“I think (AAU) is a great tool to get exposure and to play against great competition,” said Northrop coach Barak Coolman, who has about 20 players competing at various AAU levels, including several who will compete in this weekend's Memorial Day Run-n-Slam in Fort Wayne. “But I think there are definitely some negatives.”
There is no question that the level of competition consistently seen on the AAU circuit is the best any prep player will see all year. While the elite teams compete around the country at different national events, there are countless regional invitationals to keep the lower-tier AAU teams busy.
Sometimes too busy, according to North Side coach Shabaz Khaliq.
“The amount of games they play can push the idea that winning and losing doesn't matter,” said Khaliq, who has six varsity players from last season competing in AAU. “If you lose at 10 a.m., it is alright because you play again at 1 p.m.”
Coolman shares the same thoughts.
“When you play so many games, sometimes the pain of losing isn't near as effective because there is not much time in between games,” Coolman said. “It devalues games a bit in a way.”
Perhaps the biggest concern for high school coaches when their players take part in AAU is development. For months in the fall and winter, fundamentals, style of play and tempo are taught and practiced repeatedly while with the high school programs. Those things can be downgraded at the least and completely ignored at the worst during AAU season.
“July is the heavy month for the AAU circuit, and that whole month skill development is lost,” Khaliq said. “A shot in AAU that you take with a minute left in the game isn't what I am going to want you to take with a minute left in a high school game. That is because it is all about scoring in AAU.”
Something also missing at the AAU level is mentoring. With divisions based on age groups with only a few players playing up in competition, there are not many cases of older, wiser players showing the ropes to the younger players like you see with high school and college programs.
“When I was younger, I learned how to play basketball because older guys took me to the gym or the park and told me where to be (on the court),” Coolman said. “As I grew up, I took that role and passed it down, but now when you are always with your peers in AAU, you don't see it modeled as much.”
While the common belief is that college coaches are migrating more and more to the AAU side of things when recruiting players due to more time to travel to tournaments as well as the central location of elite talent, the role of the high school coach is still very important.
“The majority of AAU coaches see players just in a basketball setting, but we see them on a daily basis,” Coolman said. “We see them when they are frustrated, when they are struggling in class … in much different circumstances not involving basketball.”
The growing tendency for players to switch schools in both high school and college may have its seeds in AAU as well.
“Some kids just jump from team to team to team, and that's trickled down to high school,” Khaliq said. “They aren't happy unless the situation is perfect for them, and they will switch AAU and high school teams until they find that.”
While prep coaches are wary of AAU, they also see the tremendous advantages it gives their players, an organized structure to continue to play basketball, an arena to test their skills against the best and the opportunity to open doors with college programs.
“There are a ton of really good AAU coaches that have actually changed the culture of AAU in taking the time to teach and have more than one practice a week,” Coolman said.
But the discussion is always ongoing between player and coach on what to look for and what to look out for during AAU season.
“AAU is definitely a necessity with the exposure kids can get, there is no way we can get the amount of coaches in our gym to watch our kids that AAU does,” Khaliq said. “But some coaches don't have the kid's best interests in mind.”