LAS VEGAS -- Every July a handful of AAU tournaments in Las Vegas flood the city with hopeful eventual pros. This year, one event brought legitimate NBA stars.
Prowling the sidelines were superstars Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, along with Ty Lawson, Anthony Davis and the newly drafted Victor Oladipo. Former NBA players such as Kenny Smith were getting involved too, all guest-coaching for different teams.
Sounds pretty good, right? So what's the deal? It's called The 8, and a lot of it is Chris Paul's doing; his CP3 organization hosted the event, a sanctioned AAU affair that included eight prominent programs from around the country. Each team playing in The 8 had a connection to the NBAer guest-coaching the club: either the NBA star used to play for the program, such as Anthony Davis with Chicago-based Meanstreets, or the program was specifically formed by the player, such as Chris Paul's CP3 All-Stars out of North Carolina.
The best part about the proceedings was this: Since it was a sanctioned AAU event, every NBA star involved had to be certified to sit on the bench. That meant taking and passing a coaching test. Pretty great. But what of the event and AAU's connection to the NBA these days? What prompted Paul to pull this competition together, and why was it relatively easy to get big names to join in?
It's more than throwing a logo/name on a jersey and hoping that's enough to lure recruits in to build a team. In many corners, AAU basketball is getting a boost in a really positive way because more and more players are remaining connected to their roots with AAU hoops, the platform that gets them into college and is the first real step to knowing whether they're good enough to make the NBA one day.
Whereas AAU was once the direct step to the NBA, the league eliminated the auto-hop to the draft nearly a decade ago, and now we're really seeing for the first time how NBA influence is touching AAU culture in a cultivating way. The bad rap for AAU can't and won't be eliminated entirely but the number of veteran AAU coaches who've been involved for decades make Smith believe AAU as a apparatus for pro prep is still as vital as it was when he was coming through the ranks 30 years back.
"What's the problem with AAU basketball?" Smith said. "I'm lost with that. My thing is, who's gonna put the time in? Your high school coach should be here, but there are very few because they don't get paid much and don't want to put the time in. My brother's been doing it for 20 years and never got a check. We've had 20 lottery picks -- Lamar Odom, Kenny Anderson, Ron Artest -- that have played in our program. They all came through, but my brother never got a dime for them. ... [AAU] has always been here. It's developmental basketball."
Smith did have criticisms of the schedule and setup, however, saying the condensed AAU schedule and all the national travel with so many events makes it nearly impossible to evaluate properly which players fit which systems for which teams. He cited the number of transfers (now more than 450 per year) in the sport as evidence of the way national AAU basketball has hurt college basketball -- in a small way.
"None of those college coaches are that good that they can watch a kid two, three times and know he's going to be the seventh man on your team," Smith said. "It's impossible. I know that. I do it for a living. I feel I'm among the best in the business at it -- and it takes me a while to evaluate talent. ... The NCAA has fostered it. Sixty percent of coaches have told me they've signed kids without seeing them. There's eight tournaments going on right now. If you're here, and there's only three coaches allowed to recruit, how can you see everbody enough? You can't."
Smith recalled his recruitment process. He remembers when current Miami coach Jim Larranaga was an assistant at Virginia. Smith had decided to play for Dean Smith at North Carolina. He dreaded calling Larranaga to tell him the news, and when it finally happened, Smith was in tears on the phone.
"He saw me play just as many times as my dad," Smith said. "He saw every game. I felt like I was quitting my girlfriend, in a sense. Now, there's no relationships, so everyone treats each other like a rental car."
Smith's bully pulpit is more about the AAU-to-college crossover, which has had a litany of critics get louder and louder in the past 10 years. But as for the AAU's relationship to the NBA, this is still relatively new -- and remains a positive endorsement.
"If my name's on it, I want to be a part of it," Paul said. "I was never sponsored, my AAU team, not one year. ... I went to see my [16U] team yesterday and told them, 'How many times y'all knocking on doors, selling donuts? How many car washes are you going to have this year?'"
Paul said he doesn't care so much about winning and losing. It's extremely important to him for every player in his program to enjoy the experience and to get to know him personally. (And from my view, there isn't an NBA player more involved in cultivating a supportive culture within an AAU program than Paul.)
"There's not one kid in my program that can say they don't know me and haven't met me," he said.
Paul started CP3 the year he got to the NBA, in 2005. Since then, slowly but surely -- and more so this year than any other -- NBA players have gone beyond the token act of giving back. They're now getting involved in the scene. It wouldn't be shocking if this event next year doubled to 16 teams.
"What we try to do with our program is make it like a family," Paul said. His parents basically run the show. Mom books the flights and hotels for the team. They're both in the stands for nearly every game a CP3 team plays. His brother has been an assistant coach in the program.
But something like this wasn't done for purely for publicity -- which it's clearly getting here -- but rather to further legitimize the AAU process, if you will. To make the journey something that has more purpose, positive energy and beneficial resources to young players that lacked to a certain degree over the years.
Like it or not, AAU -- on a grand scale -- is necessary to the process of becoming a pro. It's not the same as it was 10 years ago, or 15, or 25. But in a lot of ways it's good for a lot of kids. Paul's event and his motivation to set a new model is the most shining, obvious example of that.