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Thread: The royal jelly theory of player development

  1. #1
    Artificial Intelligence wintermute's Avatar
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    Default The royal jelly theory of player development

    I think this topic would be interesting alongside the tanking discussion in the other thread, and maybe interesting enough to merit a thread on its own.

    I want to discuss the age-old nature vs nurture question. What makes a great player great? Is it something encoded in his DNA? Or is he shaped by his development environment?

    David Thorpe likes to talk about royal jelly with regards to player development. What is royal jelly? It's basically food for baby bees, but what's remarkable about it is that if an otherwise normal baby bee is fed massive amounts of royal jelly, it turns into a queen bee instead of a normal worker.

    Podcast here:

    Thorpe's argument is that the vast majority of NBA players are virtually identical, like baby bees. There are exceptions of course, like the guys at the very top, and the guys at the very bottom, but for the vast majority, Thorpe thinks its all about "the right setting, the right coaching, the right inspiration and trust," which is the royal jelly for players. An otherwise normal player can become great if given the right royal jelly.

    To illustrate with an example: In the 2011 draft, the Wizards drafted Jan Vesely with the 6th pick, while the Spurs drafted Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick. Vesely is out of the league now, while Kawhi was just Finals MVP. Was it the Spurs just being lucky that the Wizards (and other teams) passed on Kawhi, did they see something in him that mysteriously none of the other teams did? Or did the Spurs' legendary player development unlock something in Kawhi that is actually present in many other players as well?

    What if the Wizards had drafted Kawhi and the Spurs had drafted Vesely? What do you think their careers would look like now? Food for thought.

    In the other thread, Sollozzo was counting the number of All-Star players drafted above #10, and concluded that there simply is 2x more talent in the 1-10 draft positions than it is in all other positions combined. That would seem to go against the royal jelly thesis... or does it really?

    Here we have to look at the politics involved in alloting NBA playing time (via Henry Abbott):

    But the players Lowe wrote about -- those not drafted in the lottery -- have special playing time challenges because they're last in line for playing time, as determined by the political structure on a typical team. Owners spend millions per season for veterans. Coaches serve at the pleasure of owners. Coaches also make owners look stupid by benching the guys making the big bucks. And if there are any high draft picks around, it's inevitable that the front office will want them to play, too. Nobody is as easy to bench as the players Lowe is talking about.

    In their new book "Stumbling on Wins," David Berri and Martin Schmidt report that players drafted in the lottery earn more minutes than their production suggests they should. And this is not just true when they're rookies, but for years after the draft. In short, those players get the royal jelly, and opportunities to learn on the job. Every minute a high-drafted player gets, however, is by definition a minute a low-drafted or un-drafted player watches from the sidelines. (Every player enters the NBA through one of those categories.)

    I'm not saying that playing time is all it takes to make any bench player good. I am saying that if you have the goods to be really special, playing time is an essential ingredient in developing to elite status. (Oxygen isn't all you need to be an Olympic runner. But Usain Bolt can't win any medals without oxygen. It's one of many essential ingredients.)
    So in other words, players drafted in the top 10 succeed more often, not because they are more talented, but because they are given more royal jelly (playing time, support, development).

    As support of this theory, just look at this year's Pacers. All these "scrubs", it turns out they can play if given the opportunity.

    With regards to inborn talent vs external development, I'm not saying that it's definitely one or the other - like a lot of things in life, it's probably a mix of both - but if you accept that player development is a big factor in the end product, well this has some strong implications against the tanking argument. Draft order really doesn't matter as much, unless you have a chance at drafting one of those generational talents who are great no matter what.

    Every draft, it's been the custom of Bird or Walsh to say something to the effect of "whoever we draft, he's going to be a good player." Maybe their confidence stems from knowing that they can mold raw prospects into good players, rather than blindly hoping that they can pick out a diamond in the rough that other teams stupidly passed on.

    One more set of questions to mull over. Would Granger have turned into a good scorer if he hadn't been forced into the role by the god awful roster we had that year? Would Paul George turn into a superstar if Granger hadn't been injured that year? Would Solo have lasted past his rookie contract if not for the opportunity that George's injury has given him?
    Last edited by wintermute; 11-20-2014 at 12:56 PM.

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  3. #2
    Pacer Pride, Colts Strong Kid Minneapolis's Avatar
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    Default Re: The royal jelly theory of player development

    Isn't this really what most people regard as what drive's player success? It's a fun article, but it's also exactly how I've always regarded players and how far they go. Of course what drives success is a multitude of factors all coming together in a certain way.

    Would Tom Brady be who he is if he had landed with the Raiders and not with Bill Belichick? Brady was Nowhere Man, late draft pick, 3rd-string QB, and then BB comes in and sees something in Brady. Would other coaches have done the same? I think it's hard for people to define that. Brady and Bill was a convergence (in The Force... albeit as Sith Lords). There are only a few exceptions to this rule, players who people just know, no matter where they land, they will be successful. But a large contingency of players have to have things line up in just the right way for their success to be visible. Jeremy Lin is a classic example. He was in the right spot in NY. He's not fallen into a similar spot elsewhere.

    This is why I never say "Soandso sucks". Because you never know if they are in the right scenario to reach their potential. There's a lot of wisdom involved when a person knows how to guide themselves to the right place for themselves to have success and then remain there and also vice versa for people in charge of identifying talent and personnel who can figure out if a person's make-up is right for a particular situation. Trent Richardson is a helluva whipping boy for the Colts... people say he sucks. I say he doesn't suck... he's just not being utilized, and possibly not applying himself, correctly to the situation he's in. But he's a good player. It's a matter of coercing it out of him. It's more than just "he sucks".

    The Colts for instance under Bill Polian really had a very unique system, and that system required very specialized people, and thus, the Colts were loaded with fairly unknown players who played like rock stars for the Colts and then went elsewhere and faded into obscurity, and for that, people really have to give Bill Polian credit for his ability to identify those particular players. But to me, it's all the same concept as Royal Jelly, which is just a convergence of factors that result in a high amount of success.
    Last edited by Kid Minneapolis; 11-20-2014 at 09:41 PM.
    There are two types of quarterbacks in the league: Those whom over time, the league figures out ... and those who figure out the league.

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  5. #3
    DIET COKE! Trader Joe's Avatar
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    Default Re: The royal jelly theory of player development

    I don't know, but now I am hungry.

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  7. #4
    Pacer fan since 1993 Ragnar's Avatar
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    Default Re: The royal jelly theory of player development

    With a Bee its only the royal jelly, with a player its a combination of innate talent, work ethic and the team situation. There is no question that some players play better on some teams than they did on others (Gerald Green anyone) And there is also no question that the Pacers are pretty good at both spotting talent and molding it. The Spurs are better at it, but we are better at it than say the Knicks, Hornets(bobcats) and a bunch of other teams.

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