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What Mark Cuban is really saying about American basketball players

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His argument about grassroots hoops doesn’t really hold up. After all, the best NBA talent has receipts.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not rare for Mark Cuban to say something controversial. The Dallas Mavericks franchisee isn’t as likely to catch a fine for critiquing referees or the league these days, but he’s still a hot-take machine. Every once in a while, one of the spicier opinions in his arsenal turns some heads.

He did it again this week.

Speaking to Eurohoops.net, Cuban answered a question about Luka Doncic’s electric debut season in the NBA by ... ripping American basketball players.

Here’s the straight question and answer as published by Eurohoops.net.

How important is it that he’s had top basketball experience outside the NBA?

“It is important because you’re used to people being older than you but I think he just learned how to play basketball and that’s the biggest gift. When you’re gifted as he is and you actually learn to play the game. If you look at the basketball education of kids starting at 11 years old in Europe and particularly Slovenia which is basketball oriented.

“If we took our best kids and seven years before they are McDonald’s All-Americans, we sent them over to Slovenia to get an education, the league would be a thousand times better. They just learn how to play basketball while our guys learn how to dunk and put together mixtapes.”

They just learn how to play basketball while our guys learn how to dunk and put together mixtapes.

Who ya talkin’ about, Mark?

Given an opportunity to lavish praise on Doncic as a basketball talent and hard-working youngster, Cuban instead decided to insult the majority of NBA players, including most of his own team’s roster. The Mavericks’ Harrison Barnes, as thoughtful an NBA player as there is, took it sideways.

As a statement, I don’t agree with it. As a joke I don’t find it funny. And frankly I think it doesn’t reflect what makes the NBA special.

The great thing about our league is that the players come from all over the world. We are raised in every background imaginable and bring unique perspectives because of it. We should celebrate that. We bring those perspectives on each other, on issues in our communities and we aren’t afraid to learn from and share those perspectives. That’s our strength.

It’s really hard not to think about Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavericks’ 2017 lottery pick. He was known as a big-time dunker coming into high-level college basketball and the pros. Is Cuban implying that Smith doesn’t know how to play basketball because he came up through the American pipeline?

Does it make any sense at all to critique the skill level of American-born NBA players at a time when the league is more skilled than ever? Look at the best American players in the world right now: LeBron, Steph, Harden, Durant, Kawhi, Anthony Davis. Are these dunk and mixtape guys, or are they guys who, ahem, learned how to play basketball somewhere along the way? These guys could have been better if they’d have been playing against 30-year-olds in Ljubljana instead of competing with peers at AAU tournaments? Come on.

The thing is that those guys came into the league knowing how to play. LeBron was a basketball genius from Day 1 in the NBA. Davis was an immediate hit. Harden took a year-and-a-half to acclimate. Durant thrived once his team lost the coach that put him at two-guard. Kawhi and Curry both looked real good real early, and otherworldly within five years of entering the NBA.

Not all American players can turn AAU-based development into a career. That says more about the exclusivity of the league than it does the path. But then not all European players — who by Cuban’s estimate have that factor-of-1,000 benefit by developing over there — make it either. (Didn’t the Mavericks draft Pavel Podkolzin once upon a time? When are they retiring Rodrigue Beaubois’ jersey?)

Since his quotes began to get blowback, Cuban has taken to Twitter to plead that his critique is for AAU basketball, not the “culture” or the players.

But even if you grant him grace and acknowledge that he’s an exceedingly clumsy (yet willing) speaker, that angle doesn’t really hold up.

To critique AAU basketball the way in which Cuban does shows that you aren’t paying attention to what has changed. Ricky O’Donnell’s vital piece on grassroots basketball earlier this year illustrates it well. The formalization of grassroots by the sneaker companies has actually made the so-called AAU circuit pretty similar to what Doncic experienced in Europe!

The Nike, Under Armour, and Adidas leagues allow top basketball teenagers to play against each other on a regular, predictable basis, allowing recruiters (from NCAA programs and elsewhere) frequent opportunities to see players, their skill development, and their personal growth, no matter where those prospects are from. Doesn’t that sound a lot like what Doncic experienced in Eurocup and Euroleague over the past few years, only with 30-year-olds taking most of the minutes? (Doncic would have gotten a lot of exposure in FIBA competition as well, but then Cuban is an avowed FIBA opponent, so ...)

Cuban is a proponent of the academy system and further professionalizing American teenagers with futures in basketball. This is a major component of AAU basketball: Grassroots makes high-level competition between top prospects (those who would be academy candidates) more frequent and efficient. Cuban laments mixtapes. Getting a few dozen prospects in the same gym for a long weekend decreases the reliance and importance of recruiting mixtapes.

Given that bare reality and Cuban’s clear misunderstanding of what AAU basketball represents these days, it makes it harder to accept his claim that he is not critiquing “the culture.”

This whole kerfuffle really makes me think about three players: Smith Jr., who has every right to be disgusted with his boss’s comments; Doncic, who Cuban is doing no favors by foolishly making him the centerpiece of this America vs. Europe basketball culture war; and Zion Williamson, the prototypical AAU/mixtape/dunk artist prospect, who also happens to be the most electric, and possibly most talented, college player in years.

If Zion Williamson is what’s wrong with American basketball, why would anyone ever want to be right?