Kobe Bryant’s recent comments about AAU basketball and the European hoops development system generated a lot of talk about basketball development. After spending a lot of time in Europe going to games and practices, here are three reasons the European basketball system is good and the advantages it has over the system we have for youth basketball in the U.S.
1.One Club All Year
In Europe you belong to one sports club and you play for that club all year round. Usually you are playing for a club that has a senior men's or women's team (the pro teams of Europe) that also has youth teams or a basketball academy. There are clear expectations year to year because you are in the same organization and you advance from one team to the next based on your age and ability. You typically have the same coach year-round, and this type of continuity makes it easier for the player to just worry about playing and also doesn’t give them any inclination that it makes sense to jump around from team to team like what can happen in the U.S.
In the summer, the cream of the crop in Europe will play for their country's National Teams, but this type of play is very structured, unlike AAU with FIBA Europe regulating everything.
In the U.S. we link our sports with our schools. Since basketball is just one short winter season, players look to play elsewhere at other times in the year. This is how AAU basketball grew to be so popular. Separating sports from schools and into year-round clubs would change the whole system.
During a year, a European club will participate in tournaments, but these will be marquee events and not an every weekend affair like playing AAU. The focus year round is on practice and player development.
In Kobe’s comments, he talked about the lack of skilled big men in the NBA and the impact of players like the Gasol brothers. One of the biggest things, when talking about teaching the game differences, is that in Europe you are taught all of the skills on the court regardless of size. Guards learn to post up, big men learn to handle the ball, forwards learn to pass and so on. In the U.S. you can get pigeonholed into a position pretty early, especially if you are more mature physically at a young age and never learn other skills besides how to score near the hoop.
The process has produced results. Europe has created some of the most unique players of the last 20 years. Just look at some of these highlight clips:
Vlade Divac, the incredible passing center
Dirk Nowitzki, who took the shooting big man position to new heights
Toni Kukoc, a 6’10” forward who could do a little bit of everything on the court
The difference is that European players learn every skill position and drill on them continuously. That rarely happens in the U.S.
In Europe, the basketball system is fluid. They have the same rules, same courts, same lines, all year round. There isn’t a shot clock in some places and not in others (there is one everywhere, at every level). The three-point line doesn’t change. In the U.S., some states have shot clocks and some don’t. With rules changes between high school and AAU, it can take the focus off of on-court development. The same rules everywhere means all you have to worry about is playing games.
This fluid system goes beyond the rules and also into the life of a player. You know the club you are playing for, the rules, and the clear steps year to year of where you will play next. Not nearly as many stressful decisions. There aren’t as many parents who have an “ownership mentality” as can happen in AAU settings.
Just to be clear, I don't think that Europe has a perfect model for developing basketball players. It’s just more clear and has a more concise structure, and for a young player trying to learn the game, there isn’t anything better than consistency.