How does a child become an NBA player?
The oft-cited 10,000-Hour rule, popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers, gives one path forward: practice incredibly frequently. Using The Beatles’ early career in Germany, and Bill Gates’ childhood in front of a computer as examples, Gladwell asserts that 10,000 hours spent on specialized practice will result in expertise, and perhaps greatness, in the subject.
Ten thousand hours is a lot of hours, though. Let’s generously say that a child can have a 15-year childhood really playing basketball before making being drafted in the NBA. 10,000 hours means that the child would have to practice basketball for 1.82 hours per day, all 365 days a year, for 15 years.
That math has some success-focused parents having their kids focus on one sport beginning at extremely young ages, just to get that hour count up. An hour spent practicing soccer, say, is one not spent practicing basketball, the thinking goes. The trend is called “early sports specialization.”
Recent years have highlighted another path. Promoted by author David Epstein in his book Range, young athletes playing a number of sports growing up — until they select one that suits them — seems to also have benefits. In particular, Epstein points to the success of tennis great Roger Federer, who played soccer until the age of 12 before going into a tennis academy at 14. Epstein noted that success can be earned by early sports specialization — the success of precocious golf superstar Tiger Woods being his favorite example — but it wasn’t necessary or even a more reliable way to achieve greatness.
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How do the Utah Jazz’s players, all of whom can count themselves in the top 450 basketball players in the world, fit into the Outliers vs. Range dichotomy? We asked each of them two questions:
Did you play other sports growing up?
When did you start focusing solely on basketball?
And what we found was that everyone had played other sports as children, up until relatively late ages.
Donovan Mitchell’s example is perhaps the most well-known. With a father, Donovan Mitchell Sr., who was constantly around Major League Baseball in his role as director of player relations and community engagement for the Mets, Mitchell wanted to become a baseball player when he was growing up.
“Baseball was my sport growing up. I really wanted to go to college for baseball,” Mitchell told the New York Daily News. “I really wanted to be highly recruited for baseball, but then sophomore year I broke my wrist.”
At 15 years old, that wrist injury caused Mitchell to miss the next AAU basketball season, but also gave him downtime to consider what he wanted to do with his career. He was having more fun with basketball, so he went in that direction.
But Mitchell’s not alone. Among the Jazz’s rotation players, all but one — Georges Niang — played multiple sports until reaching high-school age. Niang says he played hockey and soccer until about 5th grade, but focused on basketball after that.
Sometimes, height is a factor. The Jazz’s top two centers, Rudy Gobert and Ed Davis, both played other sports until growth spurts revealed that basketball was the best fit. Gobert wrote about his early experience with sports in a Players’ Tribune article:
“I had a crazy amount of energy as a kid. From an early age, I was getting into fights at school. So every chance [my mother, Corinne Gobert] could, she would sign me up for sports and after school activities. She put me in karate. She put me in track and field. She put me in boxing," he writes. "When I was 11, she put me on a basketball team. That was when I started falling in love with the game. Of all the sports that my mom forced me to play, basketball made the most sense to me. I was taller than all of the other kids.”
Gobert, at age 15, then went to school in Cholet, a five-hour drive from his home, in order to play for a good basketball team.
Davis had a similar story: throughout his youth and until middle school, Davis played football and basketball. He considered himself a better football player than a basketball player. When he reached high school at age 14, though, he focused on basketball — his dad thought his height would give him a better future there. He was probably right.
Jeff Green played in Washington D.C.-area “neighborhood sports” until high school, which pitted Green and his neighborhood friends against players from other local neighborhoods in football, baseball, and yes, basketball. By high school, however, it was clear where his vertical athleticism would suit him best, and he led his team to the state championship.
Players starting to focus on basketball late because of growth spurts is a common tale. You might think it’s the shorter players who might need to rely on the prescribed practice of the 10,000-hour rule given the miniscule odds of making it to the NBA among average-sized people, but even the shorter players on the Jazz’s roster didn’t specialize in basketball early.
Mitchell is a good example, but so is Mike Conley. Conley said he played “everything” growing up, including a lot of soccer. He played until age 14, when he went to high school and started his basketball career. Conley does have good athletic genes that he brought to his multitude of sports: his father, Mike Conley Sr., won an Olympic gold medal in 1992, and silver in 1984. Royce O’Neale, at 6-4, started playing basketball as early as he can remember, but said he played soccer until “12 or 13” years old, and football through his freshman year of high school, age 14 or 15.
The Jazz’s international wing players highlight other models. European clubs usually have extensive youth sport academies designed to foster stars at an early age; whether it be in soccer, tennis, basketball or other sports. Bojan Bogdanovic spent most of his childhood excelling at soccer, and didn’t play basketball seriously until age 15, when he joined his hometown club at Zrinjski Mostar. From there, though, he quickly exploded as one of his country’s best youth prospects.
Australia has the Australian Institute of Sport, where teens who show precociousness in athletics can focus on their sport with the country’s best trainers. Both Joe Ingles and Dante Exum joined AIS, but both also tried their hand at the nation’s most popular sport, Australian-rules football.
“I played Aussie rules at school and was pretty good because I had the athleticism, but I just couldn’t kick the ball,” Exum told ABC News in Australia. “It’s a pretty important part of the game.” Exum’s father, Cecil, played basketball at UNC in 1982 on Michael Jordan’s squad, so perhaps it’s not a surprise Exum picked his dad’s favorite sport.
Ingles played both Australian-rules football and even cricket until the age of “14 or 15," when he started focusing on basketball. He entered AIS at age 16, and by the time he left the program in 2006 at 18 years old, he was one of the Australian National Basketball League’s most sought-after prospects ever.
These nine players do not constitute a statistically significant study, of course. But anecdotally, nearly all of them either fiddled around with or seriously played multiple sports until finding that basketball was the best fit. That’s one advantage of “late sports specialization:" trying your hand at multiple activities has a way of revealing where you stand out.
And here’s another advantage: reduced risk for injury. According to a study done by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, focusing on one sport too early can result in overuse of particular body parts.
“Our research indicated that athletes who specialized in their varsity sport before the age of 14 were more likely to report a history of injuries and multiple college injuries during the course of their athletic career,” Brian M. Cash, an author of the study and MD from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at UCLA, said.
This isn’t to say that the “one sport from birth” approach can’t work; of course it can. But for those who play for the Jazz, while they spend their hours focusing all of their attention on basketball now, that wasn’t always the case.