Fixing USA Basketball ... top to bottom
From player and coach selection, to teaching fundamentals to today's youngsters, USA Basketball needs a new model for success.
The United States is the world's leading basketball power -- now and in the next several years. However, the disastrous performance of the United States team at the World Championships clearly signals that the current model used by USA Basketball to select teams must be changed, and there must be greater emphasis on player development on every level of American basketball.
Among the things in need of overhaul are the selection and make-up of teams; the selection and input of coaches; training and preparation; and, perhaps most importantly, the skill development of young American prospects. Unless there is meaningful change, the United States will no longer be the most dominant international basketball power in the coming years.
First, despite its obvious flaws, the 2002 United States team should have won gold at the World Championships. This particular team lost primarily because, overall and with notable exceptions, the NBA players selected didn't truly care enough to win.
By way of example, there is no way that Argentina can run a simple flex offense, which is run by many NBA teams, and rack up 53 first-half points if the American team defended with a purpose and a sense of urgency. Against quality competition, this team was outrebounded, outhustled, and outworked -- and from an effort standpoint, its overall performance was embarrassing.
Generally, the NBA players selected performed like amateurs on and off the floor. Since we are sending professionals into international competition, they should be expected to approach the task at hand like professionals.
Here are some important issues that the American basketball community must consider and act upon:
Player Selection Process
However, even if the superstars of the NBA fail to make themselves available for service, the selection committee must do a better job of selecting players with skill levels that compliment each other.
The 2002 USA team was devoid of shooters that could spread the court and force opponents to guard out on the perimeter. With the USA's suspect shooters, opponents were able to pack defenses and contain dribble penetration without fear of getting beaten from the outside. The USA had players that could score, but few that could shoot.
The frontcourt players were ill-equipped to play the international game, which puts a premium on perimeter shooting and passing skills, and Team USA's big men were badly exploited by their foreign counterparts. While Ben Wallace, Antonio Davis and Jermaine O'Neal are all good NBA players on their respective teams, none required special defensive attention, and Wallace spent most of the World Championships unguarded. While each of those big men are good defenders, they were uncomfortable guarding on the perimeter for extended periods.
In addition, it is no longer feasible to send a collection of all-stars into international competition with just a couple of weeks of training, as if they were going to the NBA All-Star Game.
The United State's goal should not simply be to win medals at different international events, but to put together teams that will play the best possible basketball. By that model, USA Basketball will advance the game, and win medals as a byproduct of playing truly great basketball. Obtaining this model, however, will require gaining commitment from, and selecting a core group of players, that will train and play together each year against international competition leading up to and including the Olympics. This will allow the players to adjust to the international style of play, adjust to each other, and allow the coaching staff to devise a system that will best utilize the talents of the players selected.
Without these changes, the United States will continue to risk having teams made up of pieces that don't fit together, and USA Basketball will be continue to risk differing results from year to year, selection to selection.
Coach Selection Process
The United States needs to seriously consider having a full-time national team coach. This model has been used for the U.S. women, and required Tara VanDerveer and Nell Fortner to give up their jobs to take on the challenge.
Even if the United States decides not to go this route, it is clear that a national team coaching staff should be named much sooner, and should have much more influence in the selection process. Selecting and naming a coach four years in advance of the Olympics would provide continuity to USA Basketball's teams, and would allow the coaching staff to mold together a true team, instead of managing a bunch of all-stars on a tour.
The selected coaching staff should have more say in which players are selected, and which players fit best together given the style of play of the coaching staff. Nobody knows better the needs of a particular coach than the coaching staff itself, and greater influence in the selection process should be part of the deal.
Grassroots Player Development
The United States continues to decline in developing skilled, versatile basketball players who truly understand the way that the game should be played. As a whole, the United States is not producing enough true "players," rather, this nation is producing "athletes" who play basketball.
Every spring on the collegiate recruiting and evaluation trail, college coaches and NBA scouts value the "run-and-jump athlete," and can be heard lauding the athleticism of certain prospects. But when fall arrives, everybody wants "players". The perception that NBA is drafting young athletes with potential, even if the athlete is lacking in fundamental basketball skills, has filtered down to the lowest levels of development, and young players are not arriving to college and the pros as well-prepared and as well-skilled as they need to be.
Because performing on one's high school team has been de-emphasized in favor of playing high-profile AAU events during the summer, generally, our young kids play too much, and put too little emphasis on the development of skills such as shooting, passing, handling and footwork. From very young ages, American kids are playing in games and tournaments, many of which require travel, that at first glance appear to be beneficial. However, when more closely examined, the amount of games that kids play in winds up hurting their skill development.
When a player plays in a game that lasts two hours, there are 10 players on the floor with one ball, and none of the players will actually have the ball in his hands for long during that game. By contrast, if a player devotes one hour to individual skill development, he will have the ball in his hands at least 10-times as long as he would in the two hour game. Playing in too many games, as opposed to focused practice, does not increase individual skill levels. Rather, it is more likely to cement bad habits.
This observable fact is not just prevalent on the AAU circuit, but in summer camps, as well. Whether it is a local basketball camp or an invitation only recruiting camps run by the prominent shoe companies, the players play in too many games rather than participate in "stations" that offer skill development. At the adidas ABCD Camp and the Nike All-American Camp, the top players in the country play in games that are poor showcases of either a player's skills or team play. Instead, the number of games should be cut down, and the players should be doing drills to improve their skills.
This new approach to camps would be of greater benefit to the players, and to the coaches and scouts who are evaluating them. Coaches and scouts would be seeing what the players can and cannot do, rather than trying to imagine it from a helter-skelter camp game where no passes or cuts are made, and little or no defense is played.
Right now, the young players in Europe are practicing daily on skill development, and spend far more time practicing (rather than just playing) than do American players. The European model of player development has its prospects spending from 60 to 90 minutes a day on individual skills (in which every player does the same drill regardless of size) and additional time for team practice sessions. The Europeans, generally, are not better athletes than their American counterparts, but they are more skilled all-around players that play together very well.
All levels of basketball in the Untied States need to focus on individual skill development, rather than all of these national youth team competitions. The charge of every youth coach in America is to teach our kids how to play, not just how to run plays. Similarly, coaches at the high school level should be allowed to coach their players throughout the summer instead of losing their players to AAU all-star competitions where they get very little basketball development. It's time to require high school federations and the AAU to work together to reach an acceptable solution to a major problem.
At the college level, coaches should be allowed more time with their players in the context of individual skill development, both in and out of season. There is nothing to fear in allowing coaches more access to players rather than less. A kid can still work on his jumpshot and get a degree. The current NCAA model is too restrictive upon coaches and players, and should be changed, not because the USA lost in Indianapolis, but because it is the right thing to do.
If the USA's poor and uninspired performance in the World Championships serves an engine of change in the way this country develops players and selects teams, then the indignity the team and its players suffered will be well worth it. If it is not an engine of change, USA Basketball will continue to break down.
Jay Bilas is a college basketball analyst for ESPN.
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