Are European players more skilled than American Players?

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Last week, Kobe Bryant came out and stated after losing to the Grizzlies that European players are more skillful than American players.

“Horrible, terrible AAU basketball. It’s stupid. It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game at all so you wind up having players that are big and they bring it up and they do all this fancy crap and they don’t know how to post. They don’t know the fundamentals of the game. It’s stupid.” -Kobe Bryant.

Coming from one of the greatest players of all time, surely it must be true? Right? Well…his statement isn’t exactly accurate. He states that AAU basketball is to blame for European players being able to surpass American players in terms of skill. Europe does have a lot of very skilled players coming up in the works, and in recent years have produced a lot of draft picks and young NBA players with tremendous potential. But are they more skillful?

1. AAU is a problem in its current state

AAU has pretty much become a way for star players in high school to play in the off season with other skilled players in their area, region etc. College scouts from around the country attend these games to see how good the youngsters are, and if they could use them on their team in the future. A lot of these kids go out into these AAU leagues and attempt to put on a show. However, there is an issue with this.

The coaches in AAU typically don’t care about the players that they coach. Coming from someone who did play a good amount of basketball at a young age, I have seen a lot of coaches put themselves ahead of the kids that they coached. If these coaches can recruit these great players, they may try to bring a profit from them.

AAU stands for “Amateur Athletic Union”, the word “Professional” is not listed in there. Basketball is very profitable, and now with social media sites like YouTube, a “mixtape” can be released of these kids destroying their competition and get recoginition from big-time companies or college coaches. It’s not about developing their skills to become a better player anymore, it’s about them being used for money.

“Teach players the game at an early age and stop treating them like cash cows for everyone to profit off of,” Bryant said.

2. Youth European basketball is different from Youth American basketball

European teams often use their youth academies to bring up their players, similar to soccer in Europe. They are developed through their system, they practice regularly, and often have their life revolved around the game. They work on their skills for the majority of the week, then go on to play an organized game. The kids in Europe want to be recognized as well for their talent. They don’t have an AAU system in Europe, just a youth system in which there are leagues in their respective countries. Most just play for their local club, while others who stand out may play for a well-known Euroleague club.

3. European players play differently than American players

European players play a different style of play. The fundamentals and team skills are more emphasized there than it is here in the youth system. In a game, the objective is team first, you second.

In Europe, they play very hard defense against their opponents. They get very, very competitive and a lot fouls are usually committed in a Euroleague game. They aren’t jacking up threes every single drive. They want to win, they try to find an open guy, and make him shoot a two if possible or find a big man to get a layup. Scores in Europe don’t get into the triple digits usually, and  in many games, such as the 2012 Euroleague final, they may even struggle to get above 60.

They play team first, and they don’t have one guy who’s scoring 40 points a game practically, or a guy who just takes over the game. There are some that could utterly take over a game and dominate the competition, but they don’t. Why? That’s not the way they were brought up. The Spurs are a prime example, nobody on that team averages above 16 PPG, but the points seem well balanced and everybody contributes evenly in terms of numbers.

4. European players are not on the same level as American players, but are very skillful in other areas

The NBA has had a lot of very, very good European players, such as Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol. But, they still lag behind in producing great young players like the US has been doing since the game was first invented.

This past draft, the top European player who was drafted and came to play in the NBA was Jusuf Nurkic of Bosnia and Herzegovina at 16th overall. Is he better than most of the draft class so far? No, but he has potential to be the regular center in the future for the Nuggets. Does this mean that Europe hasn’t produced any good talent recently? Not at all. Europe has produced a lot of good talents recently, but not as much as the USA has.

In the past three drafts, the USA has produced Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard to name a few. The best talent out of Europe in the past three drafts has been Nikola Vučević, who could be an all-star this season or an all-NBA candidate. Nikola Vučević is one of the hottest players currently, but doesn’t match up to the three players listed out of the US. European players lack a key ability that is crucial in the NBA, athleticism. European players aren’t usually breaking ankles or making acrobatic shots, but they are very good defensively, along with sharing the ball and executing plays. Kobe also stated the reason for the Spurs’ success stems from the European skills they possess.

…that’s the reason why 90 percent of the Spurs’ roster is European players, because they have more skill.” Bryant stated.

They all aren’t European, some are from New Zealand, Argentina, Australia etc. But, they do have a European feel to the game. They don’t flash, show off, they go out there and get the job done. Duncan, Parker and Ginobilli may be the most boring trio to watch, but they are the deadliest one in recent years. They’re about fundamentals and just winning the game. The team has a sense of togetherness, they play great defense, and they share the ball…a lot, even Duncan. They go out there and get the job done, that’s what European players do. They don’t flash or show off, they come to play and win, that’s it.

European players have a big presence in the NBA today, some even with MVP awards. However, Americans are the most dominant country in this sport currently. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis etc. are all American players that compete for the MVP award nearly every season. They make more shots, more athletic,

But the youth systems are getting much, much better outside the US. Australia has made a rise in the past few years and produced Ben Simmons and Dante Exum. The U17 national team nearly beat the US in the FIBA U17 World Championship last year. Serbia was the only European side to actually come relatively close to beating the US in that tournament. Even in the Olympics, Spain has nearly edged the US in the final in the past two tournaments. They are good, but not as good as the US. Soccer is the main sport in nearly every country in Europe, that is the main source of sporting entertainment in the continent, but basketball is not far behind.

The big question out of all this: is Kobe right? Well he’s right on some points, just not every point. European players are getting much better, but Americans do surpass them overall at this point in time. AAU is not what it should be, he’s right about that. Are they more skilled? At this point, no, but times could change.