Kobe Bryant, European Basketball, and Skill Development

“We have to teach our kids to play the right way.” – Kobe Bryant

I imagine that nobody would disagree with Kobe Bryant’s sentiments captured above. However, in his diatribe against U.S. players, he is at least partially incorrect or short-sighted. 

Somehow, over the last decade, I have gone from a coach and writer who was ostracized on many sites for writing in 2001 that the U.S. basketball system needed to be fixed to someone who actually defends the U.S. system and coaches. Similarly, after writing Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development in 2006, I was characterized on message boards as both anti-AAU and pro-AAU. I am neither.

AAU is neither the answer or the problem. AAU is not one thing, just as European basketball is not one thing. In my experience, the absolute worst things that I have seen in youth basketball occurred in AAU or at shoe-sponsored exposure camps. However, the best teachers that I have known in basketball are AAU coaches. The absolute best, most classically fundamental teaching that I have seen occurred in the Hoop Masters, Santa Monica Surf, and NorCal Sparx AAU programs. Yes, there are bad parts to AAU, and they generally involve shoe companies and shoe-sponsored teams. However, there are many great AAU programs trying to teach young players the game on a shoe-string budget while shoe-sponsored teams steal any player who shows potential. I don’t think that that makes AAU the problem; it simply means that there are some things that should be changed or addressed.

Similarly, in Europe, the systems vary from country to country. In my club last season, the u15 players were coached by disinterested American professional players. They practiced once a week and played less than 20 games. I imagine players in Spain and Lithuania have a very different experience. That does not mean that the European system is the answer. Many people will cite Lithuania and the licensed coaches for youth players. Lithuania has 138 clubs in the entire country; there are more high schools in the Southern Section of California than in their entire country! Also, for all of the great ideas, players, and coaches from Lithuania, it has roughly 1/3 as many female players as male players. Is it worthwhile to develop slightly more skilled male players if it reduced the female playing population? It simply is not possible to license every coach in the U.S. unless we reduce the playing population by thousands, if not millions. Is limiting participation a worthwhile solution to insure that the elite players are slightly more skilled?

Bryant said:

In America, it’s a big problem for us because we’re not teaching players how to play all-around basketball. That’s why you have Pau and Marc [Gasol], and that’s the reason why 90 percent of the Spurs’ roster is European players, because they have more skill.”

Great. Pau and Marc Gasol are skilled players. However, what about DeMarcus Cousins? What about Anthony Davis? Brook Lopez? Zach Randolph? Al Jefferson? Chris Bosh? Kevin Love? For all of the diversity of the Spurs, Tim Duncan learned the game in the United States at Wake Forest University. Sure, he is born elsewhere, but without his U.S. coaches and U.S. collegiate experience, he would not be the Tim Duncan that we know.

I love Marc Gasol as much as the next guy, but list the top 10 most skilled players in the NBA. Is he on the list? Curry, James, Durant, Korver, Harden, Wade, Aldridge, Lillard, etc. Where does Gasol fit?

“I just think European players are just way more skillful,” Bryant said.

Really? Who are the best European guards in the NBA? When Tony Parker and Ricky Rubio entered the NBA, neither could shoot. Greg Popovich prohibited Parker from shooting jump shots. Where was that European skill development when they were developing? Rubio is probably the most heralded young player of the last 15 years and grew up in a club (DKV Joventut) that is considered by many to be one  of the top five clubs in Europe for developing young players. What happened?

What about shooting, because it is the skill that is most associated with skill and fundamentals? The top 10 in three-point percentage with at least one make per game are: C.J. Wilcox, Kyle Korver, Luke Babbitt, Courtney Lee, Rasual Butler, Jodie Meeks, Kevin Martin, Bradley Beal, Patrick Patterson, and George Hill. Not a European to be found despite their superior skill level.

Here is the thing: When Kobe Bryant looks at the skill level of Europe, he looks at the .01%: The Gasol brothers, Dirk, Parker, Noah, etc. are among the best players in their country’s histories. He compares these greats to his teammates who are borderline NBA players on one of the worst teams in the NBA. If you take the top 5 players from Spain and compare them to the 250th best player from the U.S., I hope Spain’s players are more skilled. Comparing Marc Gasol to Nick Young is not a fair comparison, but if you want to argue that Gasol is more skilled than Durant, I will take Durant thank you very much, even if he played in the “horrible, terrible” AAU.

Look, over the last 10 years, I have written ad nauseam about issues facing the U.S. basketball system and ways for the system to be changed for the better. My concern has never been for the James’, Durant’s, or Cousins’ of the world because they seem to develop nicely. My concern has been for the average player. Creating a better system for the average high-school player who aspires to play in college. I believe that a better system for these players will lead to a better system for the elites as well, but it’s not because I do not think that the elite players have enough skill. Durant, Curry, etc. are more skilled than anyone from anywhere.

“AAU basketball,” Bryant said. “Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”

Ironically, the big players who can bring it up, but can’t post is a reaction to players like Dirk Nowitski. Everyone thinks that European or skilled is the same as all perimeter players. However, this misguided belief is the same reason that Kevin Durant and LeBron James are the two best players in the NBA. They have the size to be post players, but does that mean that they should be discouraged from bringing up the ball and shooting threes? Would they be better players if they played with their back to the basket in the post?

I tend to disagree with the obsession of trying to make every tall player with reasonable athleticism into a guard. I have argued about this in girls/women’s basketball. There are hundreds of average 5’10, 5’11 guards, but very few really good post players. I know two girls, one 5’10 and one 5’11, who have full scholarships to play D2 basketball, whereas there are plenty of average wings working on their perimeter skills to become D1 players. Would you rather play D2 and start from Day 1 because you are dominant as a post or maybe play D1 and sit the bench for four years because you’re an average guard?

In this respect, I tend to agree with Kobe, but blaming AAU is simplistic. The problem starts with parents who push their son or daughter to the perimeter to chase the scholarship. When things don’t go their way, they move to a new team until they find a coach who will let their son or daughter do what they think is best. I saw one of the best youth AAU teams dissolve because of this kind of parental involvement, and none of their daughters played in college.

One change that I argued for when the NCAA and NBA teamed up to start ihoops was a registration system that would work to control the constant movement of players from team to team, and the poaching of players from less-funded teams by shoe-sponsored teams. When a player wanted to leave our club last season, for instance, she had to get clearance from our club to play for another club in the same competition. It restricts players from jumping from team to team in one season.

With a registration system, and greater continuity, there would be more incentive to develop players. One problem with AAU, and again it comes back to the parents more than the system or the coaches, is the desire to play at Nationals or to get more exposure. That means winning. When a team is not winning, even when the players are improving, some parents will look for more recognizable programs that frequently attend nationals or the bigger exposure tournaments. Years ago, several players left a friend’s AAU team as their parents perceived him to be “just a rec” coach. They hopped from team to team to find better coaching, better competition, and more exposure. Eventually, they admitted to my friend that they never found better coaching, and their daughters would have been better off had they never left. The same is happening with high schools now too, as parents send their children to the high schools that attend the biggest holiday tournaments rather than playing for their neighborhood schools who play in local tournaments.

The lack of continuity is a major influence in skill development. In Europe, when Ricky Rubio left DKV Joventut at 18 years old to play for Barcelona, Barcelona paid Joventut a fee. Therefore, Joventut was rewarded financially for the resources that it invested in Rubio over 10 years. There was long-term development that benefitted the club and the player. When Milwaukee drafted Jabari Parker, Milwaukee did not have to pay a fee to Duke University. Duke University did not gain financially for any development that occurred during his year at Duke. However, Duke does profit from winning. There is no benefit from the long-term; just the short-term benefit of winning before he leaves. When Duke University signed Parker when he was a student at Simeon Career Academy, Duke did not pay a fee to the high school, nor did they pay a fee to his AAU team, Mac Irvin Fire. These organizations saw no financial benefit from helping to develop a future professional player who helped Duke make millions in his one year there, and is now worth millions to the Bucks. Essentially, the NBA and NCAA have no research and development costs, which inflates their profits, while developmental organizations are largely funded by financially-strapped school districts, parents, and shoe companies.

Mac Irvin Fire is a Nike-affiliated team. Nike does not pay an AAU program for its development of players; it pays teams who have talented, potential professional players to influence, whether the club develops them from when they are young or poaches them once they are talented. Therefore, the finances in the U.S. are based on procuring talent, whereas there is financial incentive to develop talent in Europe, as that talent either plays for your team or returns financial compensation when leaving for a bigger team or NBA.

Whereas I believe that Kobe Bryant overstates the failings in the U.S. and the successes of Europe, what would have to happen if the U.S. wanted to be more like Europe?

First, extend the season. My season in Europe started with practices in August and finished with the playoffs in April; more prominent leagues do not finish until June. Of course, an extended season would mean playing only one sport; nobody over 15 in my club played a second sport.

Second, youth teams play one or two games per weekend, depending on travel, and practice during the week. The better u18 teams practiced 3-4 times per week and played 1-2 games on the weekends, although not every weekend. Also, the best u18 players practiced and played with men’s team. It would be like the best high school players practicing and playing with their local high school and their local junior college. Of course, if 4-5 high school players also played for J.C. teams, there would be fewer opportunities for J.C. players.

Third, at every age group over 15, go to a 24-second shot clock and 40-minute game.

Fourth, do not start organized games until after 10 years of age (of course, this risks losing potential players to other sports who do play games, as was the case in my town).

These changes may lead to more skilled players at younger ages. A longer season with one team, roughly 35-40 games, longer games, shorter shot clock, means more possessions, more decisions, more practice.

The problem with AAU is not AAU. The problem is that players have no offseason to develop skills; they move from the high school competitive season to the AAU competitive season. High schools play during the week, reducing practice time and focusing practices on game preparation. AAU teams often are limited in their practices because of finances, travel, etc. A longer season with one team – whether high school or AAU – would alleviate some of these problems.

I do not believe that the U.S. system is perfect, and I wish the NBA and USA Basketball were more engaged in trying to improve the environment for all players (and coaches) rather than trying to find ways to make more money. Imagine if NBA and NCAA teams had to pay high schools and AAU programs a fee when they signed or drafted a player. Imagine what $25k or $50k could do for a poor program. First, it could pay for more practice time. Second, it could alleviate the need to rely on shoe sponsorships. Third, it could establish a coach education/licensing program as a stipulation of receiving funds. These are real changes that are possible, and would do far more than Kobe Bryant complaining about AAU.

Kobe has some cache with the NBA and USA Basketball. If he wants us “to teach our kids to play the right way”, he could spread some of his wealth and influence to make and propose changes rather than whining about a lot of coaches who work with children and spend their own money rather than making money for their time and effort.

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