Photo courtesy Muthu Alagappan

Should there be 13 positions in basketball?


First of all, don’t ask me how to read that chart, because I don’t get it, either.

That’s because it was generated by Stanford math major Muthu Alagappan, who uses software to collate vast data points into visual data so as to more easily pick out trends in the data. He’s become quite a force in basketball circles as a result. The NBA is paying close attention to his models.

I, on the other hand, write about college basketball. So, you know, different skill sets.

However, I do feel uniquely qualified to address Alagappan’s assertion that there should be 13 positions in basketball. That’s because I agree with his basic premise about basketball skill sets and disagree with his word choice. Which is what a basketball writer WOULD do, amirite?

First, I think we’ve all noticed that the classical designations point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center are archetypes that often don’t describe exactly what we’re seeing on a basketball court at any given moment. We’ve invented words like combo guard and point-forward to describe players who don’t fit the mold.

Alagappan, as described in this article from Wired magazine, says there should be 13 positions. To wit:

  1. 1. Offensive Ball-Handler. This guy handles the ball and specializes in points, free throws and shots attempted, but is below average in steals and blocks. Examples include Jason Terry and Tony Parker.

  2. 2. Defensive Ball-Handler. This is a defense-minded player who handles the ball and specializes in assists and steals, but is only so-so when it comes to points, free throws and shots. See also: Mike Conley and Kyle Lowry.

  3. 3. Combo Ball-Handler. These players are adept at both offense and defense but don’t stand out in either category. Examples include Jameer Nelson and John Wall.

  4. 4. Shooting Ball-Handler. Someone with a knack for scoring, characterized by above-average field goal attempts and points. Stephen Curry and Manu Ginobili are examples.

  5. 5. Role-Playing Ball-Handler. These guys play fewer minutes and don’t have as big a statistical impact on the game. Hello, Arron Afflalo and Rudy Fernandez.

  6. 6. 3-Point Rebounder. Such a player is a ball-handler and big man above average in rebounds and three-pointers, both attempted and made, compared to ball-handlers. Luol Deng and Chase Budinger fit the bill.

  7. 7. Scoring Rebounder. He grabs the ball frequently and demands attention when on offense. Dirk Nowitzki and LaMarcus Aldridge play this position.

  8. 8. Paint Protector. A big man like Marcus Camby and Tyson Chandler known for blocking shots and getting rebounds, but also for racking up more fouls than points.

  9. 9. Scoring Paint Protector. These players stand out on offense and defense, scoring, rebounding and blocking shots at a very high rate. Examples include Kevin Love and Blake Griffin.

  10. 10. NBA 1st-Team. This is a select group of players so far above average in every statistical category that the software simply groups them together regardless of their height or weight. Kevin Durant and LeBron James fall in this category.

  11. 11. NBA 2nd-Team. Not quite as good, but still really, really good. Rudy Gay and Caron Butler are examples.

  12. 12. Role Player. Slightly less skilled than the 2nd-team guys, and they don’t play many minutes. Guys like Shane Battier and Ronnie Brewer fall under this position.

  13. 13. One-of-a-Kind. These guys are so good they are off the charts — literally. The software could not connect them to any other player. Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard are examples, but you already knew that.

Now, if you are building a basketball team, this is a great way to look at filling roles. I’d bet most coaches have something similar going on in their heads. What I’d refute is that these constitute literal positions. We cling to the five archetypes because only five players can be on the floor at one time. Obviously if you’re looking at VCU or Florida Gulf Coast, you’re not seeing these classic positions represented, but it still gives us a framework for understanding each player’s role in the offense. A skewed framework, quite often, but it’s useful to understand that framework so you can make the mental leap and understand how a creative coach uses available players with different skill sets to subvert that old paradigm.

That’s where I think these 13 categories are a brilliant tool and an excellent way to look at what role a player can really fill for his team. For college coaches, who so rarely have access to #13, the one-of-a-kind player, it’s going to be a mixture of guys who fit into the other twelve roles (sans the NBA terminology) sitting on his bench most of the time.

I could go on, but this is a blog, not a dissertation committee. Suffice to say, I’ll probably have these 13 “positions” in the back of my head the next time I watch a college hoops game.

Eric Angevine is the editor of Storming the Floor. He tweets @stfhoops.

POSTERIZED: Wyoming’s Josh Adams takes flight

Josh Adams
Associated Press
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Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.

After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.

Video credit: Wyoming Athletics

Defensive progress will determine No. 4 Iowa State’s ceiling

Monte Morris
Associated Press
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Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.

Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.

Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.

Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.

Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.

But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.