When Kobe Bryant speaks, the basketball world listens. On Friday night, after the Lakers were defeated at home by the Memphis Grizzlies to fall to 10-23 overall, Bryant channeled his frustration from a losing season toward the development of youth players in the United States.
After watching Memphis’ Spanish-born center Marc Gasol turn in another masterful performance, Bryant declared that Europeans players are more skilled than Americans. He blamed “horrible, terrible AAU basketball” for what he believes is the deterioration of fundamentals among players in this country, citing the Spurs’ diverse roster and the Gasol brothers as examples of Europe’s superior ability to teach the game.
Bryant offered advice to American youth programs in a way that only Bryant can:
“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” he said. “That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”
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You only need to know about the bizarre recruiting stories of Antonio Blakeney and Skal Labissiere over to last six months to know Bryant has a point. Like most things with the Lakers’ star this season, though, it’s complicated.
Grassroots basketball has changed dramatically in the last 20 years since Bryant was turning himself into a star at Philadelphia’s Lower Merion High School. Experience has helped color his perspective: he won his last two championships with Pau Gasol as his chief sidekick, but he’s also played with plenty of “AAU” products over the years. Even successful ones like Andrew Bynum seemed to find a way to irritate Bryant.
There’s no question Bryant knows the game, so his comments carry a certain significance. But unlike LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, all of whom host youth camps for elite young players every summer, Bryant is further removed from the current state of youth development.
He isn’t the only high-profile player to think this way, but his comments are still sweeping generalizations. With that in mind, here are three misconceptions about “AAU”.
1. “AAU ball” is not all encompassing
“AAU” isn’t even the right term. “AAU” is simply an organization within the broader scope of grassroots basketball, the general label for teams and leagues that play when the high school season is over.
High level grassroots ball is generally contained to three shoe company leagues run by Nike, adidas and Under Armour. There’s almost no streamlined regulation between the three leagues or any of the extra tournaments that take place during the year.
Grassroots teams pull their players from a variety of different places. Some teams only take kids from a certain city, some from one state, others from an entire region. Because of the way these teams are set up, many are unable to practice regularly when you factor in school obligations and the travel restrictions involved in getting the players together. In that sense, Bryant is getting at something.
In another, grassroots ball was never created to teach fundamentals. It about competition: getting the best players playing against each other.
The lack of structure and regulation dictates that every team and every league is going to be different. Some players are going to receive really good coaching. That’s the reality of the situation.
2. America is producing a ton of great young basketball players — and it’s not all athleticism
The NBA is loaded with young talent right now that came from the same scene Bryant is taking issue with. There aren’t many players in the history of the game as skilled and fundamentally sound as LeBron James, and he’s perhaps the biggest poster child for the system. From Anthony Davis to John Wall to Blake Griffin, every American-born star less than 30 years old came up through grassroots ball. It must be doing something right.
Bryant’s assertion that players today lack fundamentals rings a bit hollow, as well. Big men are more skilled now than ever. There weren’t always players nearly seven-feet tall who could shoot and put the ball on the floor, but that’s the way the game is going. There’s more of those types of players now than ever. Another example: all of the great young point guards in the NBA right now. Are Russell Westbrook, Damian Lilliard and Steph Curry lacking fundamentals?
While Bryant’s head might have been in the right place, he didn’t exactly nail down what he was trying to get at. A better way to say it might have been like this:
There are noticeable differences between the Euro game and the American one, but it doesn’t all come down to fundamentals.
3. The problems with grassroots ball extend beyond the lack of teaching
Bryant is right about one thing: grassroots ball is far from perfect. There are plenty of ways it can improved, but it probably isn’t going to happen the way it’s currently set up. You can thank NCAA rules and major corporations.
Grassroots ball has allowed elite young players to face elite competition throughout the spring and the summer, but it’s also making them play a lot of games. The schedule for a player like Jaylen Brown, currently the No. 2-rated player in the class of 2015, can be pretty insane. This summer, Brown crisscrossed around the world (not just the country) on a schedule that might be even more intensive than the one some NBA teams face.
Brown is a Georgia native. This past summer, he played in Treviso, Italy at adidas Eurocamp, went to Colorado Springs for USA Basketball’s U18 team, made two separate trips to Chicago (first for adidas Unrivaled camp and then for the Nike Global Challenge a month later) and was in D.C. for Kevin Durant’s camp. That’s just some of the traveling he did.
NCAA rules make weekends in the spring and the summer the most rigorous stretch on the schedule. College coaches can only watch kids in person during the “live period”, which amounts to six days in the spring and 15 in the summer. Because of that, kids are shuffled around the country to play at events and showcase themselves for the next level. That “Basketball Never Stops” shirt Nike makes isn’t lying.
Young players don’t come up the same way today as they did 30 years ago, but not all of the change is bad. Grassroots ball provides a shot clock (which many players have never played with) and college referees.
Bryant isn’t wrong about everything, but grassroots basketball also isn’t the abomination he might think it is. Playing with Jahlil Okafor or Emmanuel Mudiay, who were on the circuit just a year ago, next season might start to change his mind.