Right now, Spain is the second best basketball nation in the world. They are the defending silver medalists from the Beijing Olympics, they have the second best professional league in the world. They remain the favorites at EuroBasket heading into the second round.
And they are producing some of the best players in the world — Pau and Marc Gasol, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez, Juan Carlos Navarro, Jose Calderon, and more.
It’s how they are producing them that is interesting. Dan Grunfeld — who was the leading scorer for Stanford a few years back, had a tryout with the Knicks and has played overseas — has had a first hand look at how Spain builds players. Which he wrote about at SB Nation in a post worth reading (those Stanford guys can write).
“If you’re looking at Spain’s success on the basketball court, you have to start with their player development. How they teach the game, starting at a very early age, is pretty remarkable. It’s definitely different than my experiences growing up, when I played a lot of games on travel teams, school teams and AAU teams, without much organized time devoted to my individual development as a player.
“In Spain, young players don’t just play basketball, they learn basketball. It starts with the coaches, who need to be certified by the Spanish Basketball Federation….
I used to see these Spanish youngsters, anywhere from 8-14 years old, working out in my team’s gym, especially if I’d go in at night to get treatment from our crotchety old Spanish trainer. Once in a while, if our trainer needed a smoke break, I’d peek my head into the gym to watch them for a bit, and I was always kind of amazed. There would regularly be a whole team of players working with one coach. Their drills were serious and disciplined, without yelling or screaming or anything like that. Instead, the coaches would instruct and the players would listen, working on things like footwork, ball handling and shooting with the proper mechanics.
“These kids were learning and practicing key basketball basics, but they were also being taught important social lessons about the game. Without even knowing it, they were learning how to take direction. They were following instructions. They were listening. They were trusting their coach and applying his advice.”
It’s been said before that the AAU and high school system here in the United States gives American players a lot of court time but not the base of fundamentals. The traveling teams do not become about true coaching too often, but about exploiting the best talent. There are exceptions, there certainly are high school coaches out there trying to do the right thing.
But it is time we as a nation had a conversation about how to structure our youth basketball programs so it becomes about what is best for the young athletes and not what is best for the adults that run them (and the colleges that make a lot of money on them).