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Finding the ‘It’ Factor: Andrea Bargnani

Finding the ‘It’ Factor: Andrea Bargnani
Mar 01, 2007, 11:50 pm
Why is it that players with ‘it’ often seem to have nicknames that make reference to a power beyond the physical?

Ervin ‘Magic’ Johnson, Hakeem ‘The Dream’ Olajuwon, Shawn ‘The Matrix’ Marion- all earned nicknames for their other-worldly basketball abilities, but the qualities that came to define their games on the deepest level seem to point to something outside of the realm of basketball for the source of their unique artistic powers on the court.

Is there something more to the odd correlation between the nicknames these players with the ‘it’ factor garner, and the ambiguous nature of the ‘it’ factor itself? Perhaps the vagueness of what we mean when we refer to a player as having ‘it’ is the cause of these similarly enigmatic nicknames? We’ve got a natural tendency to deify that which we don’t understand. Maybe when these special players create the type of stupefying moments that give rise to their reputations, we observers, in our mesmerized state, become opened up to some type of archetypal human experience, and the mystical qualities that characterize that state? There’s got to be some reason why we shell out the billions annually that we do on sports entertainment. We’re waiting for that inexplicable moment. That instant when the line between sport and art becomes blurred, and the memories of which decay into our shared mythology.

Being able to observe a young player grow into the type of talent that is capable of taking over a game through willing these kinds of moments is a rare treat for any basketball fan. Like watching Neo discover his control of the Matrix, fans in Toronto have been privy to another such becoming in the form of their first pick overall, Andrea Bargnani.

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It is no coincidence that the Italian’s nickname ‘Il Mago’ translates into the ‘The Magician’ in English. Observing the stages that a unique talent like Il Mago has traversed, and must still traverse, to be able to realize the potential for greatness that he has within him is a window into something rare. But this secret isn’t going to remain under wraps for very long. Just this week ESPN did a story on Bargnani in which the source of his potential may have been slightly demystified. Like learning how to do the card trick that baffled you a few moments before, as details begin to emerge about the young Italian, the real-world pieces begin to fit together.

When NBA prospects enter the draft, they are often subjected to psychological testing, the kind that measure the personality factors that are considered most relevant for success on the basketball court. When Bryan Colangelo, Raptors GM, learned of Bargnani’s results on the test, the result was dramatic, he nearly dropped the phone.

“They said his upside and potential were off the charts,” and went on to continue, “they said, ‘Out of all the athletes we’ve profiled, we’ve never seen anything like this.’”

Those are significant words, but the same test said that Bosh didn’t have ‘it’ only three years earlier, and he seems to be doing just fine. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. By expanding on what it is exactly that Bargnani possesses that gives him his magic, we’re going to have to deconstruct the very meaning of what it means to say a player has ‘it’. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a literary exercise, although it will require us to look at the role of statistics in evaluating NBA prospects.

I recently read an excellent article by a writer on this site. If you haven’t read it, check it out. The article applies a wonderfully revealing analysis to the 2006 rookies. Bargnani’s status as a ‘real’ number one pick is placed into question as an outcome of the statistical process applied to his production. Indeed, this has been a central question surrounding the young rookie since the moment David Stern announced him as the first pick in the draft. Is he a disappointment in the context of other number ones?

Too often scouting reports allow the reader to become ensnared in the details. The inventory of a player’s strengths and weaknesses on the court are categorized systematically, and ultimately the forest is lost for the trees. The ability of the reader to place the player in a talent context is beyond the natural limitations of this common scouting format. If a comparison is made, there is no meaningful way to substantiate the comparison because no inventory of skills can tell you about a player’s ability to improve, learn, listen to guidance, etc...

Have you ever read a scouting report that compare this-or-that NBA prospect to a future Hall of Famer? Regardless of whatever degree of similarity there may exist between two players’ skill sets, the comparison usually becomes confused when it comes to the actual potential or value of the prospect involved. Stats can never tell the whole story, and the underlying theme of this report is going to center around exactly what it is that stats fail to reveal when evaluating any basketball prospect, and why this failure is relevant when speaking of Bargnani, specifically.

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So what is the source of Il Mago’s magic? What could possibly allow us to look past his modest statistical production and talk about him as true number one? The answer comes to us in the riddle of supervenience.

Bargnani is an excellent example of why the concept of supervenience is central to the process of scouting players. More importantly, what separates an excellent prospect from a truly blue chip player is often found in this mysterious concept, as we will see in the contrast between Bargnani and his fellow front court dynamo Chris Bosh.

Supervenience is what separates most number one picks from the rest of the pack. Here’s the basic idea: Take one part Gestalt psychology, one part artistic interpretation, add a hint of the concept of Zen unity, and you’ve got supervenience. Doesn’t sound like a basketball concept, does it? Perhaps the meaning of the term is already to be found in our common basketball language, and we just haven’t identified it?

We already use this concept in basketball but we call it by another name. The corollary of supervenience in basketball language is commonly referred to as the ‘it’ factor. Don’t let how commonly the concept is used fool you, it’s very misunderstood and well-guarded against the prying eyes of statisticians.

Have you ever wondered what it is in Kobe Bryant that makes him so deadly at the end of games? It’s something more than just his skill-set that strikes fear in the hearts of opposing coaches. Coaches know that Kobe lives for those moments, and through sheer force of will, they know he can effect a game’s outcome through qualities that go beyond just his basketball ability.

All great athletes understand supervenience intuitively. It’s the ability to raise your consciousness above the game itself, and view the game as a whole organism of moving pieces and sets. It’s the ability to see and influence the events on the floor from a particular mood space. Players often refer to this mood space as the ‘zone’, but in sports psychology it might be better explained in terms of being in a zone of optimal physiological arousal.

The science of being in the ‘zone’ is something of a mystery to those that study elite athletes, even if the physiological state associated with it is not. You can wire up a Buddhist monk and describe the brainwave activity when the monk enters into a Zen-like state of meditation, but if you want to capture the power of that state, you can’t do it by looking at an EEG readout. Indeed, this Zen quality was one of the ways used to describe the concept we’re after, as it applies to Bargnani. The subjective feeling of being in a Zen state is one of unity and connection with ones surroundings. The basketball correlate is that state of awareness that a player can enter wherein that same sense of unified connection is achieved with the flow of the game as though it were a whole organism, the rules of the game making up its physical properties.

The study of the idea of ‘the zone’ is increasingly being placed under the microscope as the field of sport moves into a new relationship with science. Our understanding of the physical processes of athletic competition is becoming renewed through innovation in technology. The very nature of scouting is being changed. The danger is that, as we move towards quantifying everything possible, we increasingly distance ourselves from what drives competition- the human competitive spirit.

We need to look for the spaces in between the box scores if we’re going to unravel what is lost when a statistical perspective is given primacy over what truly determines a player’s value. To do so, we need only look to a favorite past time of draft fans everywhere, the combine results. Each year, just as players are psychologically tested, they’re also tested for their athletic responses. You could almost call it a type of basketball physical, where the athletic health of the player is placed under intense scrutiny.

Why do we care about combine results? What do these results say about the player’s ability to succeed at the next level? We believe that by parsing apart the various athletic tests, we can better gauge who has the requisite athletic gifts to be able to compete in the NBA. There are countless counter-examples of players that defied these parameters, and most of them defied these measures as a result of the same qualities that make our current case study, Bargnani, a special player. They succeed not in spite of their athletic characteristics, but rather the cause of their success is ‘above and beyond’ those characteristics.

Players with the ‘it’ quality often have an innate ability to both enter and maintain the psychological state known as ‘the zone’. You can see it in their eyes. They become focused and appear as though they’re possessed. This cognitive state of supreme concentration has a very direct impact on a person’s perception of time. Players that are in this state will often refer to their subjective impression of “time slowing down”.

The advantages of being able to enter this type of consciousness in the waning seconds of a game are obvious. If we could go back in time and do an fMRI on Michael Jordan as he receives the ball from an out-of-bounds play in the last second of an NBA playoff game, how would his brain activation pattern differ from that of the average athlete? Would there be any difference at all, and if so, could we call this snapshot of the brain’s electrochemical state in the instant he shoots the ball the ‘it’ factor?

Supervenience is a term that is borrowed directly from the philosopher Donald Davidson to describe this peculiar relationship between the mind and the brain. To better understand it, let’s take a look somewhere completely unrelated to basketball.

Imagine you’re looking at the Mona Lisa. What quality is it that makes the painting beautiful? Is it a property of the paints used? Is it the finesse of the brushstrokes? Or is it something else? Beauty is a supervenient property. Beauty can’t be reduced to its components, but rather it is something emergent from the whole that cannot be isolated. Hence the reference to Gestalt psychology as part of the clue to it’s meaning. This suggests that the ‘it’ factor could be connected to what defines us as uniquely human, or perhaps it’s just the ‘ghost in the machine’.

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In the case of Bargnani, the ‘it’ factor is a supervenient property that cannot be reduced to his buttery jumper or his physique. It’s a quality that all great players have, and yet it can’t be described except in terms of vague psychological notions like ‘determination’ and ‘killer instinct’. Whether we’re talking about the painting of his ancestral countryman or his own basketball ability, the unifying theme is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, whether we’re talking about art, or differentiating the top prospects from the ones that have ‘it’. It’s also the major reason why stats should never be the primary means with which to evaluate prospects.

Spotting the ‘it’ factor in players is what differentiates the good GM’s from the great ones. It’s one of those fun and enigmatic things where, if you can’t see it, no one can teach you how to see it. Sort of like those bloody MagicPicture things that look like a simple coloured pattern on the surface but contain a hidden image if you’re able to focus your eyes in a particular way. I can stare at those things for hours and fail to see the underlying image, while someone else can look at it and spot the image right away.

The challenge of the draft is in trying to spot the sculpture locked underneath the granite before anyone else. An important conclusion to take from this example is that the ‘it’ factor is observer-dependent. In basketball terms, this means that without the recognition from others, the potential locked away in a player who possesses this quality will remain unnoticed or untapped.

Maybe the best key to decoding the mystery of supervenience can be found in those magical moments on the basketball court that don’t show up on the stat sheet. Moments of preternatural anticipation, the kind that often find expression in the form of a beautiful pass or a critical basket when a team is on the ropes. It’s impossible to quantify the innate awareness of timing and motion, the ability to understand angles and geometry on a moving hardwood chess board that the great ones have. Certainly Magic Johnson got his name because he saw the game with a natural gift for the awareness we’re talking about. So does that mean it’s an awareness level? We might be getting warmer, but we’re still not quite there yet.

If Bargnani defies the statistical interpretations of his rookie season, as it compares to past number ones, it will have more to do with what he’s shown in terms of consciousness, rather than the speed of the release of his already money-in-the-bank jumper. The relative level of a player’s consciousness on the basketball court is seen often in how developed their sense of their role is. Players that are able to achieve that sought-after state of being purely responsive to the game around them, and are simply able to identify and wait for the opposition to make a mistake are in an ideal state of consciousness for the game of basketball. They are in complete harmony with their role and have the unique ability to “play within themselves” that comes from their unconscious awareness of Zen basketball synchronicity.

Steve Nash, quite possibly the most conscious player in the league, controls the game in exactly this manner. He’ll use his dribble to probe and all the while he has his head up. He’s not attacking so much as he’s waiting. He’s waiting for the mistake that will present itself and lead to an easy opportunity for his self or a teammate, and who it ends up being never enters his mind. He’s waiting because he knows that he has the capacity to be able to wait out his opposition. He’s in greater physiological control of his mood on the floor, his level of concentration, and his awareness of what is happening around him. It is not his vertical jump or his wingspan that gives him his advantage, but confidence in his mind. Players that improve throughout their careers understand this. Bargnani has the potential to become this type of player. Is ‘it’ a type of confidence, then? The belief that you can control the game, individually?

There is no connection between playing within your role and your ability to dominate. Steve Nash plays within his role and is dominant. Gilbert Arenas plays outside of his role, or without a clear role, and still dominates. The difference is that Nash’s teams win. This example shows us that confidence might not be the defining feature that we’re looking for, even if it might still be a pre-requisite.

What separates their relative impact, if not for their statistical contributions to their teams? The answer is that everything in basketball happens within a team context. Just as once upon a time philosophy forgot Being, many of the NBA stars of today have forgot the primacy of team basketball. The question is: Why?

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