The American Amateurs Union (AAU) has provided young athletes an opportunity to participate in a number of various sports since its inception, but it’s been basketball that has become the signature of the organization.
Over the last 15-plus years, AAU basketball has become a staple in today’s basketball culture, and over the last five years has grown to be the best showcase of budding talent in the country. Many of the young players now play for two teams at a time. They play for their school/district team locally and play for a travel AAU team. AAU has changed the landscape of basketball from coaching to college recruitment and player development.
ORU Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach Rodney Perry has experience seeing both the good and the bad of AAU, not only coaching AAU basketball players, but recruiting them to play at the next level. Perry won AAU Coach of the Year in 1995 and most recently led his MOKAN Elite to a victory in the 2016 Nike Peach Jam Championship.
“Guys are getting an opportunity to travel and play against some of the best players in the country. In the past, guys didn’t get to play the best players until they got to college. Some of the leagues that some of the shoe companies are putting together allow guys to play meaningful games which is a good thing,” said Perry. “Also, in some of the circuits, AAU is just like the college game. You have the college three-point line, shot clock, officials, and it’s trying to prepare them for college before they even get to that level.”
The tournaments, sponsorships and popularity of AAU basketball have grown so much in recent years, and has almost minimized the importance of high school basketball. With tournaments being broadcast on ESPN, and parents doing everything they can to get their kids scholarships, it begs the question: has the growth and popularity of AAU basketball helped or hurt player development at the next level?
“Some of the recruiting processes now have taken the high school coaches out of the equation. Players now have these “handlers” that are the spokesperson for the player and they auction the guys off to the highest bidder,” said Perry. “Another negative would be some AAU coaches are not holding their players accountable. Then when the player gets to college and they’re not being told how great they are, like they’ve been told their entire AAU career, now they don’t know how to handle it and end up transferring, because it’s not going the way they’ve always had it.”
Some of the biggest names in the NBA have been critical of AAU basketball and what it has become, including Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. Both Bryant and James played AAU basketball before being drafted out of high school, but have been critical saying the game isn’t being properly taught.
Another criticism of AAU basketball has been the individualistic nature of the game and players looking to attract the attention of the big-time college coaches who attend with lots of isolation, taking defender off the dribble and only looking for their shot.
“You see Coach K, Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino, and you get out there and try to sell yourself. [AAU] has really changed the game, because that’s where you can see what guys can really do. It separates itself from high school basketball,” said Anderson. “Back in the day, you put up numbers in high school and coaches would come see you. Now, they come to see you at AAU tournaments against better competition. That’s how guys get scholarships now.”
Anderson played for two AAU teams including the Oklahoma Wizards and Team Griffin (formally known as Athletes First) and saw a lot of individual effort from opponents while playing, but acknowledged that while those things look cool to fans on “mixtape” videos, coaches who are recruiting could care less.
“If you can’t play defense, how does it benefit a college coach’s program? I always tried to play as hard on both ends of the floor, because in my head, I knew that’s what they were looking for, well-rounded players,” said Anderson. “Guys these days think, ‘If I go out there and get 20, coaches will look at me.’ That’s not the case. If I could give advice to any AAU guys, it would be to play both ends of the floor. It’s gotten really offense-oriented and it needs to change.”
While AAU basketball thrives and will undoubtedly continue to do so, it will be interesting to see how the popularity and notoriety of the organization and its product will affect the continuous change of the players’ and their impact at the next level.