Problems with talent identification

More and more, youth basketball moves from an environment of talent development to an environment of talent identification and selection. Many coaches who used to engage in development with young players have left the sport because they invest years into a player and watch the player and his or her parents leave their home program (school/AAU) for another program because of exposure, free shoes, or whatever. Inevitably, the original coach reads about how this new program that coached or trained the player for 1-2 years was responsible for their development. Why spend time and effort developing players for little to no money or recognition when you can poach the already talented player and reap financial benefits and recognition? 

Of course, this change in the system presupposes that we know how to identify and develop talent. This weekend, I refereed a soccer game that illustrates some of the difficulties in talent identification and selection.

The game was played in an u19 division between an u19 team (Red) and an u18 team (White). The White team, despite being the younger team, had the taller, faster athletes. The Red team had the stronger players with lower center of gravity. The White team was the wealthier, most established club, whereas the Red team was a local team. The White team won 5-2, but the Red team had better soccer players in terms of first touch, passing, taking on opponents with the dribble, willingness to pass out of the back, and more. In the end, their aversion to defense and the White team’s speed won out.

Who is the more talented player? The younger player with better speed and size, or the older player with a stronger base and a greater skill set and soccer intelligence? In basketball, we almost always favor the younger, longer, faster player over the intelligent, skilled, shorter player. Now, some may disagree with that statement, but why, in the 2012 NBA Draft, did Draymond Green last until the 35th pick? When Green remained available at pick #28, I thought that Oklahoma City would draft him; instead, they picked Perry Jones III. Jones left Baylor after his sophomore season, whereas Green played four years of college basketball. Jones is listed at 6’11, whereas Green is listed at 6’7. Many believed that Jones had the body to develop into a wing, whereas many believed that Green had developed into a player without a true position.

Obviously, history has proven Green to be the better player, but does that mean that a coach should select the older, more skilled player right now over the taller, faster, younger player? No. In the same draft, the Kings selected the older, more experienced, more skilled Thomas Robinson ahead of the taller, younger Andre Drummond. Again, history has demonstrated that Drummond is a much better player.

Therefore, there are no certainties, and when we remove years of experience and coaching, the certainties are fewer. Rather than drafting college players in their late teens and early 20s, most coaches choosing teams are selecting pre-adolescents or adolescents. If NBA teams make so many mistakes with paid professionals in charge of the draft and 3-10 more years of development for the players, how can we trust primarily volunteer coaches to identify and select talent? How fair is the selection process? What happens to players who are not identified or selected at an early age?

People write about the unfairness of Green lasting until he second round, but is that more unfair than a 6th grader being cut from a local club or school team? Where does the 6th grader go to continue to play? How does a missed season at 12 or 13 years old affect his development as a player?

When I was in high school, there was a guy in the class behind me who was cut from the high school team for four straight years. When he was a freshman, he was too short; when he was a sophomore, he  did not shoot well enough; but his junior year, I think they just did not give him a chance. He tried to walk on at a good low-major NCAA D1 program, and several members of the team said that he should have made the team and that he outplayed the starting PG when he tried out. Would he have made the college team if he had played his last two seasons of high school? What if he had played four years of high school basketball?

How can a coach know that the little 14 year old who was not very good and looked kind of nerdy would work out for four years of high school, grow, practice, and develop into a very good player with good size and strength?

Which of the fast, tall soccer players will add more strength, skill and intelligence? Which of the older players is skilled and smart enough to overcome size and speed deficiencies at higher levels of play?

These are hard questions that are made harder because we want to make them about 10 year olds. Our goal as coaches of youth basketball should not be to acquire the most talented players or to eliminate players from the competitive stream as quickly as possible, but to retain as many players as possible and give them the opportunity to grow and develop within the competitive stream. Give more players competitive opportunities for a longer duration of time, and maybe we can make better decisions. Success in youth basketball is not spotting the 10-year-old who develops into LeBron James. Success is creating an environment that gives the most possible players the best possible experience.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, The 21st Century Basketball Practice and Fake Fundamentals

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