The Evolution of the L: An International Presence Among NBA All-Stars

For the fourth straight year, six players born outside the United States will appear in the United States biggest basketball showcase, the NBA All-Star Game: Yao Ming, Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitski, Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Pau Gasol.

A quarter of the League’s best players hail from elsewhere; its the evolution of the L and its worldwide influence. The NBA of the late eighties and early nineties spawned an international basketball bonanza and the rest of the world is seeing the fruits of its labors. The Magic/Bird era elevated basketball’s stature around the globe, and while players elsewhere embraced the all-around games of Magic and Bird, the shooting of Danny Ainge, the post moves of Kevin McHale, basketball in the USA embraced the next era, the tough-nosed defense of the Pistons and the phenomenal athleticism of MJ.

For all the talk of the next Magic (Lamar Odom, Jalen Rose, etc), the next Magic may be France’s Borias Diaw (Suns). And the next Bird isn’t Keith Van Horn, but Germany’s Dirk Nowitski. As International players joined the League, experts questioned whether a non-American could ever run the point. Now, arguably the top two point guards in the League, Tony Parker and Steve Nash, are non-American, quashing the last argument of American resistance to the increasingly competitive world landscape.

The evolution should not induce panic, though in some circles it has. This era is an awakening, a time for reflection, evaluation and improvement. The belief that America is pre-destined to dominate basketball simply because it originated in Massachusetts is sheer folly; Latin American players dominate America’s pastime as much as Americans. As basketball was exported worldwide, logic and numbers dictate the world would develop talented players and teams as better athletes shunned soccer, handball and hockey for hoops.

However, the American basketball system has developed some serious flaws hampering player development. The problems start early, during youth AAU tournaments. These games build the strengths of the American game (toughness, athleticism, dribble penetration and individual defense), but constant games at the expense of individual or small group workouts does little to teach a player to move without the ball, to shoot, to make live ball moves and to pass.

These problems are exacerbated in high school, where quality competition for the best players is found only during the summer at shoe camps and AAU tournaments. Unfortunately, these teams are all-star teams who practice together very little and games are glorified pick-up games, as one-on-one play reigns supreme.

Again, the lack of development continues on the college level. Most college coaches are hired due to their ability to recruit, not to coach. The least experienced assistant is often left to run summer camps (where many players go to develop) and sometimes even individual workouts with the college players, while the experienced coaches recruit. The ability to teach is secondary to one’s ability to attract talent.

Furthermore, the NCAA restricts the amount of time coaches can spend with players. A highly talented nineteen-year-old in Europe likely plays in the highest division of his domestic league, possibly on a team that participates in the Euro League (the best of the best from throughout Europe). His team trains every morning on individual skills and then has an evening practice; the season starts in September and ends in April/May, with one-to-two games a week, leaving plenty of practice time. An NCAA freshman starts his season in the middle of October, trains only 20 hours a week, plays 30 games from November to February and ends the season in March. In the off-season, most of his workout time is spent without coaching supervision, per NCAA rules, which again leaves players playing lots of pick-up games with very little structure.

This system increasingly leaves players unable to execute fundamental skills like shooting, passing and cutting. American players, however, excel at rebounding, individual defense, dribbling, one-on-one moves and transition. The old adage is “Teams are made from October through March; players are made during the summer.” However, the system is failing to develop fundamentals as there is the heightened emphasis on games and exposure, from youths through high school AAU through college.

American basketball needs to refocus on fundamentals and coaching. Players need instruction. AAU teams and coaches need to focus on building teams, not just collecting talent, teaching players how to play, not just supporting one-on-one games. AAU games should not be like the old Nike ad, where Jermaine O’Neal and Paul Pierce eventually waive the other 8 players off the floor and play one-on-one; that’s not basketball. That’s the reason players can’t play without the ball in their hands and can’t make a live ball move (move from the triple threat position as opposed to off the dribble).

The International infiltration has taught Americans a few things. First, millions of people around the world play every day with the dream of joining the Association; it is no longer an American birthright. Second, basketball is still a game where each player spends very little time actually possessing the ball (MJ averaged 3-4 minutes per game with the ball in his hands), so he must be valuable on the court even when he does not have the rock in his hands. Third, the winning team is the team that scores more points, and shooting will always be the most important skill in basketball. Fourth, America needs to reexamine its method of talent development, from youth through college, as the present system places too much emphasis on games and not enough on individual instruction and team basketball.

McCormick is a Sacramento area basketball trainer: http://hoopstraining.proboards74.com.

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