Arrested Development: USA Basketball’s demise and US Soccer’s ascendance to role model
The first step toward overcoming an addiction is to admit one has a problem. Apparently the 2004 Olympics have started the healing process for millions of American basketball players, coaches, fans and media “experts.” As everyone with a keyboard has already written, something is amiss in American hoops, regardless of Team USA’s final medal position.
After ignoring reality in 2002 and using Paul Pierce and George Karl as scapegoats to save face after Team USA’s embarrassing debacle in Indianapolis, the public sentiment appears to have changed; International players can play some hoops, and shooting and scoring is an important facet of basketball competition.
While Team USA struggled in its 2002 World Championship appearance, US Soccer shocked the world by qualifying for the Quarterfinals in the 2002 World Cup. As Americans grapple with the demise of American basketball dominance, a comparison to the improving US Soccer program is educational.
First, the world’s basketball improvement and America’s soccer improvement were inevitable; the United States has too many people and soccer is such a popular game worldwide, it was only a matter of time before some of America’s better athletes stayed with soccer. Similarly, with basketball’s worldwide exposure, it was only a matter of time until other country’s better athletes passed on more traditional sports to play hoops.
Along with increased exposure, a commitment to talent and skill development caused the colossal change. Domestically, US Soccer developed Project 2010, a strategic plan to develop a national team to win the 2010 World Cup. This plan included Project 40:
Project 40 is aimed at providing America’s top young talent with the valuable training needed to develop their skills and further the United States’ international success…the program’s more specific goal is to provide each player with the opportunity to participate in as many quality matches as possible, enabling the player to develop at an accelerated pace during the crucial ages of 17-22.
Project-40 players earn the minimum annual MLS salary during their initial season and are awarded a five-year academic package covering tuition. In most cases, each MLS team will have one to three Project-40 players on their roster. These players do not count against the club’s 20-man roster.
Nowhere was the development of quality U.S. youth soccer players more evident than at the 2002 World Cup, in which Project-40 graduates Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley, starting for the U.S. at the age of 20, emerged on the world’s top stage along with the likes of fellow Pro-40 graduate Josh Wolff.
(US Soccer web page)
The Project 40 Development Team includes advanced skill training, MLS rosters spots and international competition to promote players’ development. Many players’ forsake their college and even high school eligibility to take part in this program. Many other high school soccer players ignore their high school programs and choose to concentrate year-round on their club team, as it provides better training and better competition than high school leagues. The best players from these club teams play for regional teams and are included in the Olympic Development pool of players.
In comparison, top high school basketball players play their high school basketball schedule largely against inferior competition. The summer club scene is exposure-based, with little effort placed on development, as teams are glorified all-star teams roaming the country to play in front of college and NBA scouts. The players’ post high school options are the NBA, where all but the rare Amare Stoudemire or Lebron James are unprepared, or college, where coaches are limited in access to players, especially in the off-season when players are supposed to be increasing their individual fundamental skills, like shooting.
In Europe, clubs are geared toward development because most clubs rely heavily on homegrown players and most players stay with the same club throughout childhood and into adolescence, at least until they are ready to sign a professional contract. Each club strives to win its division and be promoted, whether a 3rd Division team moves to the 2nd Division or a 1st Division team moves to “The League.” However, most clubs rely on local players for promotion, as only teams at the highest levels pay players and sign professional players; most lower level players are unpaid or semi-professional.
In order to win promotion, clubs develop their own players. A precocious teen will play for his junior team and also the club’s highest team, whether they are 1st division or 4th division. Therefore, many teenagers play alongside adults, and the best players sign professional contracts to play in the top leagues, sometimes leaving home at an early age, like the Detroit Piston’s Darko Milicic.
America’s soccer club system closely resembles the European model, while America’s basketball structure has failed to evolve. American basketball players continue to waste precious months playing against little competition; summers are wasted touring the country playing glorified pick-up games for the benefit of college scouts and “analysts” who rate players. Neither provides the structure, competition or instruction needed to harness the outstanding athleticism of today’s players and incorporate greater skill development.
Therefore, American players remain strong in one-on-one, dribble penetration and individual on-ball defense, but lack shooting skills, the ability to play without the ball and team defense concepts.
High school soccer players increasingly ignore high school leagues to focus on year-round club soccer: why not basketball players? US Soccer transformed itself from a soccer-also ran to a legitimate top ten team in one generation; every year, American soccer players are in increasing demand, with such players as Carlos Bocanegra, Brian McBride, Kasey Keller, Tim Howard, etc playing for some of the best teams on earth. USA Basketball has slipped from total domination to celebrating a meaningless exhibition victory against Germany. While it is not time for panic, it is time to find a better way to evaluate, harness and develop talent.
Others have bandied about ideas which would have minimal effect, like NBA teams sponsoring a three-day camp for top talent; while this may be a noble attempt, the NBA Players’ Association already runs a camp each year for some of the top preps. Three days or a week is not enough time to affect change; the process is ripe for an overhaul, an entire alteration of the way our society views sports and talent development.
In short, I propose a system that combines parts of the current AAU system, the idea of a minor league and the influence of the NBA into one structured, regimented development program aimed at improving the skill level of the next generation of basketball players.
The first step is players foregoing their high school playing eligibility to train full-time with a private team. The best players on the West Coast spend every summer playing for teams like Pump N’ Run, Belmont Shore, LA Rockfish, IEBP, Oakland Soldiers, Seattle Rotary, Portland Elite and EBO. Why not allow them to train year-round, with real coaches and teammates who can play? Instead of packing the summer with 60-100 games across the country with little to no practice time, spread the games over the course of the entire year. Use these teams to develop fundamental skills-footwork, shooting, ball handling, core training, strength and conditioning, nutrition-to prepare them to play at the highest level.
The second step is to create a legitimate development league throughout the country (maybe even involving international teams) that harnesses these programs into one body under the auspices of the NBA or USA Basketball. The EDL [Elite Development League] would bring together the top players within a given geographic area to practice and train year-round; if an elite player wanted to play football, some concessions would be made each way. This is not intended to strip a child of his childhood, but to promote a more sensible system enabling one to enjoy better development opportunities and more time for school and socializing. Instead of wasting the school season practicing with inferior teammates, coaches charged with running a practice to elevate the level of play of a bonafide superstar and regular recreation players and games featuring one similarly talented player, and then spending the summer traveling from coast to coast to set a record for number of games played in a six-week period for a record total of college coaches, the year-round development league would practice 10-20 hours each week and teams would play a few games each month against other quality teams. It is creating a more efficient system and maximizing the resources for everyone involved.
This Elite Development League proposal would solve five major problems facing basketball:
1. NCAA’s restrictive rulings curtailing the practice time of college players with their coaches.
2. Universities dubious role as a minor league system and the perpetual investigations, improprieties and violations currently created and manipulated by the system.
3. High school recruiting (and high school budget cuts limiting access and funding for teams).
4. The need for a minor league to prepare professional players.
5. The need for American players to develop a greater skill level and not to learn to rely on natural talent.
For years, the powers that be have ignored significant development deficiencies in American basketball. While the EDL may enrage basketball purists and traditionalists, a radical change to the status quo is necessary. The current system is out of control; players play more than ever and the more they play, the worse their skills get. More games means less practice and less practice means less time focused on the skills needed to play the game well. Less team practice means more one-on-one play and less player and ball movement and team defense. It is a big system created to ensure mediocrity.
In Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, she writes:
We don’t want any great men. Don’t deny the conception of greatness. Destroy it from within. The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional. Set up standards of achievement open to all, to the least, to the most inept-and you stop the impetus to effort in all men, great or small. You stop all incentive to improvement, to excellence, to perfection.
The current system- from AAU to high schools to college to the NBA-is designed to glorify the mediocre basketball player. We hold up a sub-50% free throw shooter as the model of basketball dominance; we allow traveling in the name of entertainment; we invent new rules to add excitement to the end of games (moving the ball into the front court because a team calls a timeout); we accept 41% shooting as a great offensive player (Allen Iverson); we hail Ben Wallace as an MVP candidate though he only contributes on one end of the floor. The media ridicules Dirk Nowitski as soft, though he attempts virtually the same number of free throws per game as the “tough” Kevin Garnett and collects more defensive rebounds per game than Jermaine O’Neal, another MVP candidate.
In short, the current system does little to develop all-around basketball skills or to inspire players to greatness. Some players are truly great basketball players: Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, etc. However, too often, the label “great” is placed on a player because he looks the part, not because of his great production.
US Soccer made a bold proposal: winning the 2010 World Cup. They did not say it in a wishful manner, pronouncing a goal and then sitting back to see if it materializes. They have created a system to develop the players to make the goal a reality; they spend time, energy and resources to train coaches, players and even referees in the effort of improving the level of soccer played in the United States.
USA Basketball has no discernible structure or plan to develop the next generation of players. One assumes they will develop because they have always developed. However, an improved system is needed to ensure this development. A new way of thinking is needed to give America’s brightest talents the best opportunity to succeed. Revolutionary measures are required to overhaul an outdated system and provide the resources needed for the best players to develop the skills the sport demands.
Check out McCormick’s blog (http://highfivehoopschool.blogspot.com) for other outside the box ideas and opinions.