There are a lot of differences between professional sports leagues in Europe and the United States, but the biggest might be how they view amateur talent. As far as the NBA is concerned, they have no responsibility or need to develop players before they are drafted. In contrast, clubs like FC Barcelona spread a vast net around the world to find the best young talent and then carefully nurture them into stars; Lionel Messi, for example, enrolled in their famed "La Cantera" academy at the age of 12.
With NBA franchises not investing resources in youth development, shoe companies have emerged to fill the void. Over the last 20 years, AAU basketball has become a big industry, going from a summer diversion to the main way young players learn the game in the United States. There are a lot of things wrong with the underground economy that has been created in the process, but from a purely basketball perspective, Georgetown sophomore Otto Porter is Exhibit A in the case against it.
Porter is an anomaly in the college game, an NBA prospect who did not play in the summer circuit. His father, a legendary player in his own right, saw no need to send his son traveling around the country to play in glorified scrimmages. Instead, he kept him at home over the summer, where he played against his older cousins and uncles in their small Missouri town.
And if you watch him play, it's easy to see how he differs from most of his counterparts. For a college sophomore, Porter is an incredibly polished player: he has a well-rounded game, rarely plays out of control and knows how to play without the basketball in his hands. That's partly the result of his time playing in John Thompson III's Princeton-style offense at Georgetown, but it's mainly because Porter is a skilled player with a high basketball IQ.
He has a "European" game. European players, in general, spend most of their time as young players developing skills, not scrimmaging. And when they do play in serious basketball games, they play up against older competition. Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors talented young rookie from Lithuania, was a professional competing against grown men at the age of 16.
In contrast, the best American big men spend most of their teenage years flying around the country and dunking on overmatched competition. Dwight Howard and Derrick Favors, to pick two names out of a hat, gained very little from their time dominating 6'5 post players as teenagers. What they learned is what they could get by solely on their athletic ability and that they were bigger (literally) than the games they were playing in.
Porter, while he wasn't competing against professionals, did have the advantage of constantly playing against his older family members growing up (courtesy of USA Today):
Once Otto started playing with them, he started to learn how fundamentally sound he had to be to compete against men who were bigger and stronger. He learned to anticipate the next play before it happened. "That's where I gained most of (my mental toughness) from," Porter says. "If I get fouled by them, I have to toughen up and just play through it."
You don't get better from playing in an endless number of blowouts. If anything, you get worse. You get better from practicing your craft and relentlessly honing your skills, than testing it out against better competition. It's Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule.
The great lie behind the entire AAU basketball system is that young players need exposure. That, if they have the talent, they need to be ranked in the top 100 at the age of 15. That the only way for a 16-year-old to get better at basketball is to play the best 16-year-olds in the country.
Otto Porter went to high school in a town of 17,000 in eastern Missouri. The only big games he played in were at the lowest level of Missouri high school basketball. It didn't stop him from playing in the Big East and it won't stop him from having a long NBA career.
If you are over 6'8 and you can play basketball, college coaches will find you, anywhere in the world. And if a college coach can find you, so can NBA scouts.
Instead of worrying about being overlooked, young players should worry about having something to show when they are found. With that, here's our first NBA Draft Toolbox of the season, looking at Porter and his Hoyas teammates.
Shot creation: Porter is a skilled 6'8, 205-pound small forward with an advanced mid-range game. He gets most of his points within the flow of the offense, but his go-to move is posting up and using his length to get off nearly incontestable shots from anywhere within 15-18 feet off the rim. At the next level, he'll need to put on weight in order to establish post position against bigger defenders. (13 points a game on 52 percent shooting, 2.5 free throws attempted)
Shooting: Porter is a good shooter, but what stands out is the quality of shots he gets. He rarely forces the action in order to take a contested 20+ footer, a common problem with many 6'8+ wings who make the game harder than it needs to be. Nevertheless, since he won't be a primary offensive option in the NBA, he'll need to continue refining his spot-up 3-point shot in order to space the floor. (Shooting 50/54/67, 0.5 three-pointers a game)
Defense: He has quick feet and long arms (7'1 wingspan) on a 6'8 frame, which should allow him to match up with players at the 2 and the 3. As he gains weight, he may eventually become a small-ball 4. At the college level, Porter is a terror as a help-side defender, particularly in Georgetown's 2-3 zone defense, with his length and feel for the game allowing him to fill up a box score. (2.4 steals, 1.6 blocks a game)
Rebounding: Porter's length, athleticism and activity allow him to clear the glass at a high level for a small forward. (Averaging 6.9 rebounds a game)
Passing: Like most of Thompson's Hoya players, Porter is a pass-first player with excellent vision who knows how to find the open man. He also has the ability to run the pick-and-roll, which is very intriguing for a 6'8 player. (Averaging 3.4 assists on 1.4 turnovers a game)
Best case: Andrei Kirilenko
Worst case: Josh Childress
Long Term Prospects
Greg Whittington: An athletic 6'8, 210-pound sophomore wing currently playing in Porter's shadow. Like Porter, he has the length and athleticism to defend multiple positions at the next level and stuff a box score. His game, meanwhile, is becoming more polished under Thompson's direction. The main thing he will need to work on going forward is his offensive efficiency, especially his outside shot. (11 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 steal, 1 block on 46/29/47 shooting)
Mikael Hopkins: A feisty and tenacious 6'9, 225-pound sophomore big man. His length and activity gave Cody Zeller some trouble in Georgetown's OT loss to Indiana. On the offensive side of the ball, he's a good passer out of the post. However, he may end up being a "4.5": not big enough to be a 5, not skilled enough to be a 4. He'll need to dramatically improve his rebounding as well as his perimeter jumper to play at the next level. Dante Cunningham (Villanova/Minnesota Timberwolves) is a good model for him. (9 points, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal 1 block on 41/0/53 shooting)
D'Vauntes Smith-Rivera: A 6'3, 225-pound freshman point guard who was ranked No. 32 in the country coming out of high school. In the limited minutes I've seen him play, he seems to have a good feel for the game. You can throw out his statistics: he's still trying to figure out his role on the team and the college game in general. He might be worth checking out again at the end of the season. Great name.
Stephen Domingo: A 6'7, 200-pound freshman wing. I haven't seen him play and he doesn't get many minutes, but he was a well-regarded 4-star recruit. With Whittington and Porter getting so many minutes, he likely won't get much of a chance to play until 2013.