Teaching basketball to kids in the US is becoming a bit muddled, and the NBA is seeking solutions

Victor Wembanyama’s on-court warmup session before games when he played in France would last for about an hour. It consisted of plenty of stretching, lots of passing and dribbling drills, then a little bit of shooting.

The basics. The skills. Nothing else.

“It’s what you’re taught to bring to the game,” he said at the time, a year or so before the San Antonio Spurs made the French star the No. 1 pick in last year’s NBA draft.

Taught in some places, perhaps. Taught everywhere, not so much. There are many in the NBA — from Commissioner Adam Silver on down the line — sounding a bit of an alarm about how the development of young players in the U.S. differs from the process in other parts of the world, and how the model that seems to focus more on playing than practicing maybe isn’t the best method.

This year’s draft will once again reflect the shifting tide.

French stars Alex Sarr and Zaccharie Risacher won’t have to wait long to hear their names called during the NBA draft that starts on Wednesday night, and they might even be the first two picks overall. Sure, they’ve played a lot of games. But they’re in this position because most scouts deem them the most NBA-ready in the class, with games that are extremely well-rounded — a product of how footwork, passing, shooting, dribbling, the fundamentals were prioritized over highlight-reel moments.

“Those guys start playing so young, and more importantly, they’re not just playing when they’re young — they’re being taught when they’re young,” Denver coach Michael Malone said this past season, when asked why Balkan players — like the Nuggets star, Nikola Jokic — just seem more adept at skills like passing. “There’s a big difference. In the United States, AAU basketball, guys are playing a lot of basketball, but are they being taught how to play?”

It is the question that everyone is asking. USA Basketball is trying to find an answer, along with the NBA. And it’s not a new thing, either: longtime coach and now television analyst Stan Van Gundy says the problem partly stems from how winning is overemphasized at the youth level.

“Quite frankly, if you look around, we’re failing pretty badly in this country as a whole in teaching people basketball skills,” Van Gundy said. “You all notice it if who watch the NBA, because there’s a huge difference in just the skill level of the players coming from Europe and what we have here in terms of their ability to pass the ball and shoot the ball. We can’t even produce enough people who can do those things here that we’ve got to go across and try to find people who can do them. We’re not developing skills here.”

By the way, Van Gundy didn’t say those words this week or last week or last month. He said them when he was coaching the Miami Heat — two decades ago.

“You are kind of scratching at something that is a conversation a lot of NBA people are having right now,” Orlando Magic President Jeff Weltman said. “I think everybody is looking at youth basketball right now. There are very different models that you can pursue. … It is something we need to continue to analyze and measure as we go forward. The league is changing and how do we recalibrate that toward the youth programs?”

Some coaches, at the youth level, say the answer is simple: It’s on them to do better.

Antoine Thompson is the boys coach at Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas, and his program reached the Class 6A state final this past spring. At Stony Point, fundamentals are paramount and it shows in the won-lost record — 38-2 this past season.

His solution: more practices, less games.

“We’ve gotten away from the old lineage way of teaching the game, starting with the very fundamentals, then practicing the game with a team concept. That’s gone out the window,” Thompson said. “And it’s getting bad because now it’s starting at the grassroots level and that used to be where the game was taught. We’re ignoring that now.”

Thompson points to Dallas Mavericks star Luka Doncic as the example. Doncic has been a pro since he was basically 14, part of the Real Madrid system before coming to the NBA. But how he got there is the key, Thompson said.

“He was playing in a club where the club was structured to teach the game of basketball before playing the game of basketball and we’ve inverted that here,” Thompson said “Now we play the game of basketball — but we don’t teach the game of basketball anymore.”

Maybe that will change. The NBA is thinking it might.

The league and USA Basketball are working together — former Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is involved as well — to see what can be done. Some countries require all coaches at the youth level to be licensed and pass an aptitude test of sorts; that might not necessarily be realistic in a country as big as the U.S., but there’s always a better way.

“We think there’s definitely ways to improve the system,” Silver said.


AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

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