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Back-to-basics leads USA's approach

11/13/2008

Tony Wroten spent this past summer
traveling to New Jersey, California,
Oregon, Nevada, Ohio, Arizona,
Arkansas, Texas and New York.

And those are the places he can remember.
There might have been a few more stops along
the way.

"It was a crazy summer," Wroten says. "Once
things started rolling, I didn't get a break."

Such is life for a young basketball star like
Wroten. Rated the nation's top sophomore by
ESPNU, the Garfield (Seattle, Wash.) shooting
guard will be one of the faces of high school
hoops for the next three years.

While Wroten was traveling all across the
country, a former face of high school hoops,
Chris Paul, was thousands of miles away winning
gold at the Beijing Olympics with the rest of
Team USA.

The itineraries of the prep phenom and NBA
superstar might not seem related, but they're
neatly interwoven. Paul and fellow Olympians
like LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and Dwight
Howard represent the very best of American
basketball today. They combine athleticism with
fundamentals, and for two weeks in China this
summer they played beautiful team basketball.

"One of the things I loved about the
Olympics that could change the face of
grassroots basketball in America is the way our
Olympic players -- who are some of the best in
the world -- embraced the fundamentals of the
game," says Fran Fraschilla, a former college
coach who now works at elite youth camps in
the U.S. and Europe.

And don't think the stars of tomorrow didn't
pay attention. When they weren't jetting around
the country to various tournaments and camps,
they were glued to the television.

"I watched a lot of the Olympics and am
always watching NBA games because that's
where I want to be," Wroten says.

Wroten's path to the NBA -- and perhaps
the Olympics -- may be a bit different than in
the past. Coinciding with Team USA's success,
grassroots basketball is in the midst of a major
shift. Shoe camps are focusing more on
fundamentals than ever before, while the AAU
scene is under fire to reform. Former Oak Hill
Academy (Mouth of Wilson, Va.) guard Brandon
Jennings, meanwhile, decided a year in Europe
would benefit his development more than a
college season at Arizona.

Wroten will be among the first wave of stars
to grow up in this new era.

But to understand the future, we have to go
all the way back to the beginning. Back to a time
before Wroten was even born.

At the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, the
Dream Team changed basketball forever.

Michael, Magic and Larry showed other countries just
how far they lagged behind the American superstars.

Yet somehow, it took just 10 years for the rest of the
world to either catch up or for the U.S. to drop down,
depending on who you ask. At the 2002 FIBA
Championships, the U.S. finished an embarrassing
sixth. Then at the 2004 Olympics and 2006 FIBA
Championships, U.S. settled for bronze.

Three consecutive defeats on the global stage sent
the American basketball community scrambling.
Everyone played the blame game, and a lot of fingers
got pointed at youth basketball.

Watching squads from Greece and Argentina school
the U.S. in basics like pick-and-rolls and 3-point shooting
had people wondering if there was something
fundamentally wrong (literally and figuratively) with the
way American high school players were developed.

"[International teams] took the lessons we taught
them and learned them very well," says Fraschilla, who's
now a college basketball analyst for ESPN. "That's why
there's been a movement in the last three or four years
at every level to get back to the basics."

At the highest level, the NBA instituted its age
minimum for the 2006 draft, mandating players be 19
and at least a year removed from high school to be draft
eligible. While this was mainly done for financial
reasons (giving teams extra time to scout and allowing
players to enter The League as marketable commodities
straight out of March Madness), it certainly didn't hurt
that teenagers would spend an extra year learning the
game before going pro.

At the international level, USA Basketball ushered in
changes following the 2004 Olympics. After being
named USA Basketball's managing director in April
2005, former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo
immediately hired Duke's Mike Krzyzewski as coach.
Under the new leadership, players were required to
make a three-year commitment leading up to the 2008
Olympics (previously, a team of All-Stars would hardly practice before taking on the world).

And finally at the high school level, changes
became most apparent in the summer camp
circuit. Nike, for instance, stopped running
gigantic scrimmage-dominated All-America
events in 2006 and started hosting position-specific
skill academies coached by some of the
NBA's most fundamentally sound players. From
there, the nation's top 80 players get selected
for the LeBron James Skills Academy.

For Jordan Hamilton, a senior swingman from
Dominguez (Compton, Calif.) who attended the
old Nike All-American Camp two years ago
before the new model was introduced, there's
no comparison.

"All-American was a great camp, but the
LeBron James Skills Academy is a hundred times
better," says Hamilton, the No. 8 recruit in the
ESPNU 100. "At the All-American camp there
wasn't as much skill work. Now you get an
opportunity to learn some new drills."

While Hamilton praises the transformation,
Reebok director of basketball Chris Rivers isn't
convinced things have changed that much.

Rivers started Rbk U (now known as the
Reebok All-America Camp) in 2007 after Sonny
Vaccaro and his prestigious ABCD Camp left
Reebok. It may have a new name, but Rivers says
the Reebok All-America Camp is similar to how
ABCD always did things.

"As far as going to more fundamentals, ABCD
had stations in the morning -- it's just that
everyone came to the games to see the
matchups," Rivers says.

The ABCD Camp and summer circuit in
general must have done something right. Kobe,
LeBron and Greg Oden are just a few of its
countless big-name alums.

"Basketball purists look at AAU ball as an
eyesore, but the majority of guys in the NBA
are products of AAU basketball," says Kenny
Gillion, director and coach of Florida-based
Team Breakdown, one of the nation's top AAU
programs.

Rivers takes it a step further, saying the NBA's
best players are almost solely products of the
much-maligned summer circuit, with little or no
college experience at all.

Legendary St. Anthony (Jersey City, N.J.)
coach Bob Hurley, who has won a nationalrecord
23 state titles, counters that players like
LeBron and Kobe would be great regardless of
the system they came up in. He says the very
best American players are always fundamentally
sound and will always be as good or better than
anyone from overseas.

What would help the mere mortals, Hurley
says, is a system more conducive to developing
players at every level from a young age.

"I think we need to get back to kids developing
skills,"Hurley says. "Not restricting a big kid to stay
near the basket, but have everybody learning to
handle the ball, learning to pass the ball, learning
to shoot the ball."

As an example, Hurley points to a 6-foot-8
bruiser he worked with at the Reebok Eurocamp
last year. During games, he was a prototypical
power forward, doing his best work in the paint.
But during practice, he would hit 21-of-25
3-point attempts. "He would be our best shooter
over here," Hurley says.

At the same time, European clubs would love
to have above-the-rim talent like in the U.S.

"If you could take the work ethic and passion
to improve that a young international player has
and marry it with the athleticism of some of our
American players, you then have either a guy
like Kobe Bryant or Dirk Nowitzki," Fraschilla
says. "It would be great to have [American] kids
in a basketball school for three, four, five weeks
as opposed to days in the summer."

In countries like Spain, Italy, France, Greece
and Serbia, that's what happens. Elite players are
identified and put into club systems by the time
they're 13. They do individual skill work in the
morning before class, then come back for a team
practice and weightlifting in the afternoon.

Opening such a basketball academy in the
U.S. is likely just a pipe dream. With so many
competing interests and agendas, getting the
top players in the U.S. on board for a landscapealtering
move like that won't happen even if
some of the top players admit it'd be for the best.

"Guys overseas have the advantage of living
in the gym all day, and that's why a lot of them
have the edge on fundamentals," Hamilton says.
"A lot of our guys would be better if they could
live, eat and sleep basketball like those guys do."

In traditional U.S. schools, that's simply not
possible since high school and college coaches
are limited in terms of the time they can spend
with their players.

"The system [in Europe] is more friendly to
kids being coached," Hurley says. "Over here, we
legislate against coaches working with kids."

So while prep coaches are often prohibited
from working with their players during the
summer, AAU teams fill the void. And that,
according to coaches like Fraschilla and Hurley,
isn't necessarily a good thing since many
AAU coaches don't have the credentials to
appropriately teach the game. Plus, with AAU
tournaments nearly every week, there's little
time for instruction, anyway.

Rivers and Gillion argue that the AAU scene
is unfairly scapegoated for the game's problems.
They wonder why nobody blames the college
game since Division I coaches make a lot more
money than anyone in AAU and spend more
time with their players each year. Why, Rivers
and Gillion ask, do they get a pass when kids
leave college ill-equipped for the pro game?

So, is a year in Europe better for a player's
development than a year on campus? We're about
to find out. In a potentially revolutionary move to
prep himself for the next level, Jennings opted to
sign a contract with an Italian pro team out of high
school rather than go to college for a year.

"People say it would have been easier for me
to go to college, but I wanted to learn the pro
game and go into the draft ready," Jennings says.

While the Compton, Calif., native has
garnered a lot of attention with his trail-blazing
move, it hasn't been a vacation. He's playing
with grown men and practicing hard at least
twice a day. If Jennings returns for the 2009 NBA
Draft a vastly improved player, the implications
for future high school stars are immense.

"If he embraces the experience of playing for
a great coach in a league that's better than the
ACC or Big East in high-pressure games, he'll
come back a better player than had he gone to
college," Fraschilla says. "And he may very well
be a trendsetter."

Wroten -- and the rest of his high school
contemporaries -- will keep close tabs on
Jennings. While Wroten's end goal is to become
an NBA icon like Chris Paul, there's no longer one
clear path on how to get there.

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.