Kobe Bryant, AAU Basketball, and Early Specialization

Kobe Bryant ignited a discussion about basketball development in the United States. I wish that he had made the statements in 2006 when I first published Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development

Numerous people have jumped on the idea that players in the U.S. play too many games. The argument is simplistic. It is not the number of games; it is the length of the competitive season, the nonexistent offseason, and the rushed practice week during the high school season or the reduced practices in AAU.

Games are not the enemy. I once wrote that many high-school teams would be better if their coach walked in the gym, dropped a ball at center court, and allowed the players to scrimmage for 90 minutes unimpeded than by continuing to do whatever they did at their practices (hint: Fake Fundamentals). After watching dozens of high school games, I agree with that assessment.

Furthermore, in the summer of 2007 (I think), I coached at a camp in Rabat, Morocco. The other coaches were Spanish club coaches. When we discussed development, I asked to what they attributed Spain’s ascendence. They attributed it to two things: (1) 10-15 years prior, the federation increased the number of games that youth teams played so that they played 40-60 games per year; and (2) they cited a national team program, like an academy, in which the generation’s top players (Gasol, Navarro, Fernandez) had participated, but which had been discontinued.

To improve their national program, they increased the number of games per season and had a training program for the elites.

Games are important for development. When I talk to old school, fundamental coaches who hate AAU basketball, inevitably they reminisce about pickup games from their youth. I once wrote that AAU basketball combined the worst of pickup basketball games and high school basketball: The performance pressure of high-school basketball, and the lack of urgency of pickup games. Pickup games can be competitive, and you want to win to stay on the court, but there is always another game. I still agree that AAU for high-school players tends to draw from the worst of both rather than the best, which is why I proposed the Elite Development League back in 2003.

However, if coaches reminisce about pickup games as a major part of their development, why decry the amount of games played in AAU? People have their own vested interests. Many who agree with Kobe are high school coaches or personal trainers. Fewer AAU games mean more time with a high school coach or more free time to work with private trainers. Is this good? Not necessarily.

Personally, I would replace much of the AAU season with pickup games. No scouts. No coaches. No parents. Meet at a park or open gym and play. Work on new moves. Extend your range. Compete against similarly talented players. Players of my generation did not have shooting coaches. Nobody had a coach to organize an individual workout. We played.

After the high school season, I played pickup games at my high school three days per week. The other two days, we usually stopped at the park and played against adults, college players, whomever. On Saturdays, we played in an unorganized spring league with players from various high schools. After our games, my friends and I often went to a park near the league and played 2v2 or 21 until we drove home. On Sunday nights, I played 3v3 at a local court. In summer, I played in my high school summer league on two afternoons a week and in an unorganized summer league four mornings per week or I went to a local high school for open gym in the mornings. Basically, all spring and summer, I played games.

How is that different than today? First, it was less expensive. The three leagues cost less than one AAU tournament. Second, there were no coaches. There were no college scouts. These were developmental games. I learned new things. I learned to run a pick and roll and shoot a floater, skills that my coaches never taught. I learned by playing in different environments with and against different players. This element of experimentation and freedom is lost today when everything is competitive, at least in terms of the presence of scouts.

Beyond games, another oft-ignored element is early specialization. Many, if not most, NBA players played multiple sports in their youths, even the European players. In the European club system, many times, there is a push for specialization at an early age (the best soccer clubs, such as Ajax, fight the specialization by incorporating different sports – judo, gymnastics – in their training, but they play one sport competitively and with only one organization). U.S. players may have an advantage over international counterparts because of their late specialization.

By playing multiple sports, they may be more athletic. When they reach NCAA or NBA basketball, they can improve their skills, much like Tony Parker and LeBron James developing their 3-point shooting throughout their careers. Those who specialize early tend to peak early, whereas the more athletic U.S. players continue to develop.

Should we encourage early specialization because Kobe Bryant thinks that U.S. players are unskilled? When Bryant attributes his skill development to growing up in Italy, maybe he underestimates his soccer experience. Dirk Nowitski, Steve Nash, and Tim Duncan — three of the last generations’ most skilled players —  thrived in another sport first (tennis, soccer, and swimming) and specialized in basketball late in adolescence. Maybe that is the lesson that we should learn from the most talented non-U.S. born players.

Finally, when coaches and media argue about development, they focus on the wrong things. The major problems are not with the top 10 elite recruits this summer. The biggest issues occur early in their careers. Habits form in the first several years. Rather than start with 5v5, players should start with small-sided games. Small-sided leagues would decrease the parental pressure, decrease the influence of coach strategy, increase player touches, and lead to a better overall environment and increased skill development. Several European countries have gone to small-sided leagues for players under 12 years of age. If we want to copy anything from the European system, that is the thing to copy. Basketball coaches love to cite European soccer coaches and clubs, and the best soccer clubs in the world start with 4v4 soccer, not 11v11 soccer. They do not start with static drills. They play small-sided games. That is the biggest change that I would like to see in the U.S. system.

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