Help or Hinderance: Coaches, players talk merits of travel teams

Is the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) stunting the growth of today’s youth basketball players?

Future NBA Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett surely think so.

Both NBA champions have openly expressed their disdain for AAU basketball and its role in hindering the development of young players, despite having success within the AAU circuit themselves. Garnett has even went as far as stating in an interview on NBATV that “AAU has killed our league,” referencing the NBA and the entitlement he thinks players have coming into the league.

Bryant expressed his observations of a lack of emphasis on fundamentals within AAU basketball, which he also thinks is negatively affecting the world’s most talented basketball league.

Many coaches in the Columbus area have some of the same concerns but also know there are both positives and negatives that come with AAU and other summer travel ball teams.

Columbus North boys basketball assistant coach Lance Barker can attest to some of the positives that have come out of playing in the AAU system. The Columbus East graduate and the city’s all-time leading scorer grew up playing with the Bloomington Red AAU team with former Bedford North Lawrence and Indiana University great Damon Bailey.

Now, Barker is Bailey’s assistant for the Indiana Stars 15U travel team that just won the Big Foot Hoops Las Vegas National Tournament last week. Their sons, Brayton Bailey and Blake Barker, play on the team.

“AAU basketball can get a bad rep with the style of play of all offense and no defense,” Barker said. “In some cases, that’s true, and in other cases, that’s not true. That comes down to coaching and how coaches want to run the team.”

Exposure to top-notch talent is one plus for Blake Barker and many other young players on travel teams. North boys head coach Paul Ferguson said it can be a very eye-opening and humbling experience for players to see how they match up against talent from other areas.

It’s no secret that college coaches often flock to the most prestigious summer tournaments to get a look at the next era of up and coming players. North girls coach Pat McKee said he thinks it is extremely difficult to be recruited by a Division I school without joining a travel team.

“I won’t say it’s absolutely impossible, but it very rarely happens,” McKee said. “At the D-I level, if I send notes to someone saying, ‘Hey you should come look at them,’ one of their first questions is, ‘What travel team do they play for?’ The true select teams have multiple Division I-caliber players on their teams playing other Division I players.”

However, putting too much emphasis on college exposure can easily backfire. Ball State women’s basketball coach Brady Sallee, who has scouted prospects through AAU and travel ball and landed a local player in North’s recently-graduated Maliah Howard-Bass, said focusing only on exposure can desensitize the value of winning.

When watching his recruits, Sallee looks for players who are doing the right things to win games and not just competing to look good. Many travel team tournaments have a set number of games to play, win or lose. This does nothing to help foster a winning mentality, according to Sallee.

“To me less is more,” Salle said. “What happens is that the more you watch them, the more they play themselves out of scholarships instead of into them because they get tired.”

Although there are travel teams like the Indiana Stars who put emphasis fundamentals and defense, Sallee still believes there is a big portion of the culture that puts very little emphasis on skill and player development. East boys coach Brent Chitty said sometimes the importance of defense needs to be reiterated to his players after coming off of summer ball, but he has had good experiences with his players staying all-around fundamentally sound.

Ferguson said good communication is key when it comes to maximizing an athlete’s individual development. He said the best travel coaches do a nice job of connecting and partnering with high school coaches.

“As a high school coach, I really appreciate when AAU coaches reach out to me and say, ‘This this is what I’m seeing, is this what you’re seeing?’” Ferguson said. “Should I be emphasizing this? You’ve had the player longer than I have for a longer season.”

There are pros and cons with almost everything, and AAU is no different. Sallee agrees that AAU is a really good thing when done the right way, but said he is happy that some NBA stars have spoken out about some of the negatives that do occur.

“I think the kids are going to hear them,” Sallee said. “They’re going to hear them say this part of it wasn’t good. A lot of times when I say what’s wrong with AAU, (players) are maybe going to listen. But it’s not going to make the impact of an NBA player who’s been through it and can see themselves a little bit.”

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Frank Bonner is a sports writer for The Republic. He can be reached at fbonner@therepublic.com or 812-379-5632.