June 21, 2017 by J.H. Yeh
In recent years, NBA teams have begun to have this aggressive obsession on searching for the perfect body to compete in basketball. And of course, this comes at a golden age when analytics started to catch attention around the league.
By definition, “perfect body” fundamentally means the most desirable and suitable human body to play the sport. Throughout the mankind history, we have proven to be more increasingly selective on picking the best physical bodies to compete in sports. This also defeats the misconception that over the past 100 years (as manifested by the Olympic records) human bodies have inexorably progressed and genetically evolved into a different, better, and stronger species.
For example, according to the Olympic record, Thomas Hicks, the winner of the 1904 Olympic marathon, finished his race in 3 hours and 28 minutes, whereas it took the winner of the 2016 marathon, Eliud Kipchoge, only 2 hours and 8 minutes to finish the same race that covers the same distance. The huge difference in time (by more than one-third!) does not mean human beings have suddenly transformed into a more powerful specimen over the past century. From a logical viewpoint, it shows that people have become more selective and are picking up the sport that are appropriate for their body build. Moreover, the body types that are the most suitable to play a particular sport will easily stand out and succeed. Of course, intense training and better preparation also aided on improving our performances as contributing factors — but it is without a doubt “perfect body” plays a significant role on determining a player’s success.
That being said, due to the advent of analytics, we have started to come up with ways to choose the most analytically desirable body to compete. Like the old saying, “Well begun is half done,” a near-perfect body build suggests strong potential to succeed — and this is exactly why NBA executives and scouts have started to turn their heads to those who have the most attractive bodies. For another word, forget about the height, because wingspan has become a more appealing measurement since it suggests good potential to develop and higher likelihood to dominate. As a result, it is safe to say that wingspan deserves to be an official statistic.
Elite basketball players are not your average adult men. According to NBA Draft Express, average NBA players’ wingspans are around 4.7 inches longer than their height, and compared to them, average adults are just 2.1 inches longer than their height. That said, dividing wingspan by the height can yield an interesting metric called the wingspan to height ratio, which can gauge how “stretchy” a player’s arms are. Elongated arms can cover larger spherical area when it comes to defense and out-reach the opponent when it comes to shooting and rebounding — and pretty much everything else.
The league’s best big men have wingspans well over 7 feet and the best players usually have wingspan to height ratio at around 1.08 to 1.10. Kawhi Leonard has the highest wingspan to height ratio measured among all the all-stars in recent history — with an absurd ratio of 1.12! Other up and coming players with high potential such as Rudy Gobert (height: 7’0.5, wingspan: 7’8.5, and ratio: 1.09 ) and Kristaps Porzingis (height: 7’3, wingspan: 8’0, and ratio: 1.10 ) also have amazingly high ratios. On the other hand, having ridiculous wingspan doesn’t always guarantee a player can pan out, because it is an indication for good potential and good potential does not promise success. A curious case is Brazil’s Bruno Coboclo, who was drafted in the first round in 2014. Coboclo’s 6’9 height is complemented by an impressive 7’7 wingspan, which gives him a 1.12 wingspan to height ratio. But the prospect never panned out in the NBA and it is likely he won’t compete in the league again due to his inexperience and overly raw skills in spite of his strong bodily potential.
Below is a list of the top 60 prospects for the upcoming 2017 NBA Draft. This list is obtained from Draft Express and is as of June 18th (slightly outdated). I have listed their height, wingspan, and wingspan to height ratio. Note that some international prospects’ data are not available. I did not include weight because weight is something that can be controlled and improved.
The mean wingspan is 6’10.36 and UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu has the longest wingspan and Iowa State’s Monte Morris has the shortest wingspan. It is natural that guards have shorter wingspan (and shorter height). However, it is the wingspan to height ratio that matters.
The mean wingspan to height ratio for the draft class is 1.039, and Nevada’s Cameron Oliver has the highest measured ratio while Oregon’s Dillon Brooks has the lowest. Brooks is a physical scoring small forward but has limited body frame may give him a hard time to defend faster wing players in the NBA.
I have plotted the height against wingspan (both in decimals for easier manipulation), which yields a regression line that gives me a good R-Square of 0.623 that connotes good correlation between the two. Players who are located at the top left have the desirable body frames while those who deviate the most from the trendline have the best wingspan to height ratio.
I also highlighted the top 3 projected picks (Fultz, Ball, and Jo. Jackson) to see how their bodies are compared to the rest of the prospects. Note that Fultz is the only player out of the three to have an above average wingspan to height ratio.
Wake Forest’s forward John Collins has one of the lowest ratios and can pose many physical disadvantage. Arizona’s big man Lauri Markkanen also has a low ratio and that may pose some problems as opponents will exploit his physical shortcoming when matching up against him around the rim. Also note that Malik Monk, a projected top 10 pick, not only is short but he also has a low ratio. He is one of the four players to have a wingspan that is shorter than his height, or a wingspan to height ratio that is below 1. This does not mean he is a long shot to succeed in the league, it shows that he needs to work harder to earn a niche. LA Clippers’ JJ Redick is a rare case as he is one of the few players in the NBA to have a wingspan to height ratio that is well below 1 (height: 6’4, wingspan: 6’0, and ratio: 0.945).
Below is another visual presentation that shows how far each player’s wingspan to height ratio deviate. The dashed lines are the standard deviations.
Again, Nevada’s Oliver is the only player to be two standard deviations away from the mean (1.039). Fultz is one of the few guards to be one standard deviation away from the mean. Other players who have a good ratio include Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell and Indiana’s Thomas Bryant. On the other hand, Oregon’s Brooks is the only player top be two standard deviations below the average. Similarly, John Collins and Monte Morris are also well below the average in terms of their body to height ratio.
To sum up, Nevada’s Cameron Oliver, who is projected to be a late second round pick (around late to mid 40s, or early 50s) is the hidden gem as he has the most ideal NBA body (height: 6’8, wingspan: 7’5, and ratio: 1.11 ) in this year’s draft. Other players that follow closely behind are Ike Anigbogu (height: 6’10, wingspan: 7’6.25, and ratio: 1.10 ) and Thomas Bryant (height: 6’10, wingspan: 7’55, and ratio: 1.09 ).
So how close is Oliver’s body to the ultimate perfection? “The ideal player,” said Golden State Warriors General Manager Bob Myers during an interview back in the summer of 2015, “would be 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan and still be able to shoot.”
— J.H. Yeh
(all tables and graphs are created by me, and all sources of stats are courtesy of Draft Express as of June 20, 2017)