As a bit of a basketball nerd I like to digest every bit of basketball writing and philosophy I can during my idle time. The other morning, I received an email from Breakthrough Basketball with links to some reading and one headline jumped right out and grabbed me because it had to do with youth basketball and the narrative surrounding AAU Basketball.
The article, titled “Should Your Child Play AAU Basketball,” is the product of a confluence of public comments about the state of the coming generations of basketball by Kobe Bryant and Lebron James and a podcast the author – Jim Huber – did with 247sports.com recruiting coordinator Jerry Meyer. Huber outlines the misnomer that confuses the current grassroots circuits of the shoe giants with the Amateur Athletic Union and its non-profit, volunteer efforts – so let’s begin there.
All non-travel, non-CYO, non-traditional-season basketball has been lumped together under the term “AAU basketball.” However, what Kobe, Lebron, and most the negative commentators out there are referring to are the Nike EYBL, Adidas Gauntlet, and Under Armour Association circuits that pit the best company-sponsored teams against each other over the course of the summer before a culminating tournament-style championship. This is some of the best basketball you will see at any level and Meyer says as much on the podcast.
“You can’t paint AAU with one broad paint brush. It is as good and competitive of basketball you will see on the amateur level. It has a March Madness feel to it. Pretty much all of them are going to play in March Madness and you will watch games where there will be 5 NBA players on the floor. I don’t think that is the problem, but certainly there are problems.”
With between two and four games every weekend, the author of this piece argues that winning and losing has become secondary. He argues that too many games devalues each game and to some degree he is right. The 12-year-old boys I coach do not take losing as hard as I do, but is it because they know we’re playing again in an hour? We play anywhere from three to five games every weekend and then they run off to soccer, baseball, lacrosse, or football. It is this oversubscription of kids that leads to a decreased emotional investment, not the volume of the games they play each weekend.
But this is not the case on circuit. EYBL teams get 17 games to prove themselves worthy of a playoff spot at Peach Jam. Fifteen clubs didn’t qualify for Peach Jam last year and from speaking with a player from one such team, I know they take it pretty hard. Huber’s argument that winning and losing is devalued is correct at the youth level, but on the circuit every game means just as much as a high school game – regardless of whether or not there is another game or two that day.
Where Kobe and Lebron’s comments come into play is in the attitude many players carry in the Vine/YouTube/Snapchat era where any display of individual brilliance could vault them to stardom and possibly give them the exposure they need to earn a scholarship. Highlight hunting becomes a part of the culture, and selfish play is borne from that. However, every player in today’s NBA had to go through college and that is where these superstars’ comments lose their value. Any selfish habits honed on the circuit are bred out by coaches like John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan, and the litany of Hall of Famers still plying their trade.
Which brings us to the other part of Huber’s post – that summer circuit basketball has stunted the development of players by focusing too much on competition instead of skill development. With so much time being spent in games, players have less time to hone their skills in drills to become more polished players.
If a guy made up his mind to go to work in the summer, you could see dramatic improvement during the next high school season. You don’t see those huge jumps in players as often these days. I see guys that are “elite” as 15 year olds who don’t develop skill wise because they don’t find the balance between skill work and playing games. You don’t improve skill wise just playing in tournaments. You improve skills alone in a gym or working with a partner or small group of likeminded individuals.
I find myself on both sides of this one. Truly elite players will find any opportunity to work on their game and don’t need a structured environment to do so in the offseason. Coaches will always say “the hardest thing to simulate is game speed,” so playing a lot of games and racking up those game-speed reps is good for a lot of players. But most players need a mix of both. They need the drill time to buff out kinks and the game time to experiment with new skills. So what my answer to this argument?
This all comes back to the title of this post: Should Your Child Play AAU Basketball? In a word, yes. Grassroots basketball has given this generation of basketball players an outlet to hone their game and become the players we need to move the game forward – but some clubs do it better than others. I will echo Huber’s advice on that front and encourage parents to be educated about the teams and coaches with whom they trust their budding athletes.
- Ask questions. What is the coach’s philosophy? What is their background teaching the game?
- Network. Find out what clubs are in your area. Where your child’s friends are playing? How has their experience been?
- When you find a club you can trust, support the coaches. Healthy teams begin with supportive parents.
- Understand your child’s goals. Playing for a 7th Grade team in a circuit club might not provide the experience your child needs, but neither will a parent-run team of neighbors. Find the fit.
- Have fun! Basketball is a beautiful game that can be played throughout your child’s life and burning them out helps no one.
I could spend every hour of every day in a gym talking, playing, and coaching basketball. As coaches, this is what we live for. Whether it is the State Championship or a 10:00 a.m. game that kicks off a three-game Saturday in June, we want to see your children succeed and become the players they want to be.
Jimmy Kelley is a middle school basketball coach at The Rivers School in Weston, Mass. and the U12 boys coach for the Mass Mavericks AAU Basketball Club. Find him on Twitter @JimmyKelley_