Saturday, May 27, 2006

Vygotsky and the NBA
By Blogger

Lev Vygotsky is well known in educational circles for his ideas on social learning. One of his lasting developments is the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). To quote Dabbagh and Riddle's article, linked above, the ZPD refers to the "gap between what is known and what can be known." One of the major insights stemming from acknowledgement of the ZPD is that groups of children can learn more by helping each other than they can learn by working alone. In other words, by learning in a collaborative setting, children can collectively raise their ZPD ceilings, both the "low" students and the "high" students. The thing is, there is a point where collaborative learning fails, when the "lower" learner's ZPD ceiling is lower than the level of teaching. In common terms, it's what happens when someone is in over his head. Stick your average high school freshman in a calculus class, and he will be lost, no matter how helpful the other students are. Stick that same freshman into an honors algebra class, and odds are the student will be flustered, but with the help of capable classmates, he could, conceivably, learn, even if his grade wouldn't be all that great.

When it comes to rookie basketball players, this is how the NBA operates. A rookie can't be in over his head. If he is, he can't learn in the collaborative settings of team practices. Granted, physical development is a major part of the NBA experience, but it's as much about young adults learning abstract methods of doing things. While the ZPD primarily refers to how children and adolescents learn, NBA rookies are young enough that the concept has value, and rough, subjective, evidence indicates it could be a useful model when trying to figure out which players to choose in the draft.

As I've written before, when in doubt, pick the guy who's better at the time of the draft instead of the guy with a "higher ceiling". The classic example, of course, is Carmelo vs. Darko. Mister Milicic will likely never be a franchise cornerstone, whereas Carmelo already is the face of his franchise and one of the premier players in the league. Along with LeBron, Carmelo was one of the two surefire, can't miss, must-take-at-all-costs talents in the 2003 draft, and Joe Dumars passed on him in favor of a guy he imagined might one day be more valuable, but was a demonstrably less useful player at the time.

Less discussed, but just as telling, is an example from the very same draft: Luke vs. Ndudi. Who? Ndudi Ebi was a small forward drafted out of a Houston high school. Listed at 6-9 and 200 pounds, Ebi was picked 26th overall by the Minnesota Timberwolves. There is no way in the world that Kevin McHale and Co. thought that Ebi was a better player at the time than Luke Walton, who the Lakers drafted in the 2nd round, 32nd overall. While Ebi is already out of the league, a never-was, Walton has become exactly what was expected of him, a projection that caused his draft stock to fall, and that's a decent seventh man who could probably start for the crummiest teams in the league. Those rookies have value because they produce tangibly for less than the league average salary. For some reason, NBA decision-makers think that a guy who can't crack a rotation can sit on the bench, practice for a year or two, and then become an All Star. Why? It's usually a death knell for a player when he can't crack a rotation. It means that, in all likelihood, he's not one of the top 150 players in the league, and very few players go from marginal to All Star without drastic changes in scenery.

Worse, a guy who can't crack the rotation is likely in over his head, making it more likely he'll have a difficult time learning the game in a collaborative setting. If he has to learn in one on one, or other simplified, settings, to get to a point where he can participate and get something out of group activity, it will take him that much longer to develop because the Principle of Specificity holds that the best way to develop one's skills in a particular sport is by playing that sport. Cross training is useful for getting into shape, but skill development requires actual play.

Luke Walton was the better choice for the Timberwolves. Even Jason Kapono, who had success at UCLA, has provided more value to his teams than Ebi (on the surface, Kapono was more successful than Walton in college, but subjective observation of their games and consideration that Walton's teammates were superior to Kapono's clouds the comparison). Ebi should not have been selected at all because it should have been apparent that he could not hold his own at the pro level in his rookie season. The two college seniors were expected, at worst, to have the combined careers they have. But that's not going for the jackpot. NBA GMs want to look like geniuses by drafting some guy everyone else passed on that turns out to be a freakish athlete and dominant. However, if the guy doesn't pan out, the GM can't be blamed for that because the expectations were so low to begin with. Or can he? If you have a choice between a guy who will very likely be a useful bench player for 7-10 years, or a guy who has a miniscule chance of suddenly "getting it" and becoming a force of nature but also has a very significant chance of never "getting it" because he's probably in over his head and therefore will have a difficult time learning at the NBA level... You figure it out.

This could be an argument for NBA teams to make more extensive use of the NBDL, a collaborative setting where lesser players are more likely to be on compatible learning levels. In any event, as you examine the Sportszilla Draft Board, and the other draft coverage in the coming days, remember: Lev Vygotsky.


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