There are certain qualities that every NBA coach and general manager is looking for in a player, and those qualities are often described in terms that are used so frequently that they begin to lose meaning. One of the qualities NBA teams covet in a player is a high basketball IQ, which is a term that is so frequently misapplied that it is downright maddening. Any time an executive, coach, teammate or member of the media wants to heap additional praise upon a player they can simply apply the “High Basketball IQ” label. The fact that it is not easy to quantify IQ relative to basketball makes this a label that is difficult to argue.
While many players have had the basketball IQ label applied, there are a number of players in the league who are legitimately intelligent and would likely score exceptionally well on a traditional IQ test. The league has long been a magnet for intellectuals like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Bradley, and even some of its goofiest personalities are insightful and keenly interested in subjects that go beyond basketball. Bill Walton, for example, is just as likely to discuss philosophy and theology as thoughtfully and intelligently as he would when discussing his better-known passions, like basketball or The Grateful Dead.
These 20 players are all still active and currently on NBA rosters, and each one has demonstrated impressive intelligence in one way or another. While a significant portion of the league’s players left college early to join the NBA, many have achieved a great deal academically despite the athletic demands placed on an NBA-caliber player while still in college. Even some who did not finish their degrees have nonetheless shown an aptitude for complex subject matter or have endeavored to better themselves intellectually throughout their careers.
Rather than attempting the fool’s errand of ranking these players according to their intellect or academic achievements, the following 20 players are listed according to their stature in the NBA. Their intellectual pursuits and achievements are so diverse and disparate that ranking them in any other way would be like comparing apples to aluminum siding (as one of these players would likely point out, the phrase, “comparing apples to oranges,” is a silly one: both apples and oranges are edible fruits that grow on trees and are rich with vitamins, fiber and carbohydrates).
20 Cole Aldrich
A five-year veteran of the NBA out of Kansas, the 6-11 Aldrich has been a serviceable big man off the bench while playing for four different teams. In his most recent season with the Knicks, the center averaged career highs in minutes per game (16), points per game (5.5), rebounds (5.5) and blocks (1.1). While at Kansas in 2010, Aldrich was named the Academic All-American of the Year Award, an honor also previously won by former NBAers Shane Battier and Emeka Okafor, along with several other active players also appearing on this list.
19 Andrew Nicholson
A third-year pro with the Orlando Magic, Andrew Nicholson is a rarity in the NBA. Not only did the St. Bonaventure grad complete his degree before being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft, he did it while majoring in one of the most difficult undergraduate subjects: physics. The 6-9 Nicholson chose the major due to his love of the mathematics involved in physics and even cited quantum mechanics as his favorite undergraduate course.f
18 Tyler Zeller
Zeller is coming off something of a breakout year in his third NBA season, averaging 10.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while also being the frequent recipient of many a “Tommy Point” from Boston Celtics legend Tommy Heinsohn. Like Aldrich before him, Zeller is also a former winner of the Academic All-American of the Year Award. Zeller won the award in 2012 while majoring in business administration and posting a 3.62 GPA at the University of North Carolina, making it the second consecutive season that he earned Academic All-American honors.
17 Kelly Olynyk
Olynyk, the Boston Celtic best known for prematurely ending Kevin Love’s first trip to the playoffs, declared as an early-entry candidate in the NBA Draft after his junior season at Gonzaga. Though he was only in his third year of eligibility at the time, Olynyk had redshirted during his sophomore season, allowing him to complete his degree in accounting before leaving for the NBA as an Academic All-American. Not only did he earn a degree in a field that is perfectly suited for an NBA player making millions of dollars each season, but he was also just two semesters shy of completing an MBA.
16 Matt Bonner
It probably should come as no surprise that the San Antonio Spurs dominate this list, though the team’s proclivity for maintaining a roster filled with sharp-minded basketball players may have as much to do with the club valuing intellect as it does with Gregg Popovich’s clear inability to suffer fools gladly. Either way, Bonner is the first of many longtime Spurs to land on this list by virtue of the fact that he won the Academic All-American of the Year Award in consecutive years (2002 and 2003) while majoring in business and maintaining a 3.96 GPA.
15 Jeremy Lin
Lin’s story of consistently exceeding expectations on his way to a career in the NBA is well-documented: Despite growing up in Palo Alto and having a resume that included a 4.2 GPA, a CIF championship and Northern California Player of the Year honors, Stanford University did not bother to offer Lin a scholarship, nor did any of the other Pac-10 schools. Lin had to “settle” for a roster spot at Harvard University (Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships), where he graduated with a degree in economics while maintaining a 3.1 GPA.
14 Mason Plumlee
Duke University is known for its lofty academic standards along with the continued success of its basketball program, and Plumlee is a perfect representative of the school’s reputation in both regards. A two-time Academic All-American, Plumlee dual-majored in psychology and cultural anthropology while earning a degree from Duke and winning a national championship in 2010. Plumlee, who was recently traded to the Trail Blazers, is one of the more underrated big men in the NBA, and his talent and athleticism ought to allow him to excel in an expanded role with Portland, if given the opportunity.
13 Thaddeus Young
Young only stayed one year at Georgia Tech before declaring for the NBA Draft in 2007. His parents, however, made it very clear to their son that academics were of paramount importance despite a potential NBA future. As a result, Young was a member of the National Honor Society and graduated from Mitchell High School with a 4.3 GPA. The principal at Mitchell High School, John Ware, offered lofty praise for Young, saying, “I've been in Memphis City Schools for 29 years, and I've had some outstanding student-athletes, and he's the most remarkable student that I've ever been involved with."
12 Rajon Rondo
Rondo is coming off a season in which he destroyed his reputation significantly and while the new Sacramento Kings point guard has dogged questions about his perimeter shooting and his ability to get along with teammates and coaches, the only questions with regard to his intelligence have been related to a concern that he may just be too smart for his own good.
Rondo has frustrated coaches at every level, with former Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith once saying of Rondo, "It's like being in the classroom with 30-some kids. They all don't learn at the same level. And then you have one that's just so superior -- 'Hey, we've got to find other work for him to do.' Really, that's the way Rajon was. That is a challenge for coaches to be creative, just like it would be for a teacher in a classroom."
11 Dante Exum
Utah’s young guard struggled a bit during his debut season, but at just 19 years old that is certainly to be expected and he did show the flashes of the talent that helped make him a highly regarded lottery selection. The Jazz took Exum 5th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft despite the Australian player’s limited exposure against top-flight competition due in part to his size (6-6, 190 lbs.) and the fact that he reportedly scored “off the charts” in the pre-draft psychological testing. ESPN’s resident draft expert, Chad Ford, held Exum’s future potential in the NBA in high regard for this reason, saying, “The teams that got to interview him and do the (psychological) testing said that he tested off the charts. When you add that to an NBA style frame, those guys tend to not fail in the NBA."
10 Danny Granger
Granger’s high school academics – including a score of 30 on the ACT – were good enough that he gained acceptance to Yale University before deciding on Bradley University, where he majored in civil engineering. He ultimately transferred to the University of New Mexico before being drafted 17th overall in the 2005 NBA Draft, and he certainly has a future beyond basketball should he decide to pursue engineering after his career comes to an end.
9 Brandon Knight
Knight was such an impressive high school student that he was able to enter the University of Kentucky with over a semester’s worth of college credits. Knight left college early to join the NBA despite clearly valuing academics, but few question that decision as the guard has posted career averages of 15.2 points and 4.5 assists over his first four seasons in the league. Knight, now a member of the Phoenix Suns, has said that he intends to eventually return to the University of Kentucky to finish his degree.
8 Victor Oladipo
The Magic guard has enjoyed an excellent start to his career in Orlando, establishing himself as one of the better young players in the league while averaging 17.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game during his second season in the NBA. Despite declaring for the NBA Draft after just three seasons at Indiana University, Oladipo was still able to leave college with a degree in sport communication. In order to do so, Oladipo had to take 19 credits during his last semester, an impressive course load considering that he was in the midst of leading Indiana’s basketball team to a conference championship and a berth in the Sweet 16.
7 Gordon Hayward
Hayward has quickly emerged as a major talent in the NBA and has a league-wide reputation for being a smart and savvy player. Hayward’s intelligence extends beyond the basketball court, and during his time at Butler University he majored in engineering. The 9th pick of the 2010 Draft, Hayward put up 20.1 points per game this past season while adding 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game.
6 Manu Ginobili
Ginobili began playing professional basketball right out of high school, but he is as thoughtful and as intelligent as any other player in the league. Ginobili, who is fluent in three languages (Spanish, English and Italian), has been described by his coach as a “self-taught, very interested citizen of the world.” Ginobili’s expansive interests include, according to Popovich, “Everything in the world. Politics, history, economics. He’s special that way. There’s nobody else on the team that’s as interested in the world as he is.”
5 Pau Gasol
Gasol has been one of the league’s best big men throughout his entire NBA career, averaging 18.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game while winning two NBA titles with the Lakers and earning five trips to the All-Star Game. If not for his basketball career, Gasol would likely be a practicing physician, as he was enrolled in medical school when he decided to pursue an opportunity to play in the NBA. In addition to his medical knowledge, Gasol is also able to speak three languages: English, Spanish and Catalan.
4 Chris Bosh
Bosh was only at Georgia Tech for a single season before he began an NBA career that has thus far lasted 12 seasons and includes 10 All-Star appearances, but he has demonstrated a continued interest and aptitude for coding and computer science. He’s written on the subject in Wired and was part of a PSA urging kids to get into coding in order to better prepare for future employment opportunities. In the piece appearing in Wired, Bosh wrote that if basketball didn’t work out, he would “like to teach young kids computer science and coding.”
3 Chris Paul
Paul, an eight-time All-Star who has led the league in assists four times and in steals six times, has relied on his intellect in his role as the president of the National Basketball Players Association. Before assuming his role as president in 2013, Paul was a member of the executive committee for four seasons. During his time at Wake Forest, Paul was the only sophomore selected to the Academic All-America Team in 2005, the same year he declared for the NBA Draft.
2 Russell Westbrook
Coming off a season in which he averaged a league-high 28.1 points per game, Westbrook has become a legitimate MVP-caliber player after seven seasons in the NBA. Though he ultimately chose to attend UCLA, Westbrook, whose favorite subject was math, had a strong enough academic record to get into Stanford University. Westbrook -- along with his 3.9 GPA -- actually wanted to go to Stanford, but he said the school did not recruit him for basketball.
1 Tim Duncan
A generational talent that motivated several teams to tank their seasons in 1996-97 just for a chance to get him, Duncan is one of the last four-year college players to be taken first overall in the NBA Draft. Duncan, who attended Wake Forest, graduated from the university with a degree in psychology and is considered one of the most cerebral players of his generation.
While most players try to play with great ferocity or even anger, Duncan is much more methodical and has even waxed philosophical on the benefits of mellowness, saying, “[Mellowness is] essential. Trying to stay cool and collected when things are going in all different directions around you -- if you can keep that even keel, you're not affected by the good or the bad as much. It's a great quality to have."
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