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The AAU System And How The NBA Could Fix It

But to spend time inside the Spurs organization today is to uncover another interpretation of their dynasty: that as America's youth basketball pipeline has produced a type of player that Pop has no interest in coaching, he has found an advantage not only in targeting international players but in avoiding domestic ones.

-- Seth Wickersham, ESPN The Magazine

The San Antonio Spurs set an NBA record for the number of foreign players on their roster last season, with nine coming from outside the United States. According to a revealing article from Seth Wickersham, published during this year’s playoffs, that is no accident. The Spurs have grown weary of the youth basketball scene in this country, preferring players who grew up overseas, untouched by a seedy AAU basketball infrastructure that has “ruined” many American kids.

For Wickersham, NBA franchises are victims, passive observers of “something that has happened, well-document but irrevocable” to the game of basketball. The biggest divide, he tells us, “isn’t structural, but cultural.” In reality, he has it backwards. Because there is no professional structure to youth basketball in the US, a poorly organized and often self-defeating culture has developed in its place. If AAU basketball is bad for business, the NBA has the power to fix it.

Throughout, Wickersham contrasts the way things are done in San Antonio with a summer AAU game between the New Jersey Playaz and the New York City Jayhawks, whom he dubs “the anti-Spurs”. Instead of a team-oriented game built around passing and cutting, the ball sticks in the hands of players who try to score 1-on-5. It’s almost a different sport, as Gregg Popovich tells him. If one of these teenagers ends up in the NBA, Wickersham assures us, he won’t be playing for the Spurs.

The comparison, upon closer inspection, is somewhat bizarre. Are we surprised that an NBA franchise runs a more professional operation than two volunteer organizations competing before non-existent crowds in an AAU tournament? The Spurs are the beneficiaries of massive nine-figure revenue streams in the form of publicly-financed stadiums and national TV deals. AAU teams, if they are lucky, receive free gear and a small stipend from Nike or Adidas.

There’s no question that a lot of the coaching at the AAU level is deficient, if not outright harmful. However, if you look at the way the system is set up, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Shoe companies, not professional basketball organizations, are the ones paying for it. There’s a market for the talents of 15-year-old basketball players, just as there is one for 15-year-old tennis players, singers and actors. Refusing to acknowledge it only pushed things underground, creating a black market.

In contrast, as the article points out, European players like Tiago Splitter turn pro at 15. Splitter thought about coming to the States as a teenager, before realizing our system made little sense: “American coaches recruited him to attend high school in the States. He was intrigued, until the coaches told him that his parents would have to pay for everything. [Emphasis added] So he stayed in Europe, and at 15 signed a 10-year contract to play with Baskonia.”

From Splitter’s perspective, it’s easy to see how the culture of youth basketball in America went off track. Baskonia didn’t need to “pamper” him or “build up his ego” to play on their team. They gave him a substantial sum of cash and signed him to a contract. Since their investment made them committed to his development, they did everything in their power to make him a fundamentally sound player. As a bonus, they tried to keep him away from negative influences.

Curtis Malone is the co-founder of DC Assault, one of the most influential AAU teams in the country. Earlier this summer, a police search of his home found a kilo of cocaine and 100 grams of heroin. This isn’t his first run-in with the law either; he was convicted of distributing crack in 1991. In an alternate universe where the Washington Wizards paid for the development of the best under-18 players in the D.C. area, it’s hard to imagine them employing Malone.

Since D.C. is one of the most talent-rich areas of the country, it wouldn’t be fair for the Wizards to be the only team with access to it. Instead of AAU teams competing to give the best young players from the area thousands of dollars in cash, NBA teams could give those same kids millions of dollars in actual contracts. That, of course, is why a free market system for youth basketball doesn’t exist. The powers that be make too much money from washing their hands of the whole thing.

People point to the failures of 19-year-olds that NBA teams have drafted, ignoring the fact that highly-touted 19-year-olds bust out of college all the time. Jereme Richmond could have been the next Evan Turner; Renardo Sidney’s career started going the wrong way in high school. The upside of letting NBA organizations develop the best 16-year-old players is obvious. Instead of characters like Malone, they would be around guys like Popovich and R.C. Buford.

FC Barcelona has an under-12 team and the world seems to have survived. Over the last generation, we have had a natural experiment as to whether the amateur or free market system produces the best professional basketball players. The Spurs seem to think the Europeans have the right answer. Whether or not they are right, though, is almost besides the point. If NBA teams think the current system isn’t working, they can easily fix it. They are hardly lacking for money.

In 2016, the league is set to get a jaw-dropping TV contract in the billions of dollars. That kind of cash can have a huge effect on youth basketball, which we can see in USA Basketball’s investment in the U-16, U-17 and U19 national teams. At the very least, the NBA can afford to expand those programs substantially. Instead of investing in the youth of our country, we attack their character and import foreign labor. It’s an all too common reality these days.

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