Reasons why our American Basketball System is Breaking Down by Clay Kallam
Though Americans expect gold as a matter of course in international competition, the bronze medal result at the FIBA U17 World Championships in Spain didn’t come as a surprise to those who pay close attention to youth basketball here and around the world.
From the jump, it was clear the U.S. team was going to have trouble scoring, and coach Dori Oldaker – like many before her – couldn’t manage to devise a system that played to the strengths of her players. (Why American teams just don’t pick-and- roll the opposition to death against man-to- man remains a mystery to me; and why not screen on the ball against zones too?)
Then again, the Selection Committee has come in for some blame as well, as Oldaker had pretty much a brand-new group this year (as opposed to 2016) and got the same result. Continuity does help, especially for an American team that seldom practices together.
But the problems run deeper than just this result …
1) Parents. The biggest reason that Americans struggle overseas is lack of shooting. Foreign teams simply zone the U.S., and sit back to watch them miss three-pointers. (If the Americans can force opponents to play man, the athletic edge becomes paramount, but why play man against a team that can’t shoot?)
So then why am I blaming parents for this lack of shooting? Because parents, not grasping the system or quite understanding what’s at stake, want their daughters to play on winning teams, starting at age 10 – and winning teams in club and high school basketball do so, in general, by simply assembling superior athletes and overwhelming less-athletic opponents by pressing and getting to the rim.
This is all well and good, but for 99.9% of those girls, there comes a time when the athletic advantage is no longer sufficient unless they can shoot three-pointers and force the defense to extend. Ideally, then, girls would start working on perimeter shooting in middle school (when shot mechanics are solidified) – and of course they would miss a lot shots while they figured it out.
And the team they were playing on would lose games to teams that didn’t shoot threes but instead pressed and attacked the rim and relied on athleticism.
The issue, though, is that winning middle school club tournaments is almost completely irrelevant to player development, and player development should be paramount in the minds of parents. A more skilled player – one who misses shots in middle but learns to shoot in the process – will have more opportunities at the collegiate level, and a much brighter professional future than the player with all those medals and trophies from AAU tournaments.
But parents only see the checks they’re writing going to a coach who loses games, so they move their daughters to programs that prize winning over player development – and in the long run, the girls and American basketball are the losers.
2) Coaches. Yes, parents control the talent, and talent wins games, but coaches need to do a better job explaining to parents what’s important – and they need to set aside their egos and not worry about losing games in some meaningless April tournament that everyone will forget about next week.
And of course it’s harder to teach the fundamentals of the game than it is to draw up inbounds’ plays or dismantle an opponent with a press, but coaches need to challenge themselves as well as their players. They can’t just settle for the easy way out, the easy wins with the two different presses and the three different zones. They need to take player development more seriously, and they need to be able to convince parents that even though their daughter missed 15 threes over the weekend that in the long run, she has to miss those so she can make them down the road.
And then, down the road, when she runs into a taller, faster, quicker, stronger opponent, she can do something besides put her head down and attack the rim.
3) Media. In this age of Instagram and Twitter, it’s easy to post video highlights, and you know, a girl shooting a three isn’t nearly as exciting as a girl crossing over twice and finishing an and-one. So the media types, like me, reward the wrong things, just as winning tournaments often does.
The player who calmly takes the wide-open threes when they’re offered, and learns how to knock them down after missing a bunch, is really the one who should be celebrated, but it’s not riveting Facebook fodder.
In the end, everyone involved in the American system, from USA Basketball to parents to coaches to media, needs to help girls understand that player development and winning are not the same thing, and being the best you can be does not mean collecting stacks of club tournament medals, but rather extending your game every year.
And without player development, without a perimeter game, Americans players and teams will always be limited, and will always have to have a major talent edge to compete at the highest level. And as the U17 team discovered in Spain this month, and so many teenagers learn when they advance to their next level, sooner or later, that major talent edge can no longer be relied on.