There are many commonly accepted narratives regarding AAU basketball. From parents, players, coaches, former players, or anyone else involved in the game, there is usually a strong opinion regarding AAU. Among those narratives are people who believe AAU is “good” and those believe AAU is flat out killing the game. I see perspective from both sides, but I definitely believe that a large majority of people are outspoken critics before they take a real look at the whole picture. This article isn’t meant to convince you one way or the other on AAU, but to provoke critical thinking and hopefully shed light that, as with anything, there are multiple viewpoints and multiple sides to each story.
It seems everyone has an opinion on if AAU basketball or high school basketball is “better”. Do we really have to decide which one is better? Can’t we all work together to try to make both of them as good as possible? As with anything, there is really good AAU basketball, there is really good high school basketball, and there is really bad of both. I have seen some terrific high school coaches, but I’ve seen plenty of really poor ones as well. On the AAU circuit, I have seen some coaches who do a tremendous job of interacting with players and making in-game adjustments and I have seen some where I question if they’ve ever had any connection to the game of basketball in their entire life. There is good and bad in both environments- generally speaking to say that one environment is better than the other or all high school coaches are good and all AAU coaches are bad (or vice versa) is absolutely ridiculous. Each individual situation needs to be looked at. I’m sick and tired of both sides constantly criticizing the other- each side could use a drop in their own egos and remember why they coach and who they are coaching for. It has nothing to do with high school and AAU- it has everything to do with the quality of situation for both.
One thing I read a decent amount is that the developmental systems overseas are developing more fundamentally sound, skilled players than we are in the United States. Within those articles people criticize the lack of fundamental teaching in AAU, and how AAU is the supposed reason why the game in the US has “dwindled” (I don’t see it that way- IMO the game has advanced in many ways). There is now an influx of “fundamentally sound” international players playing in the NBA due to the “focus on fundamentals” in Europe. To that point, have people never seen Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge, Paul Millsap, Al Horford (to name a few) play? All those guys are 6’9 and above- I would say each is incredibly skilled and pretty fundamentally sound. Was that just pure luck that each of them developed in the American developmental system and played AAU? What about guys like LeBron James, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard, and Paul George? You could argue that all the guys I listed are just elite athletes, but you and I both know it takes a little more than just being an elite athlete to play at the level they’re playing at. On top of it all, if that’s the argument what would the narrative be on guys like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, or CJ McCollum? Furthermore, and lastly, kids are WAY further advanced today in basic fundamentals than I ever was at the same age.
Generally speaking, we take for granted how good and how special some of the people we develop through our system are and end up putting such an extreme emphasis on the select international players who come over and make an impact in the NBA. Are there more international players than ever? Yes. Are some of them very good players? No doubt. The game has also grown in popularity across the world, and it will continue to as more foreign players make it to the NBA. More popularity equals more numbers, more ignition; a further drive to become better at the game in other parts of the world. It’s also important to realize that more US coaches are traveling across the country teaching the game and helping expand it on an international level than ever before. To say that our system as a whole is failing and that AAU is the reason that international programs are catching up is ridiculous. The world is catching up, and it will continue to, but I’d say the US is still producing some pretty quality “fundamentally sound” talent themselves, and not to mention remaining dominant at all levels across the world in international play.
AAU used to be reserved for only “elite” basketball players. There’d be ten teams maximum per age level across a state such as Wisconsin, so you had to be among the better players in the state to land on a team. It has certainly grown and now my guess is there is probably closer to 60-80 teams per age level in WI. Due to what AAU was formerly known as (elite), some parents and kids have adopted this mindset that because they play AAU, they are automatically good. That’s not the case. There are numerous kids playing AAU that aren’t among the top ten or even twenty in their high school programs. Anyone can play on an AAU team now. The idea that some parents and kids have, that because they play on an “AAU” team they are an elite kid is a big part of the reason why AAU at times gets a bad rap with school programs. Not every AAU team is good and in some cases, they aren’t any better than a local school team. However, hasn’t the majority of our population agreed that kids should be playing multiple sports? I know players who were cut from their school teams who go play and practice with an AAU team. Isn’t that a positive thing? In some people’s eyes, AAU is watered down (which I do agree- I think there needs to be a separation in levels in the summer even more than already is), but some of those same people are the ones who are advocating that kids play as many sports as they can. For many, AAU gives kids a different opportunity, different role, and could supply them with a positive experience that may keep them playing the game, which is what is frequently believed are a few benefits of competing in multiple sports.
Many organizations and tournaments have started to create tournaments and platforms that require an invite for teams to compete in (I really like this). The idea is to get all of the best players and teams under one roof to mutually benefit players and college coaches. For players, you get the opportunity to play against high-level competition, and for college coaches, you can evaluate numerous kids at one time in a live-game setting, which can be more difficult to do at the high school level for various reasons. I have seen kids have their dreams come true because of the platform that AAU has given them. On the other side of the fence, there will be people who immediately point out the platform that AAU creates leads to flawed and unrealistic thinking from parents and players. Does that only come from the AAU platform itself or is that due to parents and players not having a clear view on what they are? Isn’t that a result of a bigger problem in our sports culture in this day and age or is that only tied to AAU basketball? I see people across multiple sports who have frequent problems with their role or how their high school careers ended because of a false sense of perception on what their abilities are. Maybe the AAU platform causes some of this, I can’t say for certain one way or the other, but my intuition tells me the unrealistic quest for a scholarship is a problem across all sports, not just because of AAU.
One of the writers in Wisconsin who covers high school basketball did a great article that outlined the small number of players who move on to NCAA Division 1 universities to play basketball from WI. In the comments section, a man wrote, “I wonder how much money AAU programs rake in from parents chasing those elusive scholarships?” First off, I get his point. Parents are often times the ones on the biggest quest to be validated through their kids scholarships. I also know there are some people who have made a business out of AAU basketball- no arguments there, but the number of people doing it for the right reasons for very little or no money, outweighs the bad. Most people who coach in AAU give up their weekends in the spring and summer and travel around to events to coach kids while receiving no compensation outside of basic expenses. The notion that all AAU is just a money-grab frustrates me and takes away from people who volunteer a ton of time to make a positive difference for kids. Again, are there people who may have ulterior motives? Yes. Are there people who rip people off? Yes, but there are also a large majority of people who do it for the right reasons. Not all AAU programs and coaches are out to take money, the ones who do have ruined the reputation for those who do it right.
To conclude, not all AAU is good, not all AAU is bad. Some critiques and points people make frequently probably have a certain degree of truth to it, but I also want to know what system doesn’t have flaws? What actions are being taken by those who are loud in their complaints to help clean those things up? I believe that certain criticisms often spoken are due to having a narrow scope of perspective and those same criticisms could be made with anything. As usual, there isn’t just a simple answer or fix to it all- there are many points to consider. I hope this article at least helped bring light to other sides of commonly accepted narratives.