Recruiting, College Basketball & Professional Talent Development

This afternoon, I read through several articles about various soccer federations and their impact on World Cup successes and failures. As I bantered with a coach about recruiting this evening, one comment from the articles ran through my mind over and over:

Whilst the brain is almost completely developed by the end of high school, the body can continue to mature until 22 (or even older). Oftentimes skilful players dismissed for their stature at 17 and 18 will strengthen sufficiently in the following years to a level where they can compete with the earlier developers and even with the bigger, tougher professionals.

In fact these players will frequently have developed excellent ball control, balance and poise as coping mechanisms for playing with the stronger players around them. When they catch up physically they can be much more effective than the players who have always been able to bully their way around the football pitch.

Unfortunately an under-developed 18 year old has very few options at the end of his youth career.

This appeared in an article by Paul Williams about changes being made to the English football development system. However, what does the comment say about recruiting, college basketball and professional development?

Look at NBA Summer League sensation Jeremy Lin. At 18-years-old, he was deemed to small, too skinny, too Asian to be a BCS-level player. However, after four years, he is poised to make an NBA roster after his sterling summer league performance highlighted by his battles with #1 pick John Wall.

Because of college basketball’s win-now environment, the top programs recruit the players who dominate, often due to their size, explosiveness and strength. These are the players who “bully their way around the football pitch.”

However, while the mind is developed at this age, many bodies have not matured fully. Coaches recruit the bodies and feel that they can develop the minds – the work ethic, desire, competitiveness, basketball I.Q., awareness, feel – but the reality is just the opposite.

The NCAA legislates off-season workout hours, so most of a player’s development occurs without the presence of a basketball coach. However, players work out with strength & conditioning professionals. Therefore, much of a player’s development at the college level occurs through improved strength, quickness, explosiveness, muscle mass, movement technique and coordination – not through on-court, skill-specific improvements.

Therefore, the irony of recruiting is that coaches recruit for the traits that are most likely to develop at the college level, while often overlooking players who possess the qualities which are most difficult to develop.

I made the same argument in regards to youth basketball and tryouts in my point guard trilogy.

Next, we often cut players with the right personality because youth coaches favor the stronger, faster, more aggressive scorers. Dominant, aggressive personalities capture a coach’s attention, not the point guard who involves everyone.

I saw this yesterday as I watched a girls’ basketball tournament. I watched two games. The first game featured two teams littered with highly ranked, future Division I players. To me, the one top-20 ranked player was the 8th or 9th best player on the court. Now, it is obvious why she is rated highly: size, athleticism, shooting technique, etc. However, with all these strengths, she hardly did anything. Will that change at the college level? Will she develop the mind and the psychological skills that she did not display?

My favorite player in the first half was a guard who one low-major head coach did not think was good enough for her program. I felt she was good enough for any program in the country. However, she does not look the part. She is not long; she is a little stocky; she does not play fast. However, she runs the pick-and-roll; she attacks bigger players without fear; she hits open three-pointers with great technique; she handled full-court pressure by quicker players; she directed her teammates: in short, she did everything that a coach wants from a guard.

The prevailing wisdom is that it is easier to teach the talented player to compete harder and play smarter than it is to make the second player slightly quicker or stronger or lighter on her feet. However, is that an accurate assumption? At the college level, with practice restrictions, is the first player likely to develop her basketball I.Q.? Is she likely to develop a mean streak and toughness around the rim? On the other hand, will the guard be able to tone her body, add explosiveness and develop more quickness? Based on the Paul Williams’ excerpt above, the smarter decision would be to recruit the guard who possesses the mental skills and develop the physical qualities to complement those tools than to recruit the more physically gifted player and hope to add the mental skills. But, that is the antithesis of what is done.

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~ by Brian McCormick on July 16, 2010.

One Response to “Recruiting, College Basketball & Professional Talent Development”

  1. Brian,

    I agree with the basic notions you are trying to put forward, concerning the too-narrow selection criteria involved in the recruitment of elite level performers. However, I also think that your ideas would gain additional traction if they were presented in a slightly different format which is free from “either/or” constructs, e.g. current recruiting practice is to focus, almost exclusively, on physiologically-based attributes rather than psycho-emotional and/or skill-based attributes, and what you are proposing is an “inversion” of this same process.

    To wit:

    In reality, there are, at least, three [3] different [but, also, related] types of recruitment practice, which:

    i. Focus on physiological attributes;
    ii. Focus on psycho-emotional and/or skill-based attributes;


    iii. Focus on a range of inter-related physiological and psycho-emotional and skilled-based attributes, in varying combinations.

    If/when you emphasize the effectiveness of “Method iii” – i.e. which combines “Method i” with “Method ii” – then you will be able to establish a stronger foot-hold in the hearts and minds of many other elite level coaches, across different sports, who already engage in this specific type of practice.

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