When Kobe Bryant talks basketball, everyone should listen. But that doesn’t mean his words are infallible. Asked about a supposed lack of skill among today’s NBA big men after the Los Angeles Lakers fell short against Marc Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies last night, Bryant ripped AAU basketball, calling the youth summer circuit “horrible,” “terrible,” and “stupid.”
Kobe is uniquely situated to assess the state of the game. Not only is he a legendary talent with a nearly unparalleled list of accomplishments, but he also spent his formative years in Italy where his father was playing professionally.
Obviously, those credentials seem to afford Bryant’s argument credibility that’s tough to match. But it’s a facade. Bryant is far less equipped to critique the admittedly flawed youth basketball system than he lets on, and his hollow talking points make that clear.
When asked about the limited number of skilled big men in the NBA, Bryant was very clear where he felt the blame should fall.
“AAU basketball. Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid,” said Bryant. “It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game, at all.”
“In America, it’s a big problem for us. We’re not teaching players how to play all-around basketball,” he said. “That’s why you have Pau [Gasol] and you have Marc [Gasol] and the reason why 90% of the [San Antonio] Spurs roster are European players, because they have more skills.”
Bryant goes onto say that growing up abroad contributed to his peerless skill-set as much as anything else, and that he wouldn’t be the player he was and is without European influence.
“I was kind of fortunate, because when I was growing up in Italy, the Red Auerbachs, the Tex Winters were doing clinics and camps in Europe,” he said. “They were teaching the club coaches — all the club coaches were just following their advice and their fundamentals, and they were teaching us kids all that stuff. Me, Manu Ginobili, all these guys that grew up around that same time, we’re a product of that.
And what if he had grown up in the U.S., instead?
“I probably wouldn’t be able to dribble with my left, shoot with my left, have good footwork,” said Bryant.
Before we rip into Bryant’s comments, it’s pertinent to note that youth basketball in the United States is hardly beyond criticism. Kids indeed spend more time at money-making tournaments than they do the practice floor actually honing their games in the summer, and the influence of so many “handlers” and adults looking to capitalize on precocious talents is a major problem, too.
Kobe mentions those issues in addition to bemoaning a decided lack of fundamentals among today’s youngsters, and he’s especially on-point in the former respects. No argument there. AAU basketball can be a shady, shady scene.
But are youngsters of today really as skill-less as he says? And are modern American big men really less sound than their foreign-born counterparts?
Frankly, we’re not comfortable saying for sure one way or another when it comes to young hoopers. But what’s undeniable is that good people of the youth hoops scene have made an effort in recent years to combat the notion of which Bryant speaks. Events like the Nike-sponsored camps of LeBron James and Chris Paul were created in an effort to get our game’s most talented young players away from the several-game-a-day grind and onto the practice floor. More and more AAU programs across the nation are implementing age-wide offensive and defensive systems that stress team play and basketball’s core ideals, too.
This isn’t the early-2000s of the grassroots basketball scene, basically. There is more meaningful structure added to a young player’s development year-by-year.
What we are apt to critique is Bryant’s assessment of American big men, and players overall. If the United States’ best was as at-risk as Kobe makes it seem, why did Team USA’s “B” squad dominate the FIBA World Cup? Why is the 2015 draft class loaded with super-talented big men like Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns that grew up in the states?
From a NBA-centric perspective, Marc Gasol’s teammate Zach Randolph is pretty skilled. Brother Pau has a playmaking frontcourt running mate in Joakim Noah. Anthony Davis is making 53 percent of his catch-and-shoot jumpers. Kevin Love and Al Jefferson are wildly adept at two different types of scoring the ball. Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, and Paul Millsap are pretty good, too.
And that’s just the bonafide interior stars. We could go on with a list of young American big men with promising skill-sets. There isn’t exactly a European guard that boasts the shooting, passing, or handling exploits of guys like Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and company, either.
There’s also all of this to consider. Not only is Bryant uninvolved on the AAU scene, but he seems to be part of the problem he describes:
We’ll let that information speak for itself.
It bears repeating again that Bryant isn’t entirely off-base here. His concerns related to financial benefits for AAU hangers-on deserves special attention.
But his comments on the whole reek of a player out of touch with the current youth basketball scene, plus one fed up with his team’s substandard interior talent. It’s not the fault of USA Basketball, for instance, that Ed Davis can’t shoot free throws and Carlos Boozer doesn’t understand defensive rotations.
AAU basketball and our country’s development of young players in general is a long, long way from perfect. But Kobe shouldn’t be the one to telling us so, as his biased and narrow take makes abundantly clear.
What do you think?
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