Almost all players opt to play AAU these days, mostly because they feel they will be left behind if they don’t. It’s certainly a lot of fun, a rite of passage and should at least be experienced by all. But it has its drawbacks, too, and for many the decision deserves more scrutiny.
Here’s a short summary of four of the players and their AAU decisions. All were seniors who decided to do a PG year instead of going right to college. That gave each the option of playing AAU ball for another year. They made different decisions about AAU for different reasons, with varying results.
Gerry was a talented kid with D1 physical gifts playing for a very small high school. Even though he led them to the state championship, he received no D1 recruiting interest. He couldn’t even get the local D2 school to offer him after attending their camp. He had not played AAU ball until he decided to play in the spring of his senior year. After a handful of AAU tournaments Gerry had 16 D1 offers, most of them from mid-level D1 schools. A textbook case for AAU and its benefits.
With multiple D1 offers on the table, he bucked conventional thinking and made the enlightened choice of a PG year before college. Once he started playing AAU he got caught-up in the hype and the solid thinking stopped. Instead of continuing to listen to the people with the right credentials, he started listening to people with questionable motives and even less credibility. The result was a downward spiral of bad decisions, two of which stand out.
First, in order to play AAU he missed one to two days of school per week (playing out-of-town games for an out-of-town team) even though, as a weak student, he could ill afford to shift his focus or miss any school at all. His mother rationalized it by saying they had spoken with his teachers and made the necessary arrangements. While that’s more of an effort than some make, it’s hardly a substitute for being in class. Not only does it send the wrong signal, it opens the door to more and poorer thinking in the future – and it did. Ironically, he got next to nothing out of AAU. AAU needed him more than he needed it, even though he didn’t know it. Missing school on a regular basis was too great a sacrifice for too little gain.
Second, he made an historically bad prep school selection that left objective observers shaking their heads in disbelief. After exploring many schools, he had two choices. One was a rare combination of very good basketball and a world-class academic environment. It’s a life-changing place so sought after that it rejects many very good student-athletes whose parents would willingly pay the $54,000 a year to send their child there, and it would have cost Edward’s mom $0. He opted instead for a school offering slightly better basketball (although not enough to make a difference) and precious little else, and agreed to pay some money to do it.
In short, once he and his mom started listening to the wrong people and lost sight of their priorities the path quickly changed from one pointed towards success to one with a better chance of failure. The D1 coaches noticed, too, and some, particularly the more trustworthy ones from the better academic schools, became leery of recruiting him because of all the negative signals he and his mom were sending.
By most accounts, a D1 athlete who needed the skills to match his physical gifts. Statistically, he had a very good senior year, but played out of position (in the eyes of D1 coaches) and against weak competition. While he clearly could have benefitted from some exposure, what he needed more was skill improvement. But that’s not nearly as much fun and takes more self-discipline. He chose to play a full AAU schedule which, despite his claims to the contrary, significantly limited the time spent on skill work. Consequently, his game did not improve. In the end, he got the exposure, but it was not enough. Without the skills, he was not worthy of a scholarship. Instead of benefitting from exposure, he was simply exposed.
Had a poor senior season on a very talented high school team. Still, with his height, skills and athletic ability he had scholarship potential.
Getting no interest from scholarship-level schools, it would have been easy to feel like AAU was his second chance. Instead, he kept his poise, put peer pressure and his ego aside, and decided against playing AAU. He spent his time working on his game and skills with a local college coach. He also played in controlled scrimmages with top local HS, D3, D2, D1 and professional players on certain days, and worked on his body and conditioning on others.
As the months went by, his fundamentals and his overall game improved steadily. Having made some sacrifices, he came into the summer motivated. His attitude, perspective, goals and priorities were all what they needed to be in order to have the best shot at maximizing his personal development. Perhaps most importantly, he established positive and proper expectations heading into prep school, giving himself the best chance of continued improvement and success on and off the court.
The bottom line: AAU has its place. For some it’s absolutely the right move. However, most players and parents, not knowing any better, are overvaluing exposure and undervaluing skills and skill development as they try to stand out in today’s recruiting landscape.