Wingin’ It In The NBA

With the start of the NBA season this week, spectators and analysts will remark upon the physical attributes of the athletes and how these extraordinary characteristics help arm them with the tools necessary to execute fascinating plays in the world’s premiere basketball league. While the individuals we observe surely need to work hard and be dedicated to mastering their craft, being genetically gifted still plays a role in having an advantage. Height obviously comes to mind; but, could we be overlooking the most important attribute of them all?

With the field of genetics coming a long way in recent years, especially as it relates to the analysis of sports, we have begun to uncover unforeseen relationships between body and performance. In recent years, researchers in the field of sports genetics have sought to elaborate on this subject matter as to provide increasing clarity to how certain messages within our genes translate to greater achievement in athletics. One sport, which always seemed to have the most obvious opportune quality, was basketball and its connection to height. A quick scan of the most recent rosters from each of the NBA’s teams will show that being exceptionally tall is quite common amongst contracted players (the average height of the NBA is 6’7″; only 5% of Americans are taller than 6’3″). However, wingspan or arm span is the often forgotten sister of height. Wingspan is more widely conserved when pared to just pure height and is appearing to be more important amongst the same contingent of basketball players. The average adult male generally has a wingspan-to-height ratio of 1, while the typical NBA player posts a 1.063 on the same scale. This is not only true for basketball, as NFL teams have also benefited from long wingspans. Jevon Kearse, nicknamed “The Freak,” was a 6’4″ all-star defensive end for the Tenneesee Titans and Philadelphia Eagles. Kearse possessed a 7’1″ wingspan; a whopping ratio of 1:1.12 to his height.

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This may not seem like a big deal but the criteria for the medically diagnosed connective tissue disorder called Marfan syndrome that results in elongated limbs is classified at 1.05. These numbers are so unusual in the NBA that there is only one player in the league with a wingspan-to-height ratio of 1 (J.J. Reddick, LA Clippers). Various general managers have learned of this interesting pattern and have begun to alter their recruiting strategy around this information. Elevated wingspans seem to be associated with a greater ability to block shots, and acquire offensive/defensive rebounds. This relationship may be best exemplified by Chuck Hayes, who is the shortest Centre in the history of the league at 6’5″; but his wingspan of 6’10″ allows him to compete in the best basketball league in the world.

It is impossible to attribute all a player’s success in the NBA to exceptional wingspan: talent does not come with your first pair of basketball sneakers. It is, however, amazing how well preserved such a given statistic is for one sport. Could each sport possibly have a similar correlative phenomenon that we haven’t discovered yet? We have only just begun to see the real reach of genetics in sport. The future holds a wealth of data just beyond our fingertips.

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