I was having a conversation with a fellow coach this weekend while watching a high school AAU game. We were talking about things we teach and the quality/ level of players in today’s game. An older gentleman was listening to the conversation and made several interjections; I couldn’t help but respectfully disagree with almost everything he said. Our conversation was respectful and cordial, and I am more than aware that not everyone shares the same view points on things, but most of the view points he shared are things that I believe are misconstrued and misinterpreted. I have found that people read or discuss commonly accepted narratives and just run with them rather than actually analyzing and watching what is going on for themselves.

The other coach I was originally speaking was talking about what separates the levels of play in college basketball & how high of quality many D3 programs have. The man sitting next to us jumped in and said, “I’ve been doing scouting and recruiting for high school kids for 18 years. The difference between kids at the Division 3 level and the Division 1 level is heart and fundamentals. Ya know, none of these kids want to work on the basics, and none of them want to work hard so they end up playing D3 when they should’ve played D1.” First off, I’m not sure of this man’s background, but I’m not sure if he realized just how good numerous D3 players are and how high of quality many programs possess. Secondly, if you have read anything I’ve wrote before, you can imagine I wasn’t going to be able to let this “generational thing” pass. I respectfully disagreed with him. As I have wrote about before, kids’ work ethic is all based on perspective. I don’t have many problems with kids not working hard. Most of the kids I work with are motivated to get better and learn. Generation to generation there will always be people who are lazy or unmotivated- kids are not just all of a sudden drastically different than they have ever been.

Moving on, having played D3 basketball for four years and now coaching players that have played anywhere from D3 to D1, heart and fundamentals is not an accurate statement of what separates the two levels. In coaching, I have had gym rats who are highly skilled AND work their tails off AND have unmatched competitive spirit that have gone on to play D3. Some were undersized, others didn’t move well enough laterally or possess the overall athleticism to play at that level. A couple were athletic and had a solid skill-set but didn’t have one area where they REALLY excelled at. One or two just weren’t given the opportunity to play at a higher level, but I have no doubt they could have. From my own playing experiences, I played D3 basketball with and against some of the grittiest, most competitive, and highly skilled players that I have had the privilege to be around. In many cases, the top players who play at the Division 3 level possess similar skill sets and fundamentals as players at higher levels, but the separator at the Division 1 level is the athletic ability and size. On top of it all, very very few players are going to have the opportunity to play Division 1 basketball. In the classes of 2016 & 2017 in the WHOLE state of Wisconsin, only 20 players total over two years have been awarded Division 1 scholarships. You have to possess a trait that is pretty extraordinary to play at that level. The bottom line is that it’s a lot more than just “heart and fundamentals” to play at the Division 1 level and most of Division 3 is pretty damn good basketball, many players who play at that level have maximized their abilities. Not to mention, I think you have to have some “heart” to sacrifice 20+ hours a week in college when not receiving a dollar of scholarship money to play on a team for four years.

A popular narrative by many is that today’s game lacks fundamentals- the notion that kids don’t have foundational skills anymore. The older gentleman said that, “Kids shouldn’t be playing all these games, they should be in the gym working on their fundamentals.” You hear this all the time, and to a small extent, I agree with it, but for reasons other than “playing isn’t good”. I think there are too many organized 5 v 5 games, however, I also think the focus on fundamentals has gotten pushed too far and has caused an increase in low-context isolated practice with coaches controlling every movement. From talking with this gentleman, I had a pretty good idea what he was going to say, but I still asked him what he defined as fundamentals and the best way to work on them. I wanted to hear his solution to what he viewed as the problem. The gentleman said, “Kids need the basics. Shooting a lay-up off the proper foot, two-hand chest passes, screening & rolling, shooting a 15-foot jump shot. They just really need more drills and less games.” I replied by pointing him to the game we were watching (17-year old high school kids) that was in the high 70’s and featured great ball movement, spacing, and shooting. I asked if he really thought that the kids out here couldn’t shoot a traditional lay-up? How many times do you see players shoot an uncontested 45-degree angle off the proper foot from the half-court line? Do kids really need to be working on a 15-foot bank shot when many shoot 40%+ from the 3-point line? Outside of that, I have seen third graders who can do every single one of the things he mentioned to perfection; I couldn’t even walk and chew gum at the same time when I was in third grade. Players today are much more advanced than ever when it comes to a traditional, fundamental perspective.

The conversation continued and we respectfully agreed to disagree, but to me, the fundamentals of the game are continually evolving as the game is evolving. Players have to be able to use different finishes based on the defense, shoot from behind the 3-point line, pass from different angles, and MOST importantly they have to be able to read & see the game. The feel for the game comes from playing (I would love to see the playing shift more towards small-sided games at the younger ages). “Skill work” to me is a lot more than just dribbling, passing, and shooting. It’s greater than just the fundamental technique, it’s also the decision-making within each skill. Many of the kids I see regularly don’t lack fundamental technique, their processing of how to execute in a fast-paced, complex game environment is usually what needs the most work! You can’t develop a better feel for the game or advance your game a great deal by solely practicing isolated drills against cones and a chair.

Later in the week, I will post on another commonly accepted narrative that AAU is killing our game.