemba Walker will never be a true lead guard, as evidenced by this clearly-doctored picture of him with the NCAA Championship trophy.

I’m not trying to say that all the athletes are the same. Some athletes genuinely do shoot better percentages, have higher verticals, know more about the game, work harder, or put more effort into practice. I don’t know the larger-scale stats on this but the stereotypes probably reflect some degree of actual pragmatism and are based off of relevant observations of past players.

What bothers me about the conversations of these athletes is how rarely the real skills of a player are discussed. It seems like the conversation always defaults to these stereotypes at the first available opportunity.

I know that the commentators on Thursday night’s draft are paid to act like they actually know a lot about each player, when it’s completely unrealistic to expect that. They have to talk about something, don’t they? I’m sure there are exceptions. Derrick Williams will almost surely be commended for his “basketball IQ” on Thursday, and if there is in fact such a thing as basketball IQ, he’s got loads of it. Jan Vesely will be called “athletic” several times because he is.

But in general, these exceptions are hard to come by after the first few picks. When the commentary window shortens and the players are more obscure, the coverage always falls into this rut. I don’t know what to suggest in order to fix this problem, or even if it is a problem, but to me, it’s a little bit discouraging, and I was wondering how you guys feel. I’ve been doing an insane amount of research for my mock draft (coming Wednesday and Thursday) and I’ve been pretty upset about things I’ve been reading. What do you guys think? Is this an issue? Let me know.

On a more relevant side note, don’t forget to enter my 2011 NBA Draft Contest, which actually has real and valuable prizes. I’ll be posting some thoughts on the draft this week, so keep coming back and start commenting.

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