Chapter 14: The Elite Development League

The following is the original Chapter 14, in its entirety, from Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development, 2nd Edition, published in 2007. It builds on Chapter 13, which can be found here.

Recently, the English Football Association’s Technical Department researched training methods, examined its current system and concluded the FA needed to address several areas to maximize its young players’ potential, maintain the Premiere League’s status as arguably the world’s top soccer league and keep the English National Team among the world’s elite. This effort is not unlike the one being undertaken by the NBA.

According to the FA web site, the FA developed a model to guide elite player development and address the following six issues:

  1. Elite young players require a development process to protect and nurture their special talents.
  2. Technical development cannot and should not be viewed in isolation of the player’s overall educational and social welfare.
  3. FA Premiere League and Football League Clubs need to have more access to the very best players.
  4. Young gifted players are exposed to too much competitive football and too little practice time.
  5. Competitive matches are part of an integrated development program.
  6. Better qualified coaches to work with elite young players.

While the NBA is moving in a similar direction, businessmen and entrepreneurs continue to spearhead the reform, not a Technical Department devoid of financial interests. Regardless of who evaluates any proposal, the solution must address five significant issues:

  1. Rest is not a four-letter word; youth and high school basketball players need an off-season to rest and regenerate.
  2. Elite players need to train with and compete against other elite players.
  3. Competitive and elite programs must use better qualified coaches.
  4. Players currently play too many games (and many lack a true competitive quality) and train too little.
  5. Elite, soon-to-be-pro players need resources to adjust to the professional life and responsibilities.

Addressing these five issues, several other points must be addressed:

  1. Education is important, but college is not for everyone.
  2. NBA teams must acknowledge a benefit to the bottom line if they draft better, more prepared players rather than risks, potential and upside and spend some money to reap these benefits.

So, addressing these issues requires a three-step approach:

Step 1: High Performance Centers

Much like the French INSEP program or U.S. Soccer’s Project 40, USA Basketball and the NBA must partner to create two High Performance Center programs for 20 top u-20 players (10 players each). These players would receive a scholarship to the program as well as a small living stipend; however, they would also forfeit their college eligibility. If of high school age, they would finish high school at a local high school; if of college age and desiring a college education, they would attend classes where the HPC is located or possibly through an online college.

Each HPC would form 2 teams to play in the NBDL. However, all HPC games would be played on weekends enabling HPC players to train twice a day, five days a week. The training would include performance testing and research by the university’s staff. This research would be used to develop better training protocols and coaching methodology. The research would be used in the coaching education programs and published on the HPC sites for any youth coach to download and use.

The box below is the training schedule of the Newcastle United u-18 Academy as supplied by Adrian Lamb, the Newcastle United Football Academy’s Strength and Conditioning Coach. The schedule illustrates one example of an elite athlete’s academy schedule. Athletic skills training (weights and speed/plyos) receive almost equal emphasis as technical training, while the match and match preparation receive less emphasis. Even the u-18 sides emphasize development over competition, as English Premiere League Academies limit players to a maximum of thirty games per year.

Newcastle United Football Academy u-18’s Training Schedule

Mon: 9:30-10:45 Weights

10:45-12:30 Technical training

Tues: 10:00-10:30 Speed/plyos

10:30-12:00 Technical training

Wed: 10:30-12:30 Technical training

2:30-3:45 Weights

Thurs: off

Fri: Match Preparation

Sat: Match

Sun: Recovery

The HPC would draw more interest to the NBDL possibly raising the pay for all NBDL players and creating a more viable minor league system. The HPC would pay for itself through television rights, gate receipts, and sponsorships. Imagine the possibilities for the 2006-07 East Coast HPC featuring OJ Mayo, Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon, Michael Beasley, and others training with and against each other or the West Coast HPC with Kevin Love, Jrue Holiday, Taylor King, Kyle Singer, and others.

In this proposal, HPC players would be eligible to enter the NBA Draft when they turn 18; teams could draft a player and leave him in the HPC or sign him to a contract if he is ready. On the flipside, with the HPC serving as a minor league system, the NBA would adopt similar rules as the NFL or Major League Baseball, so players would attend college for three years. These changes would eliminate the one-and-done players and the potentially poor decision-making of high school kids who think they can play in the NBA, while giving the real players like LeBron James and Dwight Howard the immediate access to the NBA when they are ready.

The universities’ educational mission is not compromised by the one-and-done stars and college coaches coach players for three years, placing more emphasis on developing players and systems, not just recruiting the best talent on a year-to-year basis.

Step 2: Elite Development League

The High Performance Centers only reach 20 players per year and these are the upper echelon, straight to the NBA-types. These are the players, who, if anything, do not need a change in the system as they develop nicely as evidenced by the impact of players like Oden, Durant, Wright, and Conley this season.

The next tier of players are likely to play Division I basketball. In the current system, they play for a high school team where they are typically better than their teammates and in leagues where they may face a team with one comparable talent, but rarely face a team with several equally talented players. After the season, they join AAU teams where they play with and against other talented players, but the teams rarely practice and the games are not truly competitive. How competitive is the final game when it is the team’s fourth game in 24 hours? The season wears on too long and by summer’s end, players are burnt out from nine straight months of games and travel.

A new model based around a more sensible schedule with an emphasis on training, as opposed to exposure, is necessary. The shift is taking place. The solution combines the best aspects of the current system with a new training emphasis.

However within a new development framework, players must measure themselves and their progress. Games increase motivation and give players a goal. When rowing in college, the toughest challenge was training for six months before our first meaningful race. Games are an essential component of the development model; however, make each game important and competitive to elicit both teams’ best effort. Competition derives from the Latin root “to seek together.” Evenly matched, well-played games elevate the level of each performer/team.

To create a more sensible system, USA Basketball and the NBA need to secure financing for an Elite Development League featuring 40 regional development programs distributed to the largest markets. Creating 40 programs would not require building 40 new facilities. The programs would use existing facilities, whether private facilities, public schools or junior colleges.

These programs would be like current AAU programs; however, USA Basketball, the NBA and the sponsors would create regulations to ensure player development. Each coach would complete a coaching education program. These programs would train year-round; rest would be incorporated, but the EDL programs would not require players to pull double-duty, as they do now. While many believe this would end high school athletics, it would not. If the 40 programs have 12 players each, that is 480 players throughout the country. In any given city, it is only 12 players; the elite, sure, but it creates more equitable competition for high schools and lessens the recruiting of elite preps because they will play for the EDL as opposed to their high school program. The EDL players benefit from training with and competing against other top players with the best coaches while attending neighborhood schools with their friends and not transferring high schools to find a better basketball program or coach.

To reach more players, an ambitious goal would be to increase each program to reach 24 players, with a JV (u-16) and varsity (u-18) and each time the academies played, they would play a double-header, just like a high school game.

With 40 programs, the EDL breaks into four divisions and each team plays the other divisional opponents in a home-and-home series, meaning an 18-game schedule from November through March with games scheduled every other weekend. The top two teams in each division advance to a March Madness championship tournament to decide the champion.

In spring and summer, teams would compete for the Cup Championship, much like European leagues. The eight play-off teams would receive automatic byes to the quarterfinals. The other thirty-two teams are drawn into eight four-team round robin mini-tournaments with the winners advancing to the 16-team single elimination summer Cup Championship tournament. If colleges need off-season games to scout and recruit, the Cup Championship would provide plenty of games. Also, the cup would mean a minimum of three additional games and maximum seven additional games, creating a 21 to 25-game schedule.

Step 3: Youth Basketball Schools Initiative

Beyond the Academy, High Performance Centers and the Elite Development League, how can we improve the development system for all players, regardless of level? The above changes cater to the elite players: how do we improve the system for the recreational, developmental and competitive players who have yet to transition to “elite” or perhaps never will?

The public school system offers the best and most economical way to reach the most players. However, change is necessary to maximize these players’ experience. Each school district approaches sports differently, often because of financial issues. Some districts offer elementary school teams, while other districts no longer offer physical education classes. In order for the development system to work, we must standardize school sports to ensure adequate opportunities are available in every district.

The Youth Basketball Schools Initiative starts with the varsity high school coach. While some criticize the EDL because it “eliminates” the high school coach, the YBSI increases his or her role and creates a position more in-line with his or her profession (teaching), as opposed to the current system where winning is the sole criteria upon which a high school coach is judged.

In most areas, districts are set-up with an elementary school which feeds a middle school which feeds a high school; most high schools offer two or three teams, usually junior varsity and varsity or freshmen, junior varsity and varsity. If one views each varsity team as the top of the pyramid, a varsity coach oversees an entire program down to the elementary school level. This shift creates a true development program using the schools, as the varsity high school coach is the leader within this pyramid and takes responsibility for the entire program, not just the varsity’s success.

Recently, a friend and high school coach questioned his priorities and expectations: how can a coach be expected to win (because league standings are in the newspaper every day), while also developing players’ basic movement skills and fundamentals? The answer, I suppose, is he cannot, in one season with limited practice time, do everything. Therefore, the lower levels must prepare players for the varsity team so the varsity coach is not stuck with players with remedial movement skills and fundamentals. In the current system, with Peak by Friday mentality and no continuity of programs, this may or may not happen. However, through the YBSI, the varsity coach is responsible for ensuring players are prepared for the varsity level.

An example of programs:

Elementary School

  • After-school skills program
  • Saturday AM Recreation League
    • 1st-4th graders play 3v3 (mini-hoops)
    • 5th-6th graders play 5v5
  • No cuts
  • Runs late November through February
  • Minimal game coaching: players use concepts/skills learned during the week at the skills workouts
  • Instruction-based
  • Man defense only
  • Encourage players to play other sports in the off-season
  • March-October: fee-based skills program at high school to support high school program

Junior High School

  • 7th grade team: 3 practices per week plus one game: focus on development in line with Cross Over model
  • 8th grade team: 3 practices per week plus one game
  • Any player cut from either team eligible for a developmental program.
    • Skill-based program like elementary school program
    • 1-2 days per week with a weekend game
    • Combine with other district schools if necessary
    • Opportunity for every player who wants to make the commitment

High School

  • 9th grade team: November-March season with 30 games
  • 10th grade team: November-March season with 30 games
  • Varsity: November-March season with +/-30games
  • Sunday afternoon informal recreational league for any players in district cut from a team. All high schools cooperate to organize, promote and assist with the league, possibly rotating sites every year.
  • Fall/Spring: Limit organized basketball activities to promote multi-sport athletes, rest, weight training, plyometrics, etc. Allow open gym skill training and informal pick-up games, but no direct team coaching and/or games/tournaments against other schools.
  • Allow limited training and competition during summer, but prohibit teams from playing 60+ games in the six weeks from the end of school until July 31. Out of season emphasis on training, not competing.

A change incorporating the Youth Basketball Schools Initiative, Elite Development League and High Performance Center provides the framework to enable the implementation of a long term athlete development like the one proposed in section two. However, the framework and template only work if parents, players and coaches buy into a new model. As long as the Peak by Friday mindset penetrates youth sports and exposure dominates high school basketball, no framework or model is sufficient. The framework creates an instructional, developmental, progressive environment: coupled with a learning orientation and growth mindset, this framework will create a profound change for youth basketball players, putting the youth back into youth basketball, while providing better preparation for elite players.

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