The defeat of the US team in the Women’s World Cup earlier this month was an eye-opening moment for many in the soccer world. The US team hasn’t won a World Cup since 1999, a sign of how quickly America has fallen from the top of the ranks of women’s soccer.
This culture gap is catching up with the American women. Most American youth coaches still validate their status (and justify their salaries) by winning tournaments, and that will always lead to the recruitment of big, fast kids who can overpower other preteens and earn results. It can put an early-blooming child on a path to an under-14 showcase, which can put her on a path to the NCAA. But it doesn't cultivate creativity and comfort on the ball, the way places like Brazil and France and Japan do. There, coaches don't care who wins a U-12 match. They care whether players can settle a heavy pass with one deft touch or use guile and footwork to escape double-teams. American kids? Too many of them spend more time in minivans traveling to meaningless tournaments than they do on the ball.
Just as in soccer, the primary emphasis of American youth basketball age is winning games. But, no matter the sport, winning games at that age isn’t all that meaningful. The bigger and stronger players can dominate athletically without developing the types of skills necessary to succeed at the next level.
If you are serious about playing basketball as a teenager, the AAU circuit is almost completely inescapable. The best players all play on travel teams, facing off for most of the spring and summer in an endless parade of “meaningless” tournaments, instead of working on their fundamentals or receiving individual coaching.
An entire sub-culture has grown up around this system, with players ranked nationally before they even reach puberty. The sad tale of Demetrius Walker, who was the #1 ranked 14-year-old in the class of 2010, is a great example of the perils of such a system. Walker was a 6’3 eighth grader who didn’t grow another inch; instead of developing perimeter skills, his coaches allowed him to coast on his athletic advantages until it was no longer possible.
Nor does this dynamic change when players get to college. College coaches aren’t judged by their ability to develop talent but by their ability to win and lose basketball games. Walker signed with Arizona State, but rather than growing him as a player, the coaches ran him off the team because his skill level wasn’t high enough. At no point in the process is developing a player’s talent the first priority.
Contrast that with baseball, which allows foreign players to sign at 16 and American players to sign at 18. MLB teams don’t care what the record of their single-A or double-AA minor league teams are; all they are concerned about is getting their hitting prospects at bats and protecting the arms of their pitching prospects.
And while the situation in basketball, where Americans still have an overwhelming athletic advantage over the rest of the world, isn’t nearly as drastic as it is in women’s soccer, the comparisons are apt.
For years, LeBron James’ lack of a post-up game has been a glaring flaw in his arsenal. It’s something that should have been addressed at a much earlier age; instead, LeBron was making a name for himself on the national basketball scene as a sixth-grader. For most of his adolescence, he flew around the country defending his #1 ranking against guys like Trevor Ariza and Lenny Cooke.
Does any of that matter now? The big lie at the center of AAU basketball is that it gives kids “exposure”; does anyone think LeBron needed more exposure as a teenager? College coaches, and NBA scouts, would have found out about a 16-year-old LeBron if he had never played a single AAU game.
Unlike the rest of the world, professional franchises in the United States have no involvement in developing young talent whatsoever. The NBA apparently expects young basketball players to show up to the draft as fully finished products without the league having to spend a dime. Indeed, the new CBA may strengthen the age limit and force players to spend two years in college.
Yet, because of the importance of height in the game, basketball players need to be developed professionally at an even younger age than many other sports. It makes sense that Dwight Howard has never had a great amount of touch in the paint or at the free-throw line; he never needed it growing up as a 6’10 235 pound high schooler. Until he got to the NBA, he could pretty much just dunk at will on whoever was guarding him.
That was the main reason cited by Golden State Warriors draftee Jeremy Tyler when he made his ill-fated decision to go pro in Israel as a high-school junior: "[High school ball] was boring and I wasn’t getting better," Tyler told the New York Times. "Each game was the same thing. I was getting triple-teamed and hacked. It just wasn’t for me."
Tyler struggled with the cultural transition and wound up in Japan, where he resuscitated his career before being selected #39 in this year’s draft. In contrast, another 6’11 2011 draftee -- Jonas Valanciunas -- went #5 overall despite not being nearly as athletic as Tyler. The difference is Valanciunas is much more skilled, the result of competing daily against players his size since he was 16-years-old.
In sports, as in life, you get what you pay for, something the US Women’s Soccer team and the NBA are beginning to find out.