LANSING Hundreds of high school basketball players packed into the state-of-the-art Spiece Fieldhouse recently for a four-day AAU tournament in the heart of Fort Wayne, Ind.
Dispersed throughout the eight-court venue were dozens of college coaches — ranging from NAIA representatives to in-state Big Ten rivals Tom Izzo and John Beilein. As coaches roamed the baselines, observing future talent and conversing with one another, the players tried their best to ignore the circus and focus on the task at hand.
“You know you (have to be on your game),” said Haslett High School point guard Brandon Allen, who plays for the AAU team Michigan Triple Threat in the summer, “but you try not think about it because you could play bad.”
This is AAU basketball — the travel league — which has for years been perceived cynically by basketball purists. It’s a lightly-regulated summer circuit — often criticized for its lack of player development and the team-first mentality. It’s been scrutinized for its outside influences — coaches luring top-tier talent with bribes, some monetary, to compete for their team — which abolishes the foundations of the Amateur Athletic Union.
However, it’s also considered the best opportunity for many high school players to catch the attention of college coaches.
“AAU changes kid’s lives,” said Sexton High School basketball coach Carlton Valentine, who also coaches the Elite Nation AAU team. “This is where recruiting happens. Recruiting isn’t going to happen at high school basketball games – you may see one or two (coaches) in the stands. At an AAU tournament, you’re going to see 30, 40 or 50 coaches.
“A few years back, Denzel (Valentine) had his Michigan State offer and Bryn Forbes committed to Cleveland State. We had Anthony Clemmons, and I couldn’t even get a Division II school to take him. He goes on the AAU circuit … in one game, he comes down the middle off a pick and roll at the key and dunks on two kids. All of a sudden my phone is ringing off the hook.”
Clemmons eventually landed a Division I scholarship from Iowa and averaged 4.8 points per game this past season as a junior.
Risk worth the reward
AAU has plenty of detractors.
The intense schedule has been widely scorned. May through July, high school players can participate in upward of 50 games in a summer – teams have an opportunity to play four or five games every weekend during the three-month span. A typical high school season consists of 20 to 25 games spread over a five-month period.
With increased play, and exposure, comes the concerns of overuse injuries. According to a study done in 2012 by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association in the Journal of Athletic Training, overuse makes up nearly 30 percent of injuries suffered by college athletes.
But for many in basketball circles the risk is worth the reward.
“When I was playing, we played 18 high school games and there was no summer basketball. Now kids can play three or four times a day,” Oakland University men’s basketball coach Greg Kampe said. “I’m not saying AAU is better or worse than high school – I’m not an advocate and I’m not (against it). …If I had my choice, however, I would rather be in today’s environment as an athlete. I would rather have gone to Las Vegas and play thousands of games. As an athlete, I’d rather play with this exposure.”
Player development, or the lack of it, is another criticism of AAU. The lack of focus on individual skills and team-orientated concepts are often scrutinized in the up-and-down game.
“The AAU game (compared to high school) is played way faster. If you can’t develop from that … then I don’t know,” said Williamston High School guard Riley Lewis, who has received interest from several schools during his AAU season with Triple Threat. “It’s on the player to develop skills. You have to play hard (in AAU).”
Unlike their high school counterparts, AAU coaches aren’t paid – in most instances – and their responsibilities aren’t as demanding.
Notoriety is often perceived to be the motive.
“The AAU game is very hard to evaluate and judge because of the style of ball being played,” Kampe said. “There are all-star teams and the game is being played like an all-star game. High school teams practice four times a week. AAU teams are thrown together, and they don’t have the practice time. …As a (college) coach, you evaluate the individual player on their shot, toughness … does he rebound?
“You can evaluate the player higher because of who he is playing against. You can’t sit there and watch the game. …It’s not really a game.”
AAU culture continues to be widely criticized, most notably by NBA and Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who earlier this year told ESPN his thoughts on the circuit: “AAU basketball. …Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.”
The flaws are clear. But not definitive. While some AAU coaches have motives that far exceed the fundamentals, others don’t. Depending on the program, kids can obtain college exposure as well as first-rate coaching.
“It was very good for my kids,” said Lansing Community College men’s basketball coach Mike Ingram, whose children played Division I basketball. “They happened to play on great teams with great organizations. My son, Justin, played with the Michigan Mustangs — a great organization with great coaches. Alayne played for the great Michigan Belles team. Her coach, Jim Halverson, was really big on recruiting and getting coaches in.”
And despite public perception that the unstructured culture impedes on the cohesion of high school hoops, it seems local coaches are not only acknowledging the benefits, but praising them as well.
“I would rather have (my kids) playing somewhere in the summer than hanging out in their house, going up north or doing nothing,” East Lansing High School boys coach Steve Finamore said. “Obviously (AAU) is big for exposure because a college coach can see a kid multiple times in a weekend. It gets a bad rap because there are maybe one or two bad apples.”
On the radar
AAU basketball has been a driving force behind high school athletes getting to the next level. Some players attend high-level programs while others find themselves accepting any offer that comes their way. And regardless of prestige, each school offers similar pledges: a chance at an education and a chance to compete. Something often lost in the whirlwind of AAU culture.
For Eastern High School big man Zeale McCullough, who missed some of his junior season with a concussion, the exposure he’s received from traveling the country and playing AAU with Triple Threat may land him a scholarship in the near future.
“I’m not really used to this type of exposure,” said the 6-foot-5 McCullough, who has received strong interest from Grand Valley State University this summer. “At Eastern, my coach doesn’t have that many connections. …I just come out here and play and hopefully I get some type of letter or exposure.”
Allen, who averaged 21.6 points and 4.3 assists as a junior last season, got his first and only college offer from Long Beach State the second weekend into AAU season.
“I’m not highly recruited,” Allen said. “(Exposure) is a big part of it, but it’s fun to play with your friends. If you’re a really good player (exposure) is definitely a part of it.”
The top-tier prep athletes — like East Lasing’s 6-foot-7 forward Brandon Johns, who ESPN ranks as the 12th best player in the 2018 class — don’t need AAU basketball. And once they’re on the radar, they don’t necessarily need high school hoops, either.
But for the underdog, AAU provides equal opportunity for infamy. The summer hoops circuit presents a level playing field — in most instances — which allows the small-town or unheralded kid to prove his worth.
“These kids are learning to compete,” Finamore said. “Say a team from Michigan plays a team from Indiana or New York … you can see where you stand.
“Some of these kids haven’t been in a hotel, an airplane, or left their city before. If anything, AAU provides lifetime experiences. As adults, we have to do what’s best for the kid.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.