Should the U.S. develop players like Europe?

There is a popular undercurrent throughout basketball circles in the United States (R.C. Buford, Kobe Bryant, Stan van Gundy) that the U.S. need to develop players more like European countries or Canada. Typically, this rhetoric never is supported with actual plans or suggestions as to the differences between development in other countries and the U.S., and when I argue in favor of some of the primary differences between the systems in FIBA countries and the U.S. (24-second shot clocks, small basketballs for youths, lower basket height for youths, longer high school season, fewer games per week, etc), these same people argue against their feasibility. Rather than change the structure to match the European structure, it seems that there is some mythic drill or philosophy that coaches in the U.S. are missing.

Of course, this entire argument rests on the idea that other countries develop better, more skillful players than the U.S. anyway, which is a tenuous argument at best.

“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.

An article about a recent Anadolu Efes vs. Panathinaikos BC game in the EuroLeague further illustrated this point. These are two of the best teams playing in the second best basketball competition in the world, after the NBA, and the author wrote:

The Efes-Panathinaikos clash was Euroleague at its best, no doubt. But let me add one worrying observation, of the big picture variety — at a certain point in the game (and it was an extremely important one) we saw something really interesting on the court: nine Americans plus the American-bred Nick Calathes. EU players’ production and their improvement is a matter of immediate research. Otherwise, the whole Devoted to Euroleague Project is going to end up as a second NBA D-League.

So, we have coaches in the U.S. who believe that the U.S. needs to be more like Europe, but a game featuring two of the best teams in Europe that features 10 players raised in the U.S. playing ahead of their European/International counterparts, and an informed writer worrying about the development of European players in the European system. Of course, some of that has to do with the number of European players on NBA rosters, as there are several Turkish and Greek players in the NBA who might be likely to play for these teams if they were not in the NBA. But, it does suggest that “the European development system” (as if something uniform amongst dozens of countries actually existed) may not be the model that the U.S. should follow.

Now, a potential counterargument occurs earlier in the article, as the author describes former UCLA and Sacramento King forward Tyler Honeycutt:

Speaking of Honeycutt, one cannot pass him without noticing his exceptional presence. 38:20 minutes of playtime, 15 points, 4 assists, 13 rebounds and 0 (!) turnovers. His stat sheet is a confirmation of what Honeycutt truly is: if someone had the chance to choose a player who expresses the all-around dynamic nature of European basketball, Tyler would be one of the top choices. Thinking of every Euroleague roster, one definitely struggles to find a situation in which Honeycutt would not fit-in.

Depending on one’s perspective, one could argue that Honeycutt’s development in Europe after being released by the NBA is testament to the European development system. Of course, he was already in his mid-20s when he arrived in Europe, and he was a top-rated recruit out of high school, and a second-round pick in the NBA, which suggests that he demonstrated some skills through his development in the U.S. It is possible that his skill set fits the European game better. It is possible that he is a near-elite; a very good, possibly great basketball player, but not quite at the NBA level. It is possible that he played for a dysfunctional NBA franchise and never had a great opportunity. It is possible that he found this opportunity playing with teams in Europe who were able to maximize his skill level. There likely are many factors as to why one could consider him one of the better players in Europe despite not having much success in the NBA.

It is also possible that a more patient NBA team may have allowed him to develop into a productive NBA player; after all, Honeycutt is one of the players who UCLA signed in the same recruiting class as Kawhi Leonard. Leonard has developed his skills during his NBA career; in a better situation, why couldn’t Honeycutt have developed his skill similarly, as he seemingly has managed to do while playing abroad? Again, there are many factors involved in a player’s development.

There are advantages to the European system. Unfortunately, for many reasons, the positive structural differences within the system are unlikely to be replicated in the U.S. because of entrenched institutions within USA Basketball such as AAU, NFHS, NCAA, and NBA. There are too many powerful players who have too much to lose to move to a more European model in terms of structure (clubs, competitive calendar). However, some structural changes are possible, such as adopting the shot clock at the high-school level, but there is heavy resistance, often from the same coaches who want a more European system.

Beyond the structural changes, I don’t know what changes people want to make the U.S. more European. There is no magic drill or practice idea.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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