San Antonio Spurs GM R.C. Buford said a big reason why 25 percent of the league is now composed of international players is because the U.S. developmental programs for youth players are “far behind” what’s going on overseas.
This is a common refrain, and one which Kobe Bryant echoed earlier in the season. However, if this is true, (1) Why can the rest of the world contribute only 25% of the NBA when its development system is so superior? (2) What do teams overseas do that is so much better than in the United States? (3) Why is the NBA not addressing the apparently failed development system in the U.S.?
Buford made the above comment on February 28 at the Sloan Sports Conference. On February 28, the quarterfinals of the section playoffs were being contested in California, and the finals of the district playoffs were being contested in New Mexico (the state where I grew up, and the state where I live currently). To put into perspective, once the section finals are completed, the top finishers enter into the state playoffs, which are divided into Northern and Southern California. Essentially, in the quarterfinals, 8 teams remained in each of 6 divisions in 10 different sections, and to win the state championship, including the quarterfinal game, teams would have to win 7-9 more games. In New Mexico, after then finals of the district playoffs, the state tournament starts with 16 teams in each of six divisions.
Also on February 28, numerous AAU teams, including teams in southern California where the state high school tournament has not even started, held tryouts for their spring and summer teams.
When people discuss the systems in Europe compared to the United States, this is the big problem, to me. Last season, in my smaller European league, we started our team practices in August, had our first game in October and ended in April. We played 35 games including playoffs, cups, and preseason games. Once the season ended, the season ended. Some younger players tried out for junior national teams, and those who made it spent much of the late spring and summer with the JNT preparing for tournaments in the summer. Otherwise, players had off from May through July. In bigger leagues, this changes, as the leagues run through May and some into June.
The larger point is that the players played for one team. There was continuity, as most of the youth players stayed with the same club from 9 at least until 19 years old. There was an offseason for players to focus on their development or meaningful international practices and games.
When U.S. players finish their high-school seasons and run straight into tryouts for their club team, there is no offseason. There is no play. Players go from the stress of the season (physical, psychological, social, emotional) to the stress of tryouts to the stress of performing in spring tournaments in front of college scouts.
When one moves quickly from high school league play to high school playoffs to club tryouts to exposure events, is there an opportunity to practice new skills? To expand one’s arsenal? To try out new moves? When is the time for development? When is the time to push oneself in the weight room? When is the time to rest and recover from the stress of the season?
The blame tends to be on the number of games that high-school players play, but the problem is more specific. The same people that complain about the amount of games that teens play reminisce about playing pickup games all day in their youths. The difference is that pickup games are played for one’s own benefit; the player can choose when to start and when to leave. There is no audience. There is no scholarship on the line. Players play and try out new moves, new shots, new positions, new styles of play. It is hard to try out these new moves in tryouts for a team or in an exposure event in front of a dozen college coaches with coaches and parents screaming at you.
There are a host of other problems with the rush from one competitive season to the other: lack of multi-sport participation, overuse injuries, fatigue, emotional burnout, etc. These are arguments for another day. I am concerned solely with skill development based on Buford’s comments.
To make a change, or to improve the development system, the quick rush from season to season is the first place to start.