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Players, Athletes, and Hoopers: A Half-Baked Basketball Trichotomy

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The basketball labels you didn’t know that you didn’t need.

Brooklyn Nets v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The debate of “nature vs. nurture” is a fundamental aspect of modern human psychology. Knowing how people do what they do is a core part of our fundamental drive to better understand ourselves and the world around us, and the question can be applied everywhere. Yes, even to basketball.

This post started off as a half-baked idea rattling around in my head for a few months, then posted as a response in the Brew Hoop comments section, and then I took the conversation to Twitter. Another Twitter user then planted the seed for this post (essentially challenging me to write it), so we find ourselves here today.

Over the course of this post, I will present three archetypes that each individual in the NBA (and us amateur practitioners) can fit under, and where some notable members of the Milwaukee Bucks, past and present, can be found within its framework. Furthermore, I contend that there are also levels within each major archetype. These levels don’t necessarily indicate rank or proficiency (though they could), but rather how many different components of the archetype they demonstrate in their game. Additionally, these classifications are not much more than labels, though they can help interpret the differences between players and how they approach basketball.

Lastly, there is also a fourth section, a universal attribute that significantly impacts the overall ceiling of the individual’s success in basketball..and in life. It captures the core aspect of who players are and how they handle themselves, and easily has the most variability from person to person. This is the reason NBA franchises have entire scouting departments and developmental staff, because how someone turns out in this area can make or break a career.

Without further ado, let’s break down the three main archetypes.


Players

What is a Player? In basketball, a Player can be defined as someone who is a “student of the game.” Whether you’re blessed with athletic gifts or not, you have learned the game and all of its intricacies, and you have put in the time to develop your skills. Players are built, not born; there is a certain manufacturing process to becoming a Player. Often times, Players tend to be on the small side in basketball, in some part because the talent pool is simply wider for 6’0” humans than for 7’0” humans, so differential in skill level matters more.

One could measure what “level” someone has achieved as a Player by taking stock of what skills they’ve developed and how far they’ve developed them. For example, shooting and ball-handling are two obvious skills that have entire industries devoted to improving those skills, but an individual with a ball, a court, and self-discipline can gain proficiency through practice, practice, practice. Boxing out is a skill, as is footwork (on drives, when catching a pass, navigating a screen, et cetera). Skills take time to grow, and those who put in the time are the ones who become full-fledged Players.

Who are some good examples? Kobe Bryant and his predecessor Michael Jordan each took personal development as a personal challenge, and channeled their near-obsessive levels of detail to refine their skills and (supported by their physical gifts and feel for the game) become the legends they are today. Point guards often fit this mold; players like Chris Paul, Steve Nash, and Steph Curry have an uncanny ability to deploy their specific skills to maximize their team’s success. It’s not limited to guards, though, as big men like Nikola Jokic, both Pau and Marc Gasol, and Rudy Gobert all honed their respective crafts to the point of becoming elite at their position, even if for different reasons.

Which notable Bucks fit this mold? This might surprise you after you read the Athlete section, but I would put Giannis Antetokounmpo in the Player category. Of course, his natural strengths are how he got his big break into the league, but it wasn’t until he learned how to effectively use them that he became a rotation player, then a starter, then a star, then an All Star, and then an MVP. He easily could have topped out as a do-it-all utility player; elite athleticism and a well-rounded game but not enough skill to excel overall. It was his work ethic that helped him build the skillset he uses today.

Brook Lopez might be another excellent example of this archetype in action, especially his mid-career renaissance as an All Defensive Team level center. Lopez was long considered a neutral defender, at best, making his development into a crucial anchor all the more impressive. D.J. Augustin falls into this category too; like most sub-6’0” players, his skill level had to be developed so much further to make up for his physical limitations.

Athletes

What is an Athlete? An Athlete is someone whose performance is largely driven by their physical traits. A common adage that represents this category in basketball is “you can’t teach height,” but height is not the only aspect of this category. Strength, length, speed, leaping ability, quickness, and coordination are all various expressions of the Athlete, and the more advantages you have in this area, the more you can make up for deficiencies of skill or feel. Functionality and practical application of these physical tools is a key component to success in this area.

Much of the league’s population resides on a plane of existence that is simply above us mere mortals when it comes to athleticism, but relative to each other there are clear measurables, and the NBA Draft combine is one of the sources of information regarding the Athlete, though it is not the only source. After all, the ability to hold one’s ground when defending in the post is far more useful than the number of bench press repetitions, just like winning a footrace on a fast break matters more than a recorded full-court sprint. Athletes have a high floor in terms of their NBA viability (there’s no drill you can do to become taller than the other guy), but the best Athletes need to either have a great feel for the game or be willing to augment their athleticism with skill-based development.

Who are some good examples? Shaquille O’Neal might be the best example of an Athlete who dominated in the NBA by virtue of his massive athletic advantage over anyone who tried to challenge him. This isn’t to say that he didn’t have a Hooper’s feel for the game or a Player’s knowledge and skill, but Shaq was an Athlete first and foremost. An all-time favorite of mine, Allen Iverson also fits this definition, which is surprising because many might consider his primary category to be Hooper. But in my view, Iverson’s indefatigable motor, quickness and body control, and overall toughness is what led him to success on the court more than anything. Many big men end up in this category almost by default; It’s tough to consider the overall game of guys like Shawn Bradley, Greg Oden, Yao Ming, or Hakeem Olajuwon and, despite the vast differences as players, our first impressions have to do with their physical prowess.

Which notable Bucks fit this mold? Pat Connaughton screams Athlete to me. He’s on the Bad List with most Bucks fans right now, so it might be unpopular to admit that he does have natural talent and he does have developed skills. Even still, his physical prowess is what drives the parts of his game that set him apart at the NBA level. D.J. Wilson falls into this camp too, with his measurables doing more to earn him playing time than anything else that fans have seen. There’s still a strong case to make that Giannis should be here instead of under Player, since his height, length, speed, strength, and coordination are all so overwhelming, even on the NBA scale.

Hoopers

What is a Hooper? Above all else, Hoopers just “have it.” There is a certain innate understanding of the game that never had to be taught; Hoopers still need to put in the work to be able to execute on what they do, but the understanding is simply always there. A Pure Hooper is the polar opposite of a Pure Player; Hoopers are born, not built. A Hooper can become a Player through dedicated effort, but a Player cannot necessarily develop into a Hooper. A Hooper has a certain artistry to their game, a natural affinity that others can only observe and marvel at.

Like art, there are limited avenues to measure “how much” of a Hooper someone is, but you know it when you see it. A savvy cut to beat the defense, or choosing the precise moment when to rise up for that shot or jump that passing lane, or getting a strip just as your opponent is gathering for a jumper, these are all things that Hoopers do out of instinct. To use an analogy, a Player is the kid in the classroom who developed good study habits, read the assigned readings, and got an A on the test; a Hooper is the kid who didn’t study but aced the test anyways because they’re good at taking tests. This does perhaps place a ceiling on just how good the Hooper can be in the NBA if they only rely on their natural gifts and never learn to do the work, but if they do, watch out.

Who are some good examples? They might not be the most notable names in the NBA’s annals, but Jamal Crawford and Andre Miller stand out as notable Hoopers in recent NBA history. Crawford is a skinny guard who simply knew how to score, and Miller was a stout one who simply knew how to play, even when taking the offseason all the way off. Some of the NBA’s greatest players like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were Hoopers who also worked on their skills and gained levels as Players. LeBron James has the skill package of a Player and the elite attributes of an Athlete, but his feel for the game is what makes him one of the great Hoopers. Bill Russell was a revelation for the league during his era, and may have been one of the NBA’s Founding Hoopers. Some of the league’s most notable draft disappointments are guys who could flat-out play in college (Adam Morrison comes to mind) but lacked the skill development and/or the physical ability to hold up in the league.

Which notable Bucks fit this mold? Originally, I had Khris Middleton pegged as a Player because his game seemed mostly manufactured, but after looking back at his career progression and his development path, he strikes me as more of a Hooper at his core. This Zach Lowe piece that preceded Middleton’s first All Star Game appearance goes into detail on how Khris was able to survive as a basketball player, despite the fact that he consistently was outmatched physically. Yes, Khris did have to work on his skills, which is the hallmark of a Player, but there are certain things that Middleton just gets, no more evident than when he takes a ride on the Tough Shot Express.

Jrue Holiday also falls somewhere between Player and Hooper, and while arguments can be made either way I think that Hooper fits him best. He might not consider himself a point guard, but Holiday’s feel for the game and ability to make the right reads at the right times seems innate, rather than learned. Bobby Portis also feels like a good fit here, though his label feels more up for debate. Ditto for Donte DiVincenzo, who might be more Athlete than Hooper but it’s hard to choose.

The “Human Element”

How does this fit in? In all avenues of life, a person usually goes as far as they can take themselves. There are all sorts of external factors like environment and opportunity that are crucial to consider, but the internal factors are core drivers for each individual. The Human Element is a universal equalizer; it is everything that cannot be directly quantified on the court. The Human Element affects all aspects of a player’s career, either by enhancing or hampering their existing talents. It is at once knowable and unknowable; even more vague than the definition of Hooper, the Human Element can change over time or remain static (depending on the growth or regression of the individual), and can thrive or fail in different environments.

Some of the basketball terms that speak to part of the Human Element for any given player include “coachable,” “chemistry,” “leader,” and “work ethic.” There isn’t an effective way to rank players here, because everybody is different and you need different pieces to fill out the whole puzzle of a team. Aspects of an individual’s Human Element can, however, have a positive or negative influence on those around them, and can push the team to greater heights...or to come apart at the seams.

Players that are notable for this side of their personality and how it impacts their game and their NBA careers are Jared Dudley (beloved teammate by many), Damian Lillard (long considered one of the game’s best leaders), and Udonis Haslem (somehow still on a regular season roster despite being way past his prime, Haslem is said to embody Heat culture).


If you made it this far, congratulations. This may have not added anything of value to your understanding of the Milwaukee Bucks, the NBA, or basketball in general, but hopefully it was at least an interesting exercise to consider and discuss. What did I get right? Where was I off-base? What category fits best for you? Let us know in the comments, we’ll be here to respond!