Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Dirk Nowitzki. European-developed basketball players are dominating NBA headlines this year. As we wrap up another season of March Madness, it’s hard to deny the mass popularity of American basketball in both college ranks and the NBA. But we are seeing more and more players that spent their formative years overseas shine in both of these major US leagues. What can we learn from the European development style? In looking at the overall differences here and abroad, there are several key points that we can take away.
Jumping back into history a bit, the Europeans have been heavily influenced by the youth philosophies started in the former Yugoslavian area now composed of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. They were already seeing great success on the world stage in the early 1990s just before their devastating civil war erupted. Look up the Yugoslavian team from the 1990 FIBA World Championship if you want a great multimedia sports history lesson.
Those players, while deemed softer and less physical than their American counterparts, displayed stronger skill development as a group. An emphasis on ball handling, passing, off-ball movement and the growth of a technically solid shooting movement is taught at an early age. Instead of dividing the players into posts and guards at the age of 11 or 12, everyone works on every skill. Posts do dribble skills, guards learn post moves and everyone learns to correctly set and come off a screen and v-cut. Footwork is also addressed for athletes of all sizes, working on both foot speed and proper step technique.
One major result in this across the board approach is that development becomes less dependent upon individual athleticism and raw talent, and more about drill, repetition and muscle memory. Does it negate athleticism? Absolutely not! But it does help the kids with raw talent to refine their skill and become even better. We have all seen the seemingly unathletic college player shine in an NCAA tournament game simply due to an outstanding work ethic and determination. How much more impactful is the player with raw talent that chooses to put in the time and effort to their practice time?
The last observation we have made is purely related to time. We all have only so much time in a week. Young athletes do not live in a vacuum that consists of only basketball. They are sons, daughters, siblings, friends, students and children of God. In order to have the time to commit to strong development as players, they simply need to play fewer games. Yes, games are important. They are the “test” to the “homework” of skill practice, and without them, true improvement can be deceptive. Have you ever seen the half-time show where a 10-year-old child prodigy performs a phenomenal one-man ball handling display? He may have the dribble skills of Pistol Pete but put him in a game and we would all be sadly disappointed. The basketball world needs players that are both committed to working on individual development and that are mentally tough enough to play as a part of a team on the court.
But do 10 to 17-year-old athletes need to play 40 or more games during their school season and another 50+ select games? How does this type of schedule affect their academics? Their family life? And does that type of ongoing schedule wear them down too much physically? Far too many athletes ignore tell-tale signs from their bodies that they need a break, only to ignore them and face more serious injury as a result.
As American culture continues its fascination with youth sports, it is at least worth having an open and considerate discussion about different development philosophies and their impacts on the youth they serve. What is the most important consideration? It is of course, all about the kids.