Is AAU improving or harming hoops in United States?

First Posted: 2/10/2015

Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Laker superstar who is a lock for the NBA Hall of Fame, recently shocked a lot of people with his remarks regarding AAU, the current model for much of youth basketball in America. Bryant’s frustration was the result of watching talented American players arriving in the NBA based on their athletic talent and size but lacking the fundamental skills of the game.

“I think European basketball players are way more skillful than American players,” Kobe claimed. The culprit in this development? According to Bryant, it’s because our players are coming out of the AAU system and it is not preparing them properly.

“AAU basketball is horrible, terrible,” claims Bryant. “We wind up with players that are big and they can bring the ball up the court and do all this fancy crap but they don’t know how to post up. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid. Teach them to play the game at an early age and quit treating them like they’re cash cows,” Bryant implored.

Charles Barkley, the colorful NBA analyst who enjoyed a Hall of Fame career, agrees with Bryant. Barkley believes AAU focuses on too many games and not enough on skill development. As a result, players are unable improve their fundamentals and forced to rely solely on their athleticism. “These kids aren’t getting good coaching. They’re playing way too many games and not working their game enough,” claims Barkley.

Rick Pitino, the head basketball coach at the University of Louisville, agrees with Bryant, but only to a point. “I’ve got guys who come here who can’t make a layup off their right foot,” says Pitino. But he adds, “You think AAU coaches who have them for a week and are getting ready to go to Vegas are teaching them fundamentals? They don’t have time. You expect their high school coach to teach that.”

It has been in the last couple of decades AAU has become the most popular method of player development in this country. It’s not surprising that the generation of players preceding today’s athletes have taken issue with the current model. And they are joined by many high school coaches who view AAU as a major threat to their turf. And who can blame them?

High school basketball players can expect to play 22 games during the regular season and perhaps another handful if they are on a superior team that can advance in the tournament. Many AAU teams, some with lucrative sponsorship from major shoe companies, can play as many as 90 games in April, May and July, the normal AAU months of competition. In addition, college coaches reduced their evaluation periods during the interscholastic season and opened up more time during the AAU playing season. You rarely see college coaches doing leg work at high school games anymore, but for top AAU games it is not unusual to see the court ringed with college coaches.

I asked a couple of local coaches, who have experience coaching both high school and AAU teams, what they thought about the current AAU argument sparked by Bryant’s remarks.

Quincy Simpson, currently in his first season as the head coach of Lima Senior High, has been involved with the AAU program for a long time and in the last few years headed up the elite King James AAU team out of Akron. “I agree with a lot of what Kobe was saying,” Simpson said. He added, “For me, coaching AAU is all about player development and that means practice. I know teams out there who take players from several states and just over power people with their talent but their players aren’t getting any better because they’re not taking the time to work on their skills.”

Al Welch, the legendary coach at Wayne Trace High School, recently retired and joined his son Rob as a coach for the very successful Northwest Ohio AAU Basketball Club. Welch sees both sides of the issue. “Some teams play way too many games and have guys coaching them who just roll the ball out there,” he says. But he is quick to add the experience can benefit young players if they are in the right program. “I believe the really good players can prosper in AAU because they have to raise their game to another level if they expect to compete with the best.”

My experience with AAU got off to a rocky start. Years ago, I got a call at 6 a.m. from the coach of an elite AAU team in Columbus who informed me that I was to convince one of my great players that he was now on his team. He told me I would no longer have to worry about my player’s recruitment because he was taking charge and any fees would be waived for my guy and absorbed by the parents of lesser players he recruited for that very purpose. Because this is a family newspaper, I am unable to print my reply to this clown.

When several of my athletes began playing for Greg Mauk’s AAU teams I began to see the benefits of the program. Mauk, now the ultra-successful coach of Bath’s girls program, is a terrific coach and I could see the difference in my players after playing for him in the summer. And the Northwest Ohio Basketball Club AAU team has an excellent reputation. Recently, Dakota Mathias, Taren Sullivan and Martyce Kimbrough all raised their games to another level under the direction of the Welches. There are also several local players who competed with the King James team coached by Simpson and are prospering this season.

The age old theory that basketball players are developed between March and October and teams are developed during the regular season has taken a hit. For players who competed in previous generations, this is a difficult concept to accept. Older players remember the countless hours spent shooting on outdoor courts and working to improve their skills, largely on their own. But times have changed.

Perhaps Kobe Bryant can turn his criticism into a constructive solution. Bryant should approach Nike, which he has a lucrative contract with and is also one of the major sponsors of AAU, and encourage the company to begin conducting fundamental clinics at every AAU tournament site and make the sessions mandatory for any athletes competing. Reduce the number of games and concentrate part of each day on fundamental skill sessions. College coaches would jump at the opportunity to teach skill development to a collection of elite talent.

One thing is certain. AAU is not going away anytime soon. If the basketball skill level of young American talent is to improve, AAU will have to be part of the solution.

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