Study: NBA Stars’ Long-Term Success Hinges On Early Career Performance

OXFORD, England — What separates, say, Lebron James, on the hardwood, from a no-name journeyman? Skill aside, new research indicates that James — like previous NBA stars — continues to shine today because of his early success. That is, while James’ athleticism has declined, his accumulated habits and vast knowledge of the game continue to set him apart.

Researchers at the University of Oxford recently compiled a half-century of data on 2,845 former and current NBA players, hoping to learn how professional experience impacted performance.

The dataset, which took into account a wide range of variables, including position, minutes played, player efficiency rating (PER), and win shares, was run through a Bayesian structuring model, allowing for further analysis.   

The model led to at least one surprising conclusion: that early career success was predictive of late-career success. This finding ran counter to previous research.

“Interestingly, our results challenge a large body of evidence that demonstrates that age is not kinder to more able, active, or knowledgeable people,” says Dr. Nemanja Vaci, the study’s co-author, in a release.  

Vaci goes on to explain how many NBA stars use the ancillary skills they’ve gained throughout their career to maintain an edge.

“Once the decline in physical performance begins, more knowledgeable or more able players may utilize knowledge (i.e. motoric and context specific information) from earlier in their career to help effectively preserve their performance while aging,” he says.

“However,” Vaci adds, “it is probable that other factors, such as physical ability, personality, motivation, or even genetic makeup, which may enable certain players to acquire knowledge and skill more quickly, may also affect this correlation.”

In other words, it takes a unique combination of traits and skills to stave off Father Time.

What, then, lets players be successful from an early age? More than anything, it’s playing significant minutes. (Player position, interestingly, had little correlation with early-or-late career success).

Vaci believes his team’s results can be replicated in other longitudinal studies, thanks to “the flexibility and general nature of the model created.”

The study was published in the journal Behavior Research Methods.

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