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The NBA & Player Development

According to Pete Thamel's story in today's NY Times, the NBA may soon open a "European-style basketball academy" to develop American basketball talent.

Six months after N.B.A. Commissioner David Stern called for reform in the American youth basketball system, he said a collaborative effort to bring about change was making incremental progress. David Stern, the N.B.A. commissioner, said an academy for young, elite players could be opened by 2008.

Part of that effort took a step forward yesterday when Stern and Adam Silver, the N.B.A.'’s deputy commissioner, toured IMG Academies in Florida for ideas on how to create a European-style basketball academy for young, elite American players. IMG has trained and educated top players in tennis, soccer and basketball for years.

In a telephone interview Friday, Stern said he could envision an academy opening by 2008. He said he liked setting "crisp dates" to "keep the process moving."

"We'’re not kidding around here," he said.

The idea for an academy came about because of lagging performances by the United States in international competition and, Stern said, because the American system has "exploited and exposed" talented players "all the way up."

I'm a bit puzzled by this. In European soccer, there is no draft, and competition for playing talent extends to talented youngsters who are many years from competing as professionals. This forces the top teams into training twelve-year old kids, investing in their education, and so on. The best clubs reportedly do a good job at it. At the national level, academies have been created for elite talent. The French system is credited with developing the talent which made the national team one of the best in the world the past decade.

So if the objective is to improve the national team, one can make a case for substantial investment in training elite talent. The return on investment would be success in international competition.

IMG presumably makes a handsome profit developing tennis players and the like. The expense is financed by parents and sponsors, fueled by the expected earnings of the elite talent they help develop.

But in the case of the NBA, it is not clear where the league will obtain a return on investment. Unlike European soccer clubs, the NBA is not forced by competition to invest in teenagers - the league benefits from omposing the draft. The NBA take the results of others' investments in player development, throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world. From this mostly decentralized model, the NBA has been able to put on an amazing display of basketball talent.

Perhaps the cost of an academy is so modest that the NBA can take a chance that its investment will trigger changes to a flawed system of player development. But that seems a remote possibility to me. And I don't see it increasing the level of skill on the floor of NBA games by a measurable degree. I may have blinders on, but my sense is that this endeavor has a Don Quixote-like aspect to it. What's in it for the NBA? Is David Stern tilting at windmills?