Snub sparks questions about process
If the oversight weren't so obvious, the exclusion of Moriah Jefferson from USA Basketball's teen-years national teams would not be a damning, final-straw piece of evidence that this country's basketball governing body does not have its act together with regard to the selection of women's candidates or players, not to mention determining its role in the development of said players.
USA Basketball selection committees almost are legendary for sending messages to player pools. In this case, the dispatch is confounding: If you nearly made the team one year on one leg, pick yourself off the floor, and come back the next and reveal yourself to be one of the nation's truly luminary, young basketball products, that still isn't enough.
If there is a puzzle into which a player such as Jefferson, the hyper-kenetic, ultra-creative point guard from Glenn Heights, Texas, does not fit, then USA Basketball should reveal that puzzle, not make everyone assume its composition by revealing only the other pieces. Does USA Basketball have a blueprint for what constitutes the "American style" of hoops? If so, why keep it such a secret?
Without a big picture to guide selection criteria and the candidates' effort and approach, last week's trials at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., were tantamount to conducting "American Idol" auditions with "Top Chef" judges. USA Basketball does not make the members of the selection committee available to the media.
For the second straight year, USA Basketball has loaded up its youngest team with inside players, at least hinting that the American way is Big Ball. Yet this ignores the fact that the bigs need to be taught how to slip screens, thwart double teams and execute helpside defense. When would this teaching take place? During a couple week-long training camps? Any trainer of inside players worth her salt knows the road to greatness is long and fraught with repetition.
Simply loading up on inside players also ignores the need for guards who can navigate defenses and make entry passes, and wings who can stick 3s and mid-range jumpers in the seams of zone defenses. Every year coaches decry the dearth of skilled U.S. shooters. Internationally, on every level of competition, it is a weakness upon which other countries prey. Where then are the USA Basketball shooting clinics? Why are trials held in leg-robbing altitude? Who is out beating the bushes, from the cornfields of Iowa to the playgrounds of New Jersey, in search of the next great, American-made shot-maker?
Viewed from the outside, USA Basketball selection committees seem fraught with conflicts of interest. The U18 committee is loaded up on members from the college-coaching ranks, immediately conferring tremendous recruiting advantages, some of which traipse upon NCAA prohibitions against coaching and/or contacting prospects, and narrowing scope because, well, who wouldn't want a prized recruit making the national team? The U17 committee includes two representatives from the Amateur Athletic Union, whose members usually are club coaches, thereby limiting the breadth of player viewing on a year-round basis. The high-school coaching ranks are represented on the U17 committee -- another member with a narrowed scope. Both committees include members from the ranks of former USA Basketball players, all of whom we're certain follow the high-school game at least as closely as, say, they monitor the NBA or WNBA.
If selecting national teams for international competitions is a worthy endeavor, the process of locating and screening candidates should be undertaken by full- or part-time staff that is bereft of possible conflicts and has the means to be on the road on an almost constant basis. USA Basketball surely would cry lack of resources in this regard, but might investigate funding from what heretofore have not been considered traditional funding sources -- say, the manufacturers mobile phones, just to mention one teen-girl "necessity."
The presence of dedicated staff could lend clarity to the trials themselves. ESPN HoopGurlz had five staff members at last week's trials, all of whom have playing and/or coaching experience. Jefferson and Ariya Crook-Williams, another point guard out of Long Beach, Calif., were unanimous pre-announcement projections by our staff. Jefferson, in fact, was considered one of the three or four best players in either the U17 or U18 pools and touted by a couple of our staff members as a possible starter on the U17 team. We further couldn't fathom hamstringing coaches Barb Nelson (U17) and Jen Rizzotti (U18) with backcourts that are one turned ankle away from disaster or challenge them tactically to pressure when behind or sit on the ball when ahead.
As one of us said after the selections were announced, "What's the point of the trials if they're going to ignore how they play? I'm heading to the optometrist."
Even the best eye doctor cannot yet repair the obscured vision of USA Basketball. It sits in the best position to be the center of the girls' basketball universe. It can take responsibility for training its elite players and educating high school and club coaches, so the cultivation of players becomes more bountiful. Yet taking on such a mission requires increased transparency, clarity of message (see Trials and Error?) and a clearer vision.
We've listened in private for years to coaches who didn't like rosters they were handed and to parents who felt they hadn't played the political game well enough, to the detriment of their daughters. None dare to speak up publicly, for fear of being iced out of the USA Basketball pipeline.
Unfortunately, it required the misguided snub of a 16-year-old girl to clearly and definitively point out the foibles of the national-team selection process, at least on the girls' side of the equation. But this isn't entirely about Moriah Jefferson. These just-completed trials served as a stark reminder of just how stale and outdated, politically and ethically incorrect the process of identifying and selecting candidates for our national teams has become.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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