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The NBA’s Smartest Players

Who have been some of the smartest NBA players over the years? Joel Brigham shares his list.

Joel Brigham



Admittedly, basketball is a game of talent, and there is more of it in the NBA game now than there ever has been. Of course, as certain players have proven over time, basketball also is a cerebral game, and without at least some measure of smarts it’s going to be challenging to last long in the world’s most competitive league.

That said, there are some players who are especially intelligent, not only on the court but off of it. Fans can easily take for granted that some of their favorite athletes are actually smarter than they are, and in fact there have been more than a handful of extremely smart NBA players over the years.

There are players who are smart on the court – who always make the correct pass and who spearhead complicated defensive rotations – but the far-reaching intelligence of some pro players of the past and present is frankly pretty staggering. Here’s a look at some of the biggest brainiacs the league has ever seen:

Dikembe Mutombo – Maybe also one of the nicest players in NBA history, Mutombo has turned his prestigious education, which includes two degrees from Georgetown, into a rewarding life of philanthropy that has helped thousands upon thousands of people worldwide. He speaks nine languages, five of which are different African dialects, which is appropriate since one of his degrees is in linguistics. The other is in diplomacy, and he’s used that to do some tremendous humanitarian work in Africa over the years. He earned an honorary doctorate from Georgetown in 2010 and also has been named an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from the State University of New York College at Cortland, proving his credentials are as impressive as his list of donations.

Chris Dudley – While he may have shot some of the most atrocious free throws in the history of the game, Dudley was a Yale graduate and an incredibly smart man who proved to be much more than “just” a basketball player. He came out of his prestigious Ivy League university with not one but two degrees—one in political science and another in economics. And after his playing career, he became vice president of a wealth management firm, later earning a partnership at a firm called Filigree Advisors. In 2010 he ran for governor of Oregon, but lost 49 percent to 48 percent in a heartbreaker of a vote. Still, he has been extremely successful in his life after hoops, which of course makes sense considering his educational pedigree.

Chris Bosh – In high school, Bosh was a member of something called Wizkids, which was a computer club that worked on graphic design. He also joined the Association of Minority Engineers and the National Society of Black Engineers during his senior year there, all as a result of his interest in coding and computer science. While he obviously doesn’t use his talents and interest in coding on the court, he hopes someday to teach it in his years following basketball. He wrote all of this in an article for Wired magazine a few years ago, and considering his recent health scares, it’s good to know he’s got a fulfilling backup plan ready to roll should he ever find himself forced into retirement from basketball.

Pau Gasol – Growing up in Spain, Gasol lived in a home with two medical professionals as parents. His mother was a doctor, and his father was a senior nurse, so it came as a surprise to nobody that during Gasol’s first year playing professionally in Barcelona, he also attended medical school. While he didn’t finish his education there, he still spends a lot of time in hospitals, especially children’s hospitals, to sit in on surgeries and help make kids feel more comfortable. In one Lee Jenkins story from SI a few years ago, he told a story about how Gasol met up with some doctors at a children’s hospital and started asking questions about scoliosis patients and how a certain treatment might stunt their lung development. The doctors were floored, but had they known anything about Gasol ahead of time they might not have been. Also, he could have had that conversation in English, Spanish or Catalan, as he speaks three languages fluently.

Danny Granger – Having scored a 30 on his ACT in high school, Granger is very likely smarter than a lot of the media that spent time interviewing him over the course of his career. Test scores that high, particularly when they come with a strong extracurricular background like the one Granger put together at Grace King High School in Louisiana, garner the attention of prestigious universities. As a result, he was given a financial package offer to attend Yale. He didn’t go there, choosing instead to start off at Bradley University in Peoria, IL as a civil engineering major. He’d eventually transfer to New Mexico, but he’ll grow old knowing he was good enough for the Ivy League, even if that’s not the direction his life actually took.

Jeremy Lin – The NBA doesn’t see a lot of Ivy League players come through its ranks, and certainly not many that have the effect on the league that Lin has had. As a graduate of the prestigious Harvard University with a degree in economics, Lin is the only current player in the NBA to have attended an Ivy League university, and he is one of only four Harvard students ever to make it to the NBA. Lin famously was not offered any Pac-10 scholarships despite solid high school play and an incredibly high 4.2 GPA, so he went to Harvard University, where athletic scholarships do not exist, and paid to play.

Tom McMillen – While McMillen floated around the NBA from 1975-1986, averaging 8.1 PPG on four teams over the course of his career, he proved an intellectual powerhouse off the court, eventually earning a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives for the state of Maryland during the 1980s and 1990s. He graduated from the University of Maryland long before that and was named a Rhodes Scholar, but in 2011, after his days as a Congressman were over, McMillen was appointed as Chairman of the first Board of Directors for the President’s Foundation on Sports, Physical Fitness and Nutrition. He also has written a book that looks at the relationship between sports and ethics, and at 6’11, he remains the tallest-ever member of the U.S. Congress.

Bill Bradley – No former NBA player has ever come closer to becoming the President of the United States than former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, who made a strong push for the Democratic nomination in 2000, eventually losing to Al Gore. Of course, long before that, Bradley was a brilliant student, graduating from Princeton in 1965 and then being named as a Rhodes Scholar, which earned him the opportunity to complete his Master’s Degree at Oxford University. Over the course of his career he has served as a visiting professor at Stanford University, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Maryland, and he also has written six books. He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame, has two rings as a member of the New York Knicks, and earned a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. To this day, he holds the Ivy League record for total and average points, as well as free-throws made and attempted. But again, this guy made the Final Four of Presidents at the turn of the century. How’s that for a basketball resume?

The NBA is full of smart players, but not all of them always took their education as seriously as these men. There have been plenty of other deeply intelligent players in league history, but this batch may be the most learned, at least in terms of school and world experience.

Interestingly, a lot of the players on this list played center in the NBA, and many of them either are seven-feet tall or are approaching it. All those jokes about jocks being big dumb oafs can go out the window. As it turns out, some of the biggest people have the biggest brains!

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.


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Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close

Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.

Spencer Davies



Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.

You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?

Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.

With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?

Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.

For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?

I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.

Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.

I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.

Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?

Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.

Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?

I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.

Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?

Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.

Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.

Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?

Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.

Would you welcome that rematch?

I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.

What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?

Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.

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NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense

The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.

Buddy Grizzard



The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.

“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].

“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.

“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”

Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.

“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”

Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.

According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.

The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.

“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”

Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.

“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”

Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.

“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”

While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.

“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.

The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.

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NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics

The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.

Moke Hamilton



Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.

Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.

Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.

As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.

Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.

Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.

“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by

“I’m tired of not playing.”

Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.

As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.

What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.

Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.

Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.

Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.

In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.

Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.

With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.

As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.

Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.

But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.

And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.

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