Defining Athleticism

Young people tend to watch alot of social media highlights and consume clips of games, more so even than siting down and actually watching full games. We notice plenty of fans, and even some scouts, define athleticism by jumping ability, usually in the form of dunking. But is jumping a true measure of athleticism? Two recent happenings made us examine what athleticism really is, how to define it and how it applies to improving your game.

Two things recently went down that made us think about athleticism and what defines it. First off, we often scroll social media and cringe at the sight of fans (and some evaluators) saying the kid that jumped the highest in the gym was “the most athletic.” It happens plenty and is a tell-tale sign of not knowing and not seeking deeper knowledge of the game. People understand jumping and can see athleticism in that lens, but can they define athleticism and apply it to get a better understanding of the game or to improve their game?

On August 31, former New York Giants and USC national champ wide receiver Steve Smith had his No. 2 jersey retired by his high school alma mater: Taft (Woodland Hills, Calif.). The 2002-03 Cal-Hi Sports State Athlete of the Year was California’s all-time leader in receptions (271) and yardage (4,486) for 10 years and those marks are still No. 1 among L.A. City Section schools. In basketball, Smith is also the all-time scoring leader at Taft (at school that has produced over 15 D1 players) with 1,873 points, averaging over 22.8 ppg for four seasons, including 17.3 ppg as a mere freshman when we he wasn’t old enough to play varsity football. Smith also ran track at a state level and was a good swimmer.

Over Labor Day weekend, we attended the Creme of the County, a one-day showcase event highlighting the best high school players in San Diego County. We got our first glimpse of 2027 6-4 wing Justin Johnson of El Camino (Oceanside, Calif.) and happened to run into his father Joey Johnson, a former player at Banning (Wilmington, Calif.) who went on to play at Arizona St. after junior college and is the father of former Arizona guard Nick Johnson. Now Nick can jump, but not like is father could, who sported anywhere from a 48-52-inch vertical leap (depending on when you saw him and who is telling the story) and is the best dunker to come down the pike on the West Coast, perhaps ever. If you never saw him in the mid 1980s, clips won’t do it justice. His vertical leap was that insane and hard to believe. He makes terrific dunkers (including his All-American teammate Eric Cooper) look average.

Thinking about Smith and Johnson got us thinking about athleticism. Johnson is perhaps the only person we’ve ever seen whose jumping ability was perhaps detrimental to the rest of his development. It almost isn’t normal to jump like he did in terms of developing the other skills necessary to excel to one’s full potential. Even if he jumped half as high as he really did, he would still be a terrific leaper.

Smith was the opposite; his athleticism was unassuming. He wasn’t the fastest player, but nobody could catch him from behind or keep up with him. He wasn’t the biggest or strongest, but was usually the best athlete on the court or on the field. Smith was naturally gifted in hoops (even though he didn’t practice or play the game nearly as much as some of the nation’s best players in 2002-03) and was good enough to join the basketball team right away and star despite being on football teams that played well into December. Before the emergence of future NBA guard Jordan Farmar (one year behind him), Smith was good enough to average 26.8 ppg as a sophomore playing in an ultra-competitive and talent-laden section. Smith worked hard, but his level of production and focus rose on game day and he got the most out of his ability as much as any athlete we’ve seen at that level.

So thinking of Johnson and Smith, we got to thinking, what defines athleticism and why are some players who jump well not great basketball players and why some who are not good leapers turn out to be terrific players?

First, let’s define what basketball is and what the sports is with regards to the human anatomy. No, we’re not talking about “the team with the most points wins” we’re talking about the necessary body movements to play the game. Basketball is a repetitive series of movements going from a relaxed position to explosive moment. You run, relax, and explode and do it all over again for 32, 40 or 48 minutes. It obviously helps if you can change direction in the midst of your explosive movement. Another way of saying this is stops-and-starts, which is one of the keys to basketball. Those players who are adept at stopping quickly, without awkward movements or stutter-stepping, and then able to explode out of that stationary position, usually end up the best players as long as they work on their other basic skills such as dribbling and shooting.

It’s easy to see when a player is not a leaper or doesn’t move with alot of explosion. Scouts can easily point these players out, but in the same token can over-value jumping ability. Now, we evaluate young players who can jump more than ever, and there seems to be more of them than ever. Even girls are dunking in high school now! But we see more wild, out of control players more than ever, too. In layman’s terms, some kids can’t stop, hence they are wild, get called for offensive charging often and look out of control on the court. Some are even D1-bound players. Other kids can’t explode and at some level of the game, especially in a half court setting, it will catch up to them. Smooth stop-and-starts keeps the defense honest. Because the defensive player doesn’t know where the offensive player is going, and is backpedaling, while the offensive player is moving forward, the offensive player will always have a degree of an advantage if he or she understands the concept of stop and starts and smoothing them out and exploding from the stationary position. Sometimes that stationary position is just a split second, but it causes the defender to stop and when that player does, the offensive player has a tremendous advantage.

Stop and starts that are quality are sometimes referred to as a "smooth game" or as a player who is difficult to speed up. Having a change of pace game is a terrific asset that helps keeps defenders at bay. That aspect of the game can be improved upon with smooth stops and explosive first steps (i.e. starts). Now some excellent players are not particularly explosive, but they usually have a nice change-of-pace to their offensive game and never seem rattled, out of position or out of control. A good example of this is former NBA guard and Utah standout Andre Miller.

“In the Paint” podcast host and former WNBA player Chelsea Hopkins mentioned changing direction and the manner in which it’s done, along with using coordination to adjust when the initial move is cut off, in defining what athleticism is to her. The former point guard mentioned how important it is to reach your peak speed in the fastest manner (or shortest amount of steps possible) and that relates back to stops and starts. The faster you explode off your pivot foot and get to top speed will better your chances to beat defenders and have them at your mercy.

There are some players who are just straight line athletes, whether it be in basketball or in football. They lose alot of their speed and explosiveness when they have to change direction (or a defender cuts them off) or can’t do things in a game they can in practice or during warmup. That brings us to what we call functional athleticism or functional hops. The movements have to be applied to real game-like situations and only get harder when the pressure gets tighter.

We’ve seen some great football players who slow down tremendously on cuts and just take too long to get up to top speed, not to mention track athletes with world class speed who lose alot of it when they put on the pads. That’s what makes guys like NFL legends Bod Hayes and Deion Sanders so special. Hayes didn’t lose anything with pads on and Deion (a good high school basketball player we might add) could get up to full speed quickly, had a top speed only matched by a few athletes in history, and lost little when changing direction. You don’t want to be known as a straight line athlete or a player lacking functional hops. At some point, you won’t be as successful a true athlete as one who can apply fundamental movements to pressure game situations.

That brings us to our next big measure of athleticism in basketball: the ability to play open. What that means is having the ability to go in either direction (left or right) with equal potency. That requires good ball-handling, but also working on stop and starts and pivot feet. You have to be able to use both pivot feet equally well. Sometimes we say “a player has no off-hand” but what that really means is they don’t explode off both feet equally well. A dominant right-hand player doesn’t explode off his right pivot foot particularly well. Playing “open to the defender” will expand a young players' game more than he or she knows and it lifts confidence and the ability to perform when it matters.

That’s what made Smith so great: His ability rose on game day and in pressure situations because he was so well-rounded of an athlete and confident in his abilities. He knew how to use the basic fundamental movements of both sports. When the pressure was on, Smith was even better.

Hopkins stated “all athletes should player soccer” which brings us to our next point. Play multiple sports for as long as possible. Soccer is tremendous in helping hoopers with their footwork and hand eye coordination and the movements of other sports such as football help with learning to change direction, explode and avoid burnout/overuse. Many athletes think they are in shape or are using all muscle groups until they take up another sport and are sore the next day from using muscles they normally don’t train.

Just remember, you don’t have to be chin level to the rim like Johnson to be a great basketball player and you don’t have to practice dunking before practice and again after it to show that you’re a quality athlete. Before you dribble and shoot, you have to remember to master your stops and starts, stopping from full speed into a jump stop without stutter-steps, work on your first step and explosive movements, and learn to use both pivot feet to be able to play open to the defender. If you work on those things, you will be a better athlete and will soon be a better basketball player.

Ronnie Flores is the National Grassroots Editor of He can be reached at [email protected]. Don't forget to follow him on Twitter: @RonMFlores

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