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Characteristics that Distinguish Great NBA Players

Some players have it; some don’t. But what is the “it”?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Portland Trail Blazers Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

NBA All-Stars and superstars seem otherworldly to mere mortal fans...sometimes to their peers as well. It’s hard to miss the reverence which names like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James evoke from fellow players. The Portland Trail Blazers have seen their share of transcendent stars: Bill Walton, Clyde Drexler, now perhaps Damian Lillard. What distinguishes the true superstars from talented players who never reach that lofty sphere? What is the elusive “it” that makes them great? Could that special quality filter down to lesser players? These are the subjects of today’s Blazer’s Edge Mailbag.


There is something that good NBA players have that makes them good that you cannot see. The ones that don’t have that something seem to flounder and either are inconsistent bench players or don’t last in the NBA. Even the ones that are supremely athletic.

An easy example is Meyers Leonard. It looks like he has the athleticism and the skill but doesn’t seem to be able to put it together. While it is early, Zach Collins seems to be better able to use his skills. Caleb Swanigan while not blessed with lots of athleticism and length appears to use what he has better than some.

Do you have an explanation for what “it” is?

Thanks, Brian

Before I even begin to offer my thoughts, let’s consult Brian Freeman, Blazer’s Edge writer and former Professional Basketball Player. I presented your question to Brian, and here’s what he said.

It’s a bit of a broad answer, but for me, it comes down to passion. All high level players have to possess a certain love for the game of basketball to get where they’re at. The guys and girls that reach and surpass their potential are the ones who posses an almost a sick dedication to the game. I personally have succeed in basketball and I have failed. The difference was my passion. When I was at my best, I was losing an hour of sleep every night because I couldn’t stop imagining the court. I couldn’t stop running sets in my head or replaying parts of old games. I would visualize things I wanted to do on the court in the future, even if they may have been a physical impossibility. I’d get frustrated because I needed to sleep, but my mind couldn’t quit.

Then there were times that basketball left my thoughts as soon as I walked off the court. I didnt love the game any less, nor did I spend less time getting extra workouts in, but my passion and performance levels were drastically different.

I’ve worked out with young players who do exactly what I instruct and they improve. And then theres the players that won't stop doing what I instruct. I have to remind them a tenth time that it is not going to be perfect overnight and to chill for second. Those are the ones that have it. They just want it more.

It’s something that can change, but not something that can be taught. When it comes down to it, basketball is a game of inches and milliseconds. Sometimes the difference lives in the deepest part of a player’s unconsciousness: How important is it?

In addition to Mr. Freeman’s observations, I’ll add three or four factors I’ve observed in most of the true greats. To a lesser extend these also define more “ordinary” players, and the lack of them can turn an otherwise-promising player into relative mush.

Fast-Twitch Reflexes

All athletes are, by definition, athletic. Naturally, athleticism takes different forms. Some players are big, others buffed, others have footspeed. But raw material doesn’t always differentiate an athlete from the crowd as much as reaction time. How quickly an athlete can determine the space they need to control and effectively move themselves into it becomes the difference between a brilliant move and just another play. It’s not about being the fastest and always making the right decisions, it’s about how quickly you can adapt when those things don’t happen.


It’s an old adage: some guys want the last shot, others shy away from it. The true greats go beyond that, even. They demand the last shot, backing it up with play convincing enough to make any other option nearly inconceivable. Wanting the ball in the big moment is one thing. Turning that big moment into just another small one because your ability is far bigger...that’s quite another. The greats change the circumstances around them rather than letting circumstances change them.

Good players also do this to a lesser extent in their own spheres. Theo Ratliff never met a block he didn’t like. If you left Jerome Kersey an open alley, he was going to dunk it or cause a spectacular crash trying.


This could marry with Brian’s point about passion. Almost none of the all-time greats ended up dominating the same ways in Year 6 and Year 10 that they did in Year 2. It’s not just a matter of aging bodies or veteran development. Great players see the game unfold around them and have the capacity to fill the space the game leaves open for them. They become students of the game and of their own ability to change it, always learning about both. Any player who can’t do this will be accounted for, and eventually neutralized, by opponents unless that player has such overwhelming physical gifts that they can’t be stopped.


The only other factor I’d add is never being satisfied. I’ve never been an NBA basketball player making millions, but it’s hard to miss the seductive allure. Being good enough to play in the league, good enough to make big money, how easy is it to think you’ve made it? Winning is nice, but going home to a $15 million annual paycheck eases a lot of losing’s pain for normal human beings. The greatest of great players don’t seem normal. Many of them seem to hate losing more than they like anything else. If they win one title, they want another. If they win five, they still want to smash the opponent on a Wednesday night. This separates the 20-point scorers from the superstar champions.

Not everybody can have this attitude. In a way, it’s something like insanity. But every team needs a player or two who’s insane in this way to break the path for all the normal folks, leading them into winning whether they want to go or not.

Thanks for the question, Brian! You all can feel free to add your own observations in the comments, and keep those questions coming to!

—Dave / @davedeckard / @blazersedge /