Ever since Kawhi Leonard sat out Wednesday night’s nationally televised game between the Los Angeles Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks, the load-management debate has dominated headlines.
Former Phoenix Suns head coach Earl Watson weighed in on Wednesday, pointing out that today’s players typically have a lot of AAU miles on their body and that leads to injuries (and the need for rest) later in life when they’re in the NBA. He pointed out that kids sometimes play “12-15 games a weekend to keep the monthly fees validated.”
HoopsHype reached out to a number of NBA players and executives to get their thoughts on whether youth-basketball wear and tear is part of the reason why some of today’s stars opt for load management.
“Yeah, we played a lot in AAU; it’s a little much,” Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine told HoopsHype. “When I was playing, it was sometimes three-to-four [games] a day. It’s why, I think, some kids are getting knee injuries at a young age too. But I can see it both ways, because playing those games helps us find out who we are and let us experiment with our game. I wish I did get more fundamental teaching before college, though.”
“I never personally looked at it that way. But looking back on it, AAU was a grind and a half – but a necessary one,” Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner told HoopsHype. “You’re out there fighting for your future, so you don’t really think about the effect it has on your body when you’re 13 years old, 14 years old, 15 years old; you just hoop.
“But I think load management is a smart play in today’s league. The old-school cats won’t agree because they were forced to push through a lot more than we’ve had to with a lot less technology, so I can see their frustrations. But at the end of the day, we’re trying to have long, successful careers and I’m all for [doing] whatever that takes.”
When asked if there should be a limit on the number of AAU games, especially since he pointed out that kids often don’t consider the long-term effects, Turner isn’t sure that’s the answer either.
“I mean, not really,” Turner added. “Maybe for the top recruits whose futures are set with college [scholarships] and whatnot. But you still have thousands of hungry kids who are trying to make it to college and get scholarships, and the more chances they have to play, the more chances they have to impress scouts.”
Orlando Magic center Nikola Vucevic was born in California, moved to Montenegro as a teenager and then returned to the United States for his senior year of high school. After witnessing how youth sports are handled in the United States versus overseas, he’s not a fan of AAU basketball.
“I agree that kids are being overworked at a young age,” Vucevic told HoopsHype. “Parents push kids too hard to succeed and hire all these fake basketball coaches who don’t teach them how to play the game the right way. Kids have to have fun first while they play, and not [have someone] make it a business for them right away.
“AAU is bad for basketball. It ends up being a one- or two-man show where kids just play one-on-five and don’t learn how to play the game right way. It’s teaching them bad habits.”
Do today’s players rest more because they grew up with AAU basketball, unlike their predecessors? Vucevic isn’t sure, but he does agree that overuse is a concern in youth sports.
“You can’t really compare players from before and now; it’s just a different time and different generations,” Vucevic said. “It’s hard to compare that. But I do think that overworking kids since a young age can have a negative effect on them in different ways.”
Keyon Dooling, who played 13 years in the NBA, compares today’s NBA stars who choose load management to MLB pitchers. In both cases, teams are saving them for key games and moments (and trying to limit the wear and tear on their bodies) because of how much they impact a game and how valuable they are when healthy.
“Look at baseball: the pitchers make a great deal of money, but in their game, it’s accepted that you can only pitch every four games or every 11 days,” Dooling told HoopsHype. “That’s accepted, even though they’re getting paid a lot of money to pitch. In basketball, we’re finding new norms and we have more information about what works best as far as longevity and effectiveness over the course of a season.”
Dooling believes that we should always try to improve AAU and learn from new information about player durability. However, he’s hesitant to place the load-management blame solely on youth sports, while pointing out that AAU has done a lot of good for the NBA as well.
“I think there’s more than one answer. I think there are a lot of great youth coaches,” Dooling said. “To be honest, the most undervalued coaching demographic in our country is youth coaches because usually before colleges start recruiting you, there’s some youth coach who has been working hard for you and he’s often just doing this because he’s passionate and loves the game. To try to exclude those coaches would be detrimental to the players who come from that environment, the players who have been the most successful in the NBA. I think you have to be very careful with that. But we definitely need more teaching in our game. We definitely need more teaching, more coaching, more fundamentals; I do think that would help our youth.
“But we also can’t deny how much exposure AAU has given us. To say that AAU hasn’t served our game in a real way is to turn a blind eye to the impact of guys like Sonny Vaccaro, George Raveling from Nike and Howard Garfinkel from Five-Star Basketball. AAU has served us well from an exposure standpoint and it stimulated the economy around youth sports. You always want to improve on systems, but we can’t deny how much good AAU has done for our game as well.”
Dooling admits that playing a lot of AAU games at a young age could be affecting players down the line, but he also knows that an 82-game season is a grind and thinks that could be part of the problem too.
“There’s more than one right answer. I definitely think the amount of games that youth players play has an impact, but I also think that 82 games for NBA players is a lot of games,” Dooling said. “I think there are a lot of teams that take the pre-hab, preventative approach because they also know that 82 games is a very long season and that injuries happen.”
Shortening the NBA season may seem like a great suggestion, but the league (and the players) would lose out on a lot of money in that scenario. Dooling pointed this out too, saying that the league’s BRI (Basketball Related Income) would be significantly impacted and there would be other unintended consequences, so that’s not the solution.
NBA executives seem split on this load-management debate. Some agree that AAU games absolutely impact players later in life and potentially cause adulthood injuries. One Western Conference assistant general manager expressed his concern and said this is something his organization has discussed internally.
“The amount of AAU games is not the only reason, but it’s certainly a large contributory factor,” the Western Conference assistant GM said. “We’ve discussed this issue with our sports performance group many times and it seems that in addition to the AAU factor, there seems to be evidence that athletes who focus on only one sport at an earlier age have shown to be more injury-prone than multi-sport athletes.”
Baxter Holmes of ESPN wrote an in-depth piece about this and interviewed experts whose research supports the conclusion that single-sport athletes are more injury-prone. (Watson retweeted the article on Thursday). One study cited by Holmes showed that multi-sport athletes are 125 percent more likely to sustain an overuse injury (such as a bone, cartilage or ligament injury).
The Western Conference assistant GM said that during the pre-draft process, his team actually looks into a player’s youth-sports history to see whether they were a one-sport child and how much wear and tear may be on their body from their AAU days (although teams “don’t have enough data yet to make conclusive decisions based on this alone”). This is becoming more and more common. When a team is drafting a player (especially in the first round), they’re making a big investment and the ability to tell if a player is more injury-prone is extremely valuable to a front office.
Other executives completely disagree with Watson’s argument and the idea of load management in general.
“I don’t buy that players need to rest at all, for the most part,” said a Western Conference executive. “Some people feel this will become the new norm in the NBA, but I’m not so sure. I think the best players tend to take pride in playing every game. Load management results in losing and people thinking you’re soft.”
At the end of the day, this is an issue that’s always going to be divisive, which is why it continually resurfaces with no clear-cut solution.