Recruiting process rewards potential, not proof
Earlier this week, there was a report that Dwayne Polee, a 6-foot-6 wing player, had committed verbally to USC. Just another young, talented, high school senior announcing the school of his choice? Not in this case, because Polee has not even played a high school basketball game. He is enrolled as a freshman at Westchester High School in Los Angeles.
The recruiting process for college basketball has changed a lot in the last 30 years. Years ago, players only were able to sign a letter of intent to attend the college of their choice in the spring of their senior year. About 25 years ago, the early signing period was added to allow players to sign in early November, if they chose, or wait until the spring signing period. In the past five years, though, the recruiting process has moved into warp speed. Players are being identified by the seventh and eighth grades, being ranked by scouting services by the ninth grade, and being recruited and making commitments to colleges early in their sophomore and junior years.
I have a big problem with players being rewarded with college scholarships long before they have developed their games. Big men are committing to schools before they even have an established low-post game. Point guards are committing before they even know how to run a team. Wing players are committing before they have developed a full array of perimeter skills. Our talented young players are being rewarded with college scholarships long before they have put in the hours necessary to develop the wide variety of skills necessary to be a complete, fundamental basketball player.
For those who love the game, we have a serious problem in our country with the decline of basketball. I see it every time I watch a high school or AAU game, many college games and even NBA games. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer players who have a full complement of basketball skills. The NBA is full of one-dimensional players, players who can either rebound, block shots, shoot or defend. But very few of them can do more than one of those things.
Because of the easy spread of information on the Internet and scouting services that promote young players as superstars in seventh, eighth and ninth grades and sneaker companies that bankroll AAU programs throughout the country, our game is treading on a very slippery slope. The AAU basketball circuit has almost totally replaced the high school program in terms of importance and influence. However, a large percentage of AAU coaches are not true coaches, or true students or teachers of the game. Most AAU coaches are recruiters, amassing the most talent they can and taking it on the road. But they are not capable of putting our young players in teaching environments and helping them develop the skills necessary to be more prepared to move on to a college program.
Every couple of years, we watch either the Olympics or the FIBA World Championship and wonder why Argentina, Greece, Germany, Italy and others are beating our U.S. teams. It is obvious the skill level -- including the passing, shooting and teamwork -- of these opponents has risen while ours has plummeted. The European and South American teams have developed a very good system of skill development, and we have something drastically wrong with ours.
This is a problem that does not need tweaking. It needs a complete overhaul. We are a country of 300 million people. We have the best athletes and available resources in the world. We should be the most advanced country in the world at a game we invented.
However, achieving this will require a complete paradigm shift in terms of how we do business. This is not about special interests groups such as the NBA, the NCAA and USA Basketball, or the various sneaker companies, sitting around a table and talking about it. This will require an entire grassroots movement among adults who have the knowledge and ability to help teach basketball and are willing to give of their time to the young and aspiring players in our cities and our suburbs. We must begin to teach young people at an early age how to play the game of basketball correctly. The high school coaches must take the lead and re-establish their connection with the young players in their communities.
The high school state organizations and the NCAA must adapt, as well. Our high school and college legislative bodies make it so coaches are not permitted to spend time teaching our young players during large segments of the academic year, whereas European players are spending six hours a day training or conditioning their bodies. Our coaches must be allowed to work on skill development year-round to improve the abilities of our high school and college players.
In the desensitized world we live in, Dwayne Polee committing to USC the other day was just another sports transaction. But for me, it spoke volumes about the state of AAU, high school, college and pro basketball. As a coach who has been around the game for a number of years, I worry about the state of the game. I have watched intimately, as a college and pro coach, the slow decline of many aspects of the game and constantly worry about whether we can regain our previous levels of success.
For the love of the game, I hope we can.
John Carroll spent nine years as an NBA coach, including seven with the Boston Celtics. Before joining the NBA, Carroll spent six years as head coach at Duquesne and seven years as an assistant at Seton Hall.