On Top Again

by Evin Demirel

LITTLE ROCK — Nearly six years ago in Athens, Greece, it seemed US basketball had been dethroned. The senior men’s national team, bruised by two losses, including a 19-point spanking by Puerto Rico, attempted to save face against a formidable squad of NBA-caliber Argentinians in the semifinals of the 2004 Olympics. The Americans lost, 89-81, and for the first time a US team featuring NBA players failed to take Olympic gold.

Stateside, some basketball cognoscenti declared a coup d’etat of US supremacy that had seemed unassailable only 12 years earlier in Barcelona, Spain. Naturally, some blame fell to the players, a hastily assembled crew of 19- and 20-year-old phenoms (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony), undersized gunners (Stephon Marbury, Allen Iverson) and back-to-the-basket bigs (Tim Duncan, Carlos Boozer). Coach Larry Brown, who butted heads with some of the team’s younger stars, received blame, too. But analysts fretted about far deeper problems rooted in the culture of American youth basketball.

There was a perceived gap in fundamentals between Americans and the best foreign players. Europeans dribbled, shot and passed better, conventional wisdom went, because they practiced those skills more. American teenagers, meanwhile, tended to play more summer circuit ball, filling their hours with jukes, dunks and 3-pointers, but precious few of the individual drills needed to round their games out. Problems were compounded by the ad hoc nature of US team selection. Whereas many of the players on other national teams had played together since adolescence, American players were often NBA All-Stars who had only part of a summer to learn to play with each other under international rules.

After that ’04 debacle, USA basketball brass began planning a strategy to put the US on top again. They demanded three-year commitments from senior national team members, crafted teams filled with players better suited to international play, created a team filled with college stars to scrimmage against them and tabbed Duke Coach Derrick RoseMike Krzyzewski to head it all. The strategy has so far succeeded; the senior men have lost only one game since 2004.

The script flips this summer, though, as young stars like Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose replace players from the ’08 Olympic gold team in vying for a FIBA World Championship in Turkey. They will attempt to follow in the path of their younger counterparts, the 17-years-and-under team, which last month romped to an 8-0 record in that age group’s inaugural world championship. Indeed, US men’s national teams have been on quite a tear recently: The U19 squad captured gold with a 9-0 record in last summer’s world championship, while the U18 team won the Americas championship with a 5-0 record this summer.

It doesn’t seem as if young American players are quite succumbing to a foreign onslaught of screen rolls and perimeter-shooting centers, a fear which prevailed following the ’04 Olympics and a loss to Greece in the world championship two years later. That fear is often founded in a preconception that bad habits riddle the summer, national youth basketball circuit, in which the Amateur Athletic Union plays a major role.

“If you’re playing defense in AAU, you don’t need to be playing,” NBA player Michael Beasley told The Wall Street Journal in 2009. “I’ve honestly never seen anyone play defense in AAU.”

Not everyone agrees: Hunter Mickelson, a member of the 17U Arkansas Wings who has orally committed to the Arkansas Razorbacks, said that for the most part defense during summer ball is intense, though he admitted some defenders might occasionally “slack off.” His teammates Rashad Madden and Aaron Ross, also highly recruited rising seniors, said that contrary to opinions of those like Beasley, strong defensive effort permeates their summer games.

A prime motivation to play in summer ball stems from a player’s desire to showcase his talents for college coaches and scouts. These games are played at a more open-court pace, with more talented players, than a typical high school basketball game. So it’s not surprising teams often score into the 80s despite 32-minute games. Still, recent attempts have tried to inject more structure and effort into the highest levels of the summer circuit.

For instance, this year Nike debuted its Elite Youth Basketball League. The league featured 42 17U teams divided into four divisions that played each other over the course of three tournaments in April and May. The top five teams from each division at the end of the three tournaments — along with four at-large teams — became finalists at the Peach Jam championship tournament in mid-July. Jeff Rogers, the league commissioner, said the EYBL provides a nice counterbalance to tournaments with championships awarded over the course of a weekend.

“That devalues the word championship,” he told ESPN.com in mid-July. “When you do compete for the EYBL championships you’ll have earned it over the course of two or three months.”

Madden, whose Wings played in the EYBL but didn’t make it to the finals, agreed: “You gotta play your best every time. You can’t afford to have no kind of slip-up.”

The league also features NCAA rules, including the college 3-point line, a 35-second shot clock, a bonus free throw after 10 fouls, player disqualification after five personal fouls and three-man officiating crews.

“It helps us get ready for college,” said Ross, who was the only one of the three favoring separate tournaments, each with its own championship, to a league setup like the EYBL.

The Elite Youth Basketball League “will unify and organize the game at the highest level,” said national recruiting analyst Paul Biancardi in the ESPN.com article. That’s the same goal of recent developments within USA Basketball. And it’s a major reason behind the recent debut of iHoops.com, an online collaboration of the NBA, USA Basketball, the NCAA, the AAU and others geared toward helping young basketball players through a trove of advice and resources on topics ranging from basketball skills and strategy, to study habits, to NCAA eligibility.

Despite its 64,677 Facebook friends, it appears the youth initiative isn’t tremendously popular among those high schoolers playing the most organized basketball, though. Mickelson, Ross and Madden said they’d never used iHoops, and hadn’t had anything to do with it beyond wearing shirts sporting its logo during an earlier tournament.

This story was originally published on Sync, a publication of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.