First of all, AAU stands for Amateur Athletic Union, which is a single organization, and a good one at that. Unfortunately for the Amateur Athletic Union, AAU basketball has become an all-encompassing term used to pretty much describe all competitive grassroots of basketball outside of school ball.
It’s similar to how Kleenex has come to mean “tissues”, even though Kleenex is actually a single brand/company. In this article, from here on out, when I talk about AAU basketball, I am talking about AAU in the general, all-encompassing sense, not specifically THE Amateur Athletic Union Basketball.
Secondly, I am an AAU coach and the director of Pro Skills Basketball (PSB) Select, Charlotte’s Premiere AAU basketball club, so this article is not a case of an outsider spewing uninformed opinions. In fact, I’m a proponent of AAU basketball. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t do it or be involved with it.
There are some amazing benefits to AAU, but there are plenty of issues as well, which is what this article will be focused on.
Why? My hope is that some people may read this, get a clearer understanding of why something is a problem, and perhaps, work to correct the problem.
Thirdly, most of the information that is provided below are not new ideas or discoveries. While it did take me a couple of years to come to the below realizations on the PROBLEMS with AAU basketball, there are plenty of other people that discovered them before me, and in some cases have also written about them.
My thoughts are, however, developed from my point of view and my unique experiences in coaching AAU teams and directing an AAU basketball club over the last 6-7 years full-time.
The last point to make before we get into the weeds is Americans are the best basketball players in the world! This is objective and has been/is proven through the NBA, USA Basketball, and American participation in international events, especially the Olympics.
So I’m not one of those critics whining about how American basketball is terrible and use AAU as the scapegoat as Kobe Bryant did not too long ago. However, it is clear that international players are slowly but surely catching up to the level of American basketball players.
It’s obvious in the increase in international players drafted into the NBA in the last years as well as international teams performances in the Olympics and other such events.
Furthermore, I believe European players as a whole have a better feel for the game (aka. basketball IQ) and are generally more skilled when it comes to shooting and passing than Americans. Now don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of skills American players, like Steph, Lebron, Klay, Chris Paul, etc., but if you look at the youth level, the skills of players, in general, are not great, and I believe much of that has to do with AAU at the youngest levels in grades 1-8.
SACRIFICE DEVELOPMENT FOR WINNING
It’s not a secret what the key is to win a lot of games or at least be competitive in the younger years … you simply have to get your team to run a zone trapping full court press and fall back into an aggressive trapping half-court zone OR a soft zone focused on forcing outside shots.
There are a few reasons why this strategy works and presents problems for younger players and teams. Firstly, the way to beat a press is to be strong enough to step through double teams to make a pass and/or make skip passes over the defense.
However, most of the time young players are not strong enough at that age to do either of these two things. As a result, they turn the ball over leading to fast break layups for the other team.
In the case that a team has 1 or 2 players that have advanced dribbling skills and can break the press by themselves, those 1 or 2 players end up dominating the ball the entire game, leaving the other players to get stuck watching and not really having a real active role in the game.
Moreover, if a team has a really good press and is able to turn the opposing team over every possession every game, then the game becomes more of a track meet where the only shots taken are fast break layups.
In this case, there is no offensive skills or concepts learned other than to make fast break layups.
Eventually, as teams get older and kids get stronger in the later high school years, this strategy of pressing the whole game usually doesn’t work and that team now has to actually figure out how to play basketball in the half court, which they’ve NEVER had to do before.
They’ve essentially wasted the first, and most important, years of their basketball development and now there is not a solid foundation on which to continue building on.
The reason to play a soft zone with a strategy of forcing the other team to shoot outside the 3 is similar to the reason for pressing. Kids are, again, not strong enough to make outside shots or at least consistently make outside shots to beat the packed-in zone. Also in the strength area, kids are not strong enough to throw skip passes over the defense, which is one of the most effective weapons against a zone.
What ends up happening is you have 3rd graders jacking up contested 3 point shots with terrible form for a whole game because they’re not strong enough to shoot with good form, not smart or experienced enough yet to penetrate the zone off the dribble, and not strong enough to throw skip passes.
Heaving up contested 3’s consistently with bad form doesn’t sound like a great plan for youth basketball development.
And let’s not forget about the defensive end!
WHY MAN-TO-MAN DEFENSE?
If kids grow up playing zone the majority of their young basketball career, what happens when they get to high school, or if good enough, to college and they are asked to play predominantly man-to-man defense?
They have no idea how to play it, especially help-side off the ball. Can you name another college team besides Syracuse whose defense is, the majority of the time, zone?
Maybe there’s a few other, but not many! That’s because most teams play man-to-man at the higher levels and will only play situational zone. For that reason, kids need to begin to learn how to play man-to-man defense at a young age, and unfortunately, many do not.
Don’t get me wrong, zone definitely has its place, and kids should learn how to play it, but in my opinion, man-to-man should be the defense primarily taught and played.
The thing is, zone is much easier to teach. “Johnny, just stand there and guard anyone who comes into that area. That’s all you gotta do!” Man-to-man requires a lot of effort and proper teaching, which leads to the next problem with AAU basketball … too many games and not enough practices.
PRACTICE VS. GAMES
We’re talking about practice…practice?
At PSB Select, we practice twice per week for 2-3 hours total as a team and only allow our teams to play two tournaments per month on average. I’m not saying we have the perfect formula, but we are very conscious of the practice to game ratio, which USA Youth Basketball has a whole set of awesome guidelines and a guidebook on.
However, the majority of AAU teams don’t practice enough and play too many games, and this happens for a couple of reasons.
Number one, which goes back to misplaced focus on winning, but often times teams simply want the most talented kids possible, so they’ll take players from all over the place regardless of where they live because they believe talent is more important that skills.
This situation then makes it virtually impossible to practice because there is not a time or place that works for the whole team. Instead, teams simply go to tournaments, roll the ball out, and try to “out-talent” the other team.
With no practices, how are players individual skills really supposed to get better?
SHOWCASE FOR WHAT?
One of my major pet-peeves in youth basketball at the youngest levels is when I hear and see young teams traveling all over the country to play in “showcase” tournaments. I’ve heard of 2nd-grade teams taking plane flights across the country to go play just 3-4 games in a tournament that takes up the entire weekend.
That time could be much better spent practicing at home rather than on a plane or driving or in a hotel … and all that just to try and win a 2nd-grade or 5th-grade or whatever-grade tournament?!?!
And one more thing with these young so-called showcase tournaments, who exactly are the teams and players getting showcased to?
Certainly not college coaches because that doesn’t start for the majority of players until 10th or 11th grade, but you can read more about that in my previous blog post if you’d like, and if you want some tips, check out our college basketball recruiting infographic.
Scouts you say?
Well, who exactly cares what a scout says about a 6th grader? Again, not college coaches. These “showcase” tournaments for young teams are an absolute scam that are just a way to make money off of naive parents and coaches.
There are plenty more issues with AAU basketball, but these issues that start at the youth level create the biggest long-term problems because many kids end up in high school with ABSOLUTELY no basketball foundation on which to build on.
As I said before, I’m a proponent of AAU basketball, which I’ll cover in a future article, but I do think changes need to be made and AAU coaches and organizations need to be held to higher standard in order to fix the bigger picture, long-term problems.
There are some positives starting to emerge though, like USA Basketball getting involved and doing some awesome things to help fix the problems, such as their coaching license and organization accreditation programs, but we still have a long way to go.
My hope is that we can help positively impact youth basketball in the US through the way we run Pro Skills Basketball, however small that may be! We take pride in trying to be part of the solution to the problems in AAU basketball, and we’re looking forward to our AAU team tryouts this spring for our teams in Charlotte, Denver, and Greensboro, and hopefully more coming soon!