A college basketball fan’s guide to the current grassroots basketball scene

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source:
Hoop Group

(Editor’s noteFirst published on April 25th)

In the modern 24-hour sports news cycle, nearly every aspect of the four major sports of are covered. Extensively.

Free agency is broken down like crazy and draft coverage is at an all-time high, complete with a movie starring Kevin Costner and talk of potential one-and-done players dominating college basketball until February.

But one of the great unknowns left to the casual sports fan is grassroots basketball, which is often mistakenly referred to by people as AAU.

The Amateur Athletic Union is an organization within the current structure of spring and summer high school travel basketball for American players, but is hardly the only — or preferred — way that athletes play basketball.

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Most elite players opt to play in shoe company leagues and never actually play in an AAU game. The term — AAU — has just overtaken the name of the scene — grassroots basketball — like Kleenex has for tissues.

Having covered grassroots basketball for the last seven years, I get asked a lot of questions about the overall scene and what it is. College basketball fans will commonly see people tweeting at events on most spring weekends, but they don’t understand some of what is actually going on.

Here’s a breakdown of some of the common questions and misconceptions I hear about the grassroots basketball scene from college basketball fans.

source:
Jon Lopez/Nike Basketball

What is grassroots basketball?

Like almost every sport in America now, basketball is a year-round endeavor complete with spring and summer travel basketball and fall leagues and camps between high school seasons.

In the spring and summer, teams of high school players form with other players in their area — or sometimes from a state or two away for bigger and more prominent programs — and travel a schedule of weekend tournaments or play in a league.

Teams are broken down into three levels for high school:

17U – Seniors to be
16U – Juniors to be
15U – Sophomores to be

Many tournaments will also devote time for 14U and younger age divisions in off-site locations as well, but we’re focusing on high school for now.

Why is grassroots basketball so popular among basketball’s elite prospects?

Kids want to play basketball and grassroots basketball gives them the opportunity to play with and against the best players nearly every weekend. While high school basketball can have limitations in scheduling or playing time or style of play for certain players, players can often pick-and-choose what they’re looking for in a grassroots program. Want to play in a shoe company league? Want to play for a coach that will play you extended minutes? Players can find any situation ideal if they look for the right fit.

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How are grassroots teams formed?

Teams are often recruited together by programs that try to maintain strong play throughout multiple age groups. Many of these programs are usually apart of the three shoe company leagues that will be on display this spring. The adidas Gauntlet, the Under Armour Association and the current standard of the leagues, the Nike EYBL. These teams offer a lot of exclusive apparel and travel to places around the country to play in league games.

For teams that don’t fall under these leagues, many will play an independent schedule or opt to play in AAU events.

AAU events are held at the state level and teams that win a local qualifier will advance to nationals in July. Many teams form for the sake of playing for some kind of overall title in a league or the AAU events.

Where are grassroots events held?

Events are held locally, regionally and nationally and tend to be held in bigger cities and places with multi-court facilities.

What is the basketball actually like?

The basketball is usually very up-and-down. There’s a lot of fast tempo play and with some tournaments making kids play up to three games in a few hours time, they can get exhausted quickly and play can get very sloppy.

With the changes in structure to shoe company leagues, however, less stress is being put on kids on weekends by scheduling out full league schedules with adequate time off and a cap on games per weekend. The coaching is also much, much better than people think. I’ve seen players like Julius Randle and Jabari Parker have to adjust to multiple zone looks and double-teams on the offensive end while more teams are running complete sets thanks to the integration of a shot clock in the EYBL.

Are grassroots basketball events fan friendly?

Yes and no. Fans can sit very close to the action at a grassroots event and see a lot of basketball during a Saturday session, but there commonly aren’t programs or scorecards and names aren’t listed on jerseys so it can be hard to identify players for common fans. Some camps are also exclusive to media and family and don’t allow fans to attend at all. But if the coaches are out in July and you can hit a big-time grassroots game attended by a lot of coaches, it can be fun to watch. Two highly-ranked kids battling on a national stage can be a great experience as a basketball fan.

Why is grassroots basketball so influential in modern basketball?

Since the talent comes together in the form of leagues and elite teams, it is much easier for scouts and media members to see a big collection of top players in just a single weekend. When you also include games being played for multiple sessions on Friday, Saturday and Sunday and there is a lot of time to get games in.

Grassroots basketball is the major influencer of national rankings because the top players have more of a chance to matchup throughout the course of the spring and summer. Camps in June and August also allow top players to come together nationally in exclusive events that put them all together for practices and games. This makes it even easier for people to make rankings because the best are playing each other. Kids want to be ranked and travel to big events, so they continue to play with or without coaches being allowed out.

When are college coaches allowed at grassroots events?

The open period for grassroots events was only one weekend in April, but it will be for 15 days in July:

July 9-13
July 16-20
July 23-27

The limited face time for college coaches — given how much the players play — is not good in helping them identify players outside of the high school season in which they’re coaching themselves.

College coaches cannot have off campus in-person contact with players or their legal guardians during the evaluation period. Coaches can still make telephone calls to players or legal guardians, and players can still make campus visits.

Is grassroots basketball a necessity to be a big-time college basketball player?

It helps, but definitely not. And plenty of players play on great local teams that play local events and continue to work and get better as basketball players. Does it do you better to sit on the bench of a high exposure team in a shoe company league or does it pay to play for the smaller local team and gain more experience? That’s the question some kids have to ask themselves.

Two workouts this week could alter Caleb Swanigan’s NBA Draft decision

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Purdue big man Caleb Swanigan has the most important decision among any college basketball player who could return next season from the 2017 NBA Draft process. If Swanigan comes back for his junior season, he’s the frontrunner for National Player of the Year. More importantly, Purdue would have a serious chance to repeat as Big Ten regular season champions, especially if Vince Edwards also returns from the same draft process.

Wednesday night is the decision deadline for players to return to college basketball for next season and Swanigan will use two more workouts scheduled for Tuesday and Wednesday to help decide his future. According to multiple reports, Swanigan will workout for the Orlando Magic on Tuesday and the New York Knicks on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s workout with the Magic will also reportedly involve Cal big man Ivan Rabb — an important workout for Swanigan since Rabb is listed ahead of Swanigan on a lot of popular mock drafts. The Magic own three picks between No. 25 and No. 35 — which is listed slightly above the No. 40 slot that Draft Express has Swanigan listed. So if Swanigan has a good workout against Rabb for the Magic, then he could get himself some sort of guarantee from a Magic team that desperately needs talent and has a lot of picks in that range.

The Knicks also have Swanigan scheduled for a Wednesday workout as they own the No. 44 overall pick in the second round. Again, the Knicks are a team in win-now mode with current stars like Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis openly feuding with the team’s front-office, so it wouldn’t be out of the question for Swanigan to land some sort of guarantee from New York in the second round.

Of course, guarantees for draft night are nice to have, but things can change quickly on draft night. Swanigan has to consider all of the information he is receiving before he makes his decision on Wednesday. But if Swanigan has two strong workouts and gets the information that he’s looking for this week, then he could easily bolt for a potential guaranteed contract.

Angel Delgado’s return to Seton Hall makes Pirates Big East contender

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Seton Hall got huge news on Monday when Angel Delgado announced that he would be returning to school for his senior season.

“I am coming back to school for my senior year,” Delgado said in a statement on Monday. “It’s very important to my family and me that I finish what I started. This was a difficult decision that took time and patience. Coming back feels just right.”

Delgado, a 6-foot-10 forward from the Dominican Republic, averaged 15.1 points and 13.2 boards last season for the Pirates. He was one of the best big men in the country over the last six weeks of the season.

And his return should bring about one of the best years that Seton Hall basketball has had in a long time.

The Pirates are loaded with talent, tough and, most importantly, old players, from Delgado to Khadeen Carrington to Ishmael Sanogo to Desi Rodriguez. They are going to be a nightmare to run offense against, and they may just be the best team in the Big East not named Villanova. Delgado should end up being a preseason all-american.

Seton Hall is currently ranked No. 17 in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25.

Texas to return Andrew Jones for sophomore season

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Texas got another boost on Monday as former five-star recruit Andrew Jones announced that he will be returning to school for his sophomore season.

“I’ve matured and learned a lot through this process,” Jones said in a statement released on twitter. “I enjoyed the experience and opportunity that I had to be able to participate in the combine and team workouts.

“Time to go work out with my teammates. Hungry and Humble.”

This comes on the heels of Texas landing a commitment from a top five prospect in Mo Bamba. With all those pieces in the fold, including a recruiting class that features four more top 100 prospects, the Longhorns look like they are on track to be a borderline preseason top 25 team and heading back to the NCAA tournament.

This could end up being a narrative-changing year for Texas.

West Virginia returns potential Big 12 Player of the Year in Jevon Carter

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West Virginia got some great news on Monday as Jevon Carter announced that he will be returning to the Mountaineers for his senior year.

“I’m excited about coming back to West Virginia and playing with my teammates for my senior season,” he said. “The entire NBA process was a great experience for me and to gain valuable feedback that I can use to prepare for the future.”

This is massive for the Mountaineers. Not only is Carter the team’s leading scorer at 13.5 points, but he is a three-time all-Big 12 Defensive Team member and led West Virginia in minutes played last season. He’ll be a favorite to win Big 12 Player of the Year, with Devonte’ Graham of Kansas.

Arizona adds five-star Emmanuel Akot to Class of 2017

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Emmanuel Akot, a five-star wing that has been committed to Arizona for months, announced on Monday that he will be reclassifying to the Class of 2017 and enrolling at Arizona this offseason.

“My family and I have decided to join the 2017 class and become a member of the Arizona Basketball family,” Akot said.

Akot was considered a top 15 prospect in the Class of 2018, a class that many believe to be significantly weaker than the Class of 2017. At 6-foot-7, he’s a versatile defender with quite a bit of potential that can step out and knock down threes, but he’s also far from a finish product and will likely need time to acclimate to the college level.

That said, he should be able to fill a role on the wing nicely, providing a nice bit of defensive reliance alongside more offensive-minded weapons like Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins.

Akot joins a five-man recruiting class headlined by top four prospect Deandre Ayton and four-star recruits Brandon Randolph and Ira Lee.