The physical traits that make pro basketball players great

As the NBA’s Toronto Raptors gear up for the Eastern Conference Finals series against the Milwaukee Bucks, CBC Toronto decided to take a look at some of the physical characteristics that set basketball players apart from the average person.

What do Kawhi Leonard’s hands and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s wingspan have in common?

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard shoots the game winning basket over Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid to win game seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena. (Dan Hamilton/USA Today Sports)

Professional basketball players need to be tall. And strong. And fast.

To excel at a dynamic game that requires moving the ball at high speeds, changing directions swiftly to attack and defend, and enduring 48 minutes of play per game, players undergo intense training and conditioning.

But, for some, it's their natural gifts — larger-than-average body height, albatross-like wingspans, and monster hands — that give them a head start on the path to success.

As the NBA's Toronto Raptors gear up for the Eastern Conference Finals series against the Milwaukee Bucks, the winningest team in the league's regular season this year, CBC Toronto decided to take a look at some of the physical characteristics that set basketball players apart from the average person.

We highlighted three physiological traits and spoke to Carly Clarke, the head coach of the Ryerson University women's basketball team, and Jamie Hollins, a professional strength and conditioning coach and CEO of Sport Testing Inc., to understand how they translate into success on the basketball court.

The taller, the better — most of the time

There is no denying that body height provides a huge advantage in basketball.

It's easier for tall players to make slam dunks, collect rebounds off missed shots and block opposing players' shot attempts.

"We play on a basket that's 10 feet high and that doesn't change," said Clarke. "Most simply, the closer you are to the basket, the easier it would be to put [the ball] in, or vice versa."

Fred VanVleet, a point guard for the Toronto Raptors and the shortest player on the team, measures in at 6-feet tall. Marc Gasol, the Raptor's centre, is a more than a foot taller than VanVleet. (Jamie Hopkins/CBC News)

The average height of the 16 players on the Toronto Raptors' 2018-2019 roster is 6 feet 6 inches. That's eight inches taller than the average Canadian male height of 5 feet 10 inches.

Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors superstar forward, is himself six feet seven inches tall.

That height most certainly helped him shoot the basketball over seven-foot-two Joel Embiid's outstretched hand to sink the game-winning shot in the dying minutes of Sunay's game against the Philadelphia 76ers. The now-iconic shot helped the Raptors win game seven of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Philadelphia 76ers

Even the Raptors' point guards, a position traditionally filled by players on the shorter side of the average, are several inches taller than the average adult male.

But height isn't everything, said Clarke. Tall players may not be as quick or agile as the shorter players they defend against.

"There are players that have been successful probably at every position of all different heights," said Clarke, pointing to Muggsy Bogues, a five-foot-three point guard who had a successful NBA career.

"I think you still have to have skill and IQ and other athletic features to coincide with that in order to be effective," Clarke said.

Hands like claws

Much has been made by broadcasters and sports fans about the size of Leonard's hands — so much so that he's earned the nickname "The Claw."

Measuring at 11.25 inches from thumb to pinkie, he's got some extremely big mitts.

The size of his hands help him pass, shoot and maneuver the ball with ease, said Hollins.

"The ball is big, so big hands means more control of the ball," said Hollins.

Kawhi Leonard's larger-than-average hands are one of the physical traits that help the Toronto Raptors' forward excel at professional basketball. (Jamie Hopkins/CBC News)

Leonard's hands are so big that he's often able to grab and hold on to the ball with one hand, an action called palming.

Clarke agreed about the importance of control.

"If you watch him … you'll see that he commonly dunks with even his weak left hand, which very few NBA players do as well or as often as he does," said Clarke.

Leonard's large hands also help make him an effective defensive player when battling for rebounds or searching for steals. He finished in the league's top 10 for steals-per-game in the regular season, averaging 1.8 per game, and is a two-time winner of the NBA's best defensive player award.

From tip to tip

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks's star forward, is known by basketball fans as "The Greek Freak" — and with good reason.

He combines big-man length and strength without sacrificing speed and agility, and is the biggest threat facing the Raptors in their upcoming series.

One of Antetokounmpo's most impressive physical attributes is his wingspan, the length from fingertip to fingertip with arms fully outstretched. Antetokounmpo's wingspan measures seven feet three inches, according to measurements done by ESPN in 2016. That's four inches longer than his height of six feet eleven inches.

Giannis Antetokounmpo has a wingspan of seven feet and three inches. That's longer than the width of a Ford F-150 pickup truck. (Jamie Hopkins/CBC News)

Hollins said a long wingspan helps a lot in "a game of inches."

"It gives you more height too on your reach as far as you're shooting, blocking the extra couple inches, reaching in to steal a ball," said Hollins of a long wingspan.

Clarke says one of the biggest benefits of a long arms is the "ability to disrupt" opposing players while playing defence.

"Giannis is a pretty good defender," said Clarke. "He steals, he gets in passing lane and then obviously, his length allows him to score at the rim, to get around people and score over people."

Physical attributes not everything

Ultimately, both Clarke and Hollins agree that physical characteristics are just one aspect of what makes these players great.

"If you're faster then or stronger than the players that you're playing against, that's usually an advantage, and the same would go for length," said Clarke. "[But] understanding of the game, decision-making and the IQ piece is important as well."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?