Much has been made over the past few years about the American model of youth basketball, and specifically, AAU. We’ve already heard from retired NBA players like Charles Barkley and Robert Horry on the matter, but one of the game’s greatest players spoke up against it on Friday night.
After a loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers shooting guard Kobe Bryant opened up about his disdain for the AAU model and how basketball players are developed in the United States. Bryant has an interesting background to speak on the subject since he was raised in Italy for part of his youth and honed some of his basketball skills overseas before becoming a high school prodigy and going straight to the NBA out of Lower Merion High School.
ESPN.com‘s Arash Markazi had plenty of Kobe’s takes on how European players and American players are trained.
“I just think European players are just way more skillful,” Bryant said Friday night. “They are just taught the game the right way at an early age. … They’re more skillful. It’s something we really have to fix. We really have to address that. We have to teach our kids to play the right way.”
The main culprit, Bryant believes, is AAU basketball:
“AAU basketball,” Bryant said. “Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
But Bryant went even further. He knows that the American youth basketball model isn’t going to change overnight, so he lamented on how the players are often treated as “cash cows” and how everyone is trying to profit off of them. He has some ideas on how to change the model:
“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” Bryant said. “That’s how you do that. You have to teach them the game. Give them instruction.”
“That’s a deep well because then you start cutting into people’s pockets,” Bryant continued. “People get really upset when you start cutting into their pockets because all they do is try to profit off these poor kids. There’s no quick answer.”
This is one of the more fascinating bits I’ve seen in regards to a NBA player speaking on the youth basketball model, mostly because Kobe Bryant is indirectly criticizing one of his employers: Nike.
Instead of playing AAU, top American basketball prospects often play in shoe company leagues like the Nike EYBL, the adidas Gauntlet and the Under Armour Association. The shoe companies are the ones who gobble up all of the elite talent at the high school level and put them in leagues and camps all spring and summer to cultivate a potential future client while also honing basketball skill development.
Nike, in particular, set the agenda for how the current American youth basketball dynamic works with the creation of its Elite Youth Basketball League in 2010. Under Armour and adidas have since followed suit with leagues of their own and it’s where 95 percent of the high-major talent in America plays before they move on to play college basketball.
Bryant’s take on the American basketball model isn’t incorrect, though. Youth basketball players in the United States spend way too many weekends playing in meaningless weekend tournaments to showcase their abilities in front of national scouts and college coaches. Wins and losses don’t matter as much when there is another game to play in a few hours. If a player gets disenfranchised with a coach or a lack of playing time, they can simply hop to another team or another league with no consequences. Instead, these players could be working on skill development and trying to focus on weaknesses in individual or group workouts.
But playing in games and playing on an elite travel team has plenty of perks, as well. Besides all of the cool shoe company gear that kids get if they play for one of those shoe company teams, they’re playing in organized leagues that feature the best talent in the country. All three leagues are working to integrate a shot clock, something that many states still don’t have in high school basketball.
In some shoe-company games it’s not out of the realm of possibility that all 10 players on the floor are high-major talents, with even more high-major talent coming off of the bench. The overall talent on these teams often far exceeds what these players see game-in and game-out during the normal high school season. And there are plenty of really good grassroots coaches as well who focus on skill development and actually making players better.
While peers like LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry specifically work with elite high school players every summer, Kobe has been absent from this scene for many years. Bryant still holds a youth camp every summer, but it’s for kids ages 8-to-18 and you have to pay (or receive a scholarship from a charitable organization) to participate. I’m not blaming Kobe Bryant for not working with the elite high school basketball players in America. He’s still chasing rings and Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the all-time scoring list. But he’s pointing fingers at a model he could help fix with more direct involvement.
If Kobe Bryant wants to help fix American youth basketball, he’d be best served talking to Nike and figuring out the most effective way for the organization as a whole to develop the skills of American basketball players. Bryant carries an incredible amount of clout because of his legendary credentials and jaw-dropping work ethic and he’s seen how things work in both Europe and the United States. It would be really interesting to hear Kobe’s ideas on how to change things and how he would implement those changes.
But until then, we just have another NBA player groaning about the youth while doing little to actually help out.