Tracy McGrady could have used his career more effectively, as Malcolm Gladwell, Daryl Morey and Jeff Van Gundy pointed out, and I’m not here to argue that.
When looking at McGrady — six feet eight inches tall, with a guard’s skills and basketball IQ galore — it’s easy to understand how his critics wondered why he wasn’t better. Not that McGrady was never good; during certain years, he was one of the NBA’s very best players. He was an All-Star, a scoring champion, and a playmaker whose talents have rarely been seen throughout the NBA’s history. But, reasonably, he squandered at least some of his vast potential, never advanced past the first round of the playoffs, and left his coaches (or at least one coach — Van Gundy) wondering what would have become of McGrady’s career had he worked like, for example, Michael Jordan.
What I am here to argue is one of Gladwell’s reasons for McGrady’s somewhat disappointing (although still wonderful) career. While discussing his 10,000 hours theory (that someone must practice 10,000 hours at something before becoming an expert), Gladwell asserted that unbelievable natural talent — or, the very reason McGrady pieced together a still-quite-impressive career — can actually become the biggest detriment to a person’s development. Morey agreed with Gladwell’s notion, saying McGrady’s ability to dominate during his youth made everything come too easy. (Yahoo!) (And please, read the link. Some great stuff there.)
After praising McGrady’s talents, Morey said, “I do think [that ability] got in the way of Tracy’s development.”
“Much of the game was so easy — you see this in the AAU level, where they have freakishly talented players,” he continued. “When it’s that easy to dominate at that young age because of your physical tools — his wingspan was freakish, his size was enormous, his IQ — my sense was, all that did get in the way of Tracy reaching his highest heights.”
But does being so great at something, or having everything in life come so easily, really hinder personal development? Or is that just a crutch for saying, “Well, Tracy McGrady did not reach his full potential”?
I point you first to Kevin Garnett, who also spent his youth using natural talent to dominate overmatched opponents. Garnett, according to everything I’ve read, possesses a maniacal work ethic and incredible will to win. Unlike McGrady, Garnett did not coast on his supreme gifts. He nurtured those gifts to become an NBA MVP, an NBA champion, and someone who — at the age of 34 — still impacts a game on both ends of the court like few others in basketball.
My next example also grew up with a “small amount” of basketball talent, and some desirable physical skills. This player’s name is Kobe Bryant, and he grew into the NBA’s most feared scorer, and he did it with a work ethic that’s second to none. If being born with talent were really such an impediment to progress, would Bryant have become the face of this NBA generation? Would he have developed perfect footwork, which I assume took hours upon hours upon hours of work, and which allow him to create shots when normal humans couldn’t? Would he have added aspects to his game every offseason, from three-point shooting to a post-up game? Would he have played more than 1,000 games and still remain so goddamn good? Would he?
Garnett and Bryant — two childhood prodigies; two of the NBA’s most obsessive winners and workers; two examples that being phenomenal at a young age does not keep you from working, nor does being less talented make you work harder.
Sure, Tracy McGrady could have been better. But Scott Pollard could have been better, too, and he wasn’t anything special. Okay, Vince Carter wasted some of his precious talents. But so has Sasha Pavlovic, who continues to be one of the NBA’s worst players despite possessing some decent skill. Yeah, I sometimes wonder whether Eddy Curry, who earned a reputation as one of the country’s finest (and most physically talented) players during high school, has a pulse. But I wonder the same thing about Adam Morrison, who was completely unheralded in high school, did not become a star until his final year in college, and would never be confused for an “athletic freak.”
Gladwell, Morey and Van Gundy saw McGrady piss away some amount of his potential, and they suggested that his gifts kept him from working harder. But that forgets all the gifted players who do work, just as it forgets the considerably less gifted players who squander just as much potential. Somewhere out there, there’s a decent high school basketball player who drinks his face off, hardly ever works to improve his skills, and coasts through drills during each and every practice. We would never claim that his gifts kept him from reaching his potential, mostly because he was never that gifted in the first place. But he’ll never reach his potential. Like Tracy McGrady, he just didn’t work hard enough.
Many players throughout basketball’s history have failed to progress to their potential’s ceiling. Some failed in ways that were much fiercer than McGrady’s failure. I’ll use Lenny Cooke as an example. For those of you who don’t recognize Cooke’s name, and I’m sure there are at least some of you, he was (as a junior, at least) the country’s best high school basketball player in the class of 2002. Better than Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire, that means. By most accounts, Cooke was Lebron before Lebron, capable of physically dominating almost every opponent. Yet Cooke never even played a single NBA game. Was that because his gifts kept him from working? Or was it something else? Lebron’s done okay for himself, despite being so legendary in high school. But Cooke, for whatever reason, just didn’t.
For every Tracy McGrady, there’s a Kevin Garnett. For every Vince Carter, there’s a Kobe Bryant. For every Lenny Cooke, there’s a Lebron James. We see McGrady’s squandered potential, and it stands out because, well, he’s Tracy McGrady — haven’t you ever seen him play? He could do it all, when he was at his best, and his career fell short of our expectations. But there’s also that average high school player who never worked his hardest, and there’s Stanley Robinson who could be so much better, and there’s the mediocre Jiri Welsch, who never quite panned out.
To allow some amount of potential to go unrealized, one does not have to begin as a fantastic talent. We just recognize it far more easily when one does.