Back-to-basics leads USA's approach
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.
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