Long-term athlete development, recruiting to junior colleges, and the development of tall players

I have spent this week watching the girls’ basketball state play-offs with an eye on evaluating players for the junior college where I work as a strength coach in the event that the basketball coaches ask for a second opinion. In debating the merits of various post players for a junior-college program, I returned to a persistent question that is relevant to coaches of all ages: Is the goal to win now or to develop players for long-term success? Here is how the question plays out:

For the sake of simplicity, I am going to write about two players. These players are not specific players, but amalgamations of players. Also, for sake of simplicity, I am going to write as if a program has one scholarship to offer a post player for next season. Should the program sign Player 1 or Player 2?

Player 1 (P1) is not the best player on her team. She is a 5’10ish post player with a strong build. She has good feet and looks as if she could play multiple sports: maybe a centerback in soccer or a pitcher in softball. She does not have any outstanding skills, but she is very effective. She has good hands and catches everything. She finishes lay-ups. She meets the pass against the press and gets the ball to a guard. She is an above-average free throw shooter. She is a very good rebounder, and she has surprisingly quick feet for her stocky build. She plays for a good coach, and I would not be surprised if her team won the state championship.

Player 2 (P2) does not start for her team. She is 6’3. Her coach does not appear to know what she is doing, and I was shocked when they made the play-offs. She is tall and long. She does not show much during games because her teammates rarely pass her the ball, and she does not play very much. When she gets a rebound or pass, she keeps the ball high and finishes. She is not slow, but not overly quick. She can move a little bit, and can set a screen and roll to the basket. She does not look completely comfortable in her body and looks as though she just finished her growth spurt.

As a varsity coach trying to win a state championship, which player would you prefer? Probably P1.  Right now, she is the more effective, productive player. Of course, how much of that has to do with her environment and her coaching?

As a junior college coach, who would you take? At a junior college, you have players for two seasons. Would you take the player who is the more productive player right now, but slightly undersized or would you take the player with great size, but less production? Would you take the player who is probably close to a finished product or the player who potentially has a lot of room to grow as a player? Do you take the safe bet with a small pay-off or the risky bet with the huge pay-off?

Now, imagine these two players are sophomores in high school. Who would you take? The productive 5’10 post who is done growing or the less-coordinated 6’3 post?

I don’t know that there is a right answer. My choice depends on the situation and my philosophy. If I had a senior-laden team that needed a starting center to contend for the state championship, I’d probably pick P1. If my team was young and not a contender to win anything of note this season, I might take the riskier bet and hope that I can develop her.

One issue with recruiting and one-off evaluation or talent identification events is the lack of information. I watch these players from the outside and try to create a story. Why doesn’t the tall player play more? Why isn’t she better? Did she just grow? Is her coach not very good? Does she not work hard? Is she embarrassed by her height? Does she even like basketball or does she play because that is what a girl who is 6’3 is supposed to do? Is P1 a multi-sport athlete who could improve with more specialization? Could she develop into more of a PF with practice? Are her feet quick enough to guard away from the basket? Is she a product of a good system or is she a really effective player? Is she helped by playing with a good guard who makes good passes to her or does her work make those passes easier for the guard?

Even though I have seen each player multiple times, I do not get to work with them. I do not see them practice on a daily basis. I do not know their personality or motivation. Ross Tucker posted his presentation on the flaws with LTAD on his blog this week, and one point that stood out was: “For a coach, one of the best methods of talent ID is to look for responsiveness to training.” In recruiting or talent ID events, this is not possible. If I knew that P2 was not as productive as P1 because of lack of motivation or lack of responsiveness to training, I would take P1 at every age. However, I would have to ask whether previous experiences affected this lack of responsiveness and motivation and if that could be changed. This is one issue with college recruiting – coaches are confident and believe that they can be the one to reach a player who their histories suggest cannot be reached, whether in terms of skill development, attitude, motivation, etc. How much weight should the previous history hold? How confident should a coach be in his or her ability to change the player?

Another important point from Dr. Tucker is:  “If an athlete cannot acquire a new skill or adaptation rapidly, they’re not going to become elite.” This triggered two questions for me: (1) What is rapidly? and (2) What is elite?

If I am a high school coach, am I going to cut a player because they could not acquire a skill rapidly so they will not become elite? If I did, would I have any players left to coach? How many truly elite athletes does a high school coach coach during a career? As a college coach, which in a sense could be construed as an elite level as it represents the top 3% of all high school players, I might have to decide that a player who is not productive as a high-school senior – a player who lacks skill development, motivation, desire, or whatever – is unlikely to develop the missing ingredient, so P1 is the better choice.

Another argument from Dr. Tucker’s presentation is for delayed talent identification and specialization. He wrote:

Collectively, what this means is that if you are good enough to play at U/13 level, the chance that you’ll make to U/18 level is basically 1 in 4.  Not too good.  If you make it to U/16 level, there’s a 3 in 4 chance that you’ll get to U/18 level.  Much better. 

His argument, then, suggests that choices made about 7th or 8th graders are far less predictive than choices made about 10th or 11th graders. Using this idea, if these players were entering high school as described, a coach would be better served to take P2 despite P1’s better immediate production because P2 has more potential to develop into a star player. However, at the junior-college level, again, this point would seem to suggest that taking the more productive player (P1) is the better choice.

I wonder what would have happened if they had traded schools/coaches as freshmen. Would P1 be even more of a star playing with a far less-talented supporting cast or would she struggle to get the ball? Would P2 have developed similar skills  as P1 developed only with a much longer reach?

Again, I do not have a definitive answer. However, I watch teams who play 5’9 post players despite having 6’3+ 9th, 10th, or 11th graders on the bench, and I wonder if the tall girls will develop or will they wind up like P2 as 6’3+ 12th graders still coming off the bench? Will 5’10 post players continue to receive junior-college scholarships because these taller girls are never given a chance or do the taller girls lack the motivation to create their own chances?

I don’t know. I am not in practice to see the players’ responsiveness to training. However, as an outsider, it is hard to watch average 5’9 players play the post, while 6’3 girls languish on the bench because the 6’3 girls do not develop and the 5’9 girls are not developing the perimeter skills to earn a scholarship (I wouldn’t recruit one of the leading scorers in the area because she is a small 5’9 post who would have to be a SF even at the junior-college level, yet she has shown no SF skills in the 3-4 games that I have seen this season despite the presence of a 6’4 teammate who never plays).

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