There is no greater honor for an American high school basketball player than to be selected to a USA Basketball team that plays in an international competition.
Every summer, the USA Basketball U16 and U17 teams alternate years in which they travel all over the world, competing for gold medals and spots in future competitions. After those events are completed in June and early July, the July live evaluation period comes along, and three more weeks of basketball is played in front of college coaches.
It’s a grueling stretch for teenagers—some of whom are the best players in the country, with a bright future in the game. With two-a-days through training camp, the stress of playing overseas and then three more weeks competing for scholarship offers, is it too many games over the course of two months of summer?
What is it like to go through training camp, a world championship and fighting for scholarship offers in front of college basketball’s best coaches over a six-week span with little to no breaks? Here’s a breakdown of one of the most stressful stretches of basketball these players will ever face.
Team USA Training Camp
The training camp for this year’s FIBA U17 World Championships was a who’s who of top-50 players from multiple classes. With 36 of the nation’s best prospects in attendance, the camp began Friday, June 10. The field would be cut nearly in half, to 18 finalists, by Sunday afternoon.
Play is very intense through the first days of practice, as each player has to do everything they can to separate themselves from the pack and become a finalist. Cuts will see high-profile, 5-star players not even make it through the weekend as player rankings and past profiles are thrown out the window.
Every player in the camp is talented. The competition, the high stakes and the high altitude in Colorado Springs make it nearly impossible for first-time participants to grab a final roster spot over their more experienced counterparts.
The two-a-day practices continue after first cuts on Sunday, as 18 players have a few more days of practices before the roster is cut down to 12 by Tuesday, June 14. When the finalists take the floor and compete for the 12 roster spots that make up the world championship team, things really pick up. The cream of the crop for the classes of 2017 and 2018 are trying to learn the team’s offensive sets and defensive schemes while doing so in high-altitude training. This is the part that doesn’t get noticed by many fans.
“It’s not easy at all. [People] see the end result and the gold medal but they don’t see the work and the two-a-days and three-a-days that it takes that goes into this,” 5-star guard Gary Trent Jr. said. “You have to have a certain mindset that you want to be great. Everybody here wants to get better, everybody here pushes everybody. So it’s great.”
U17 World Championships
Eight days of training camp in Colorado among the nation’s best leaves the United States well prepared for FIBA competition, but it’s also just the beginning of the important games. Some of these players have never traveled outside the United States and now have to adjust to playing in a foreign country, in a new time zone with different officiating and styles of play.
The Americans are the heavy favorites to win gold, but it will still be a huge adjustment for these teenagers to play in this type of international setting.
“The rules are way different over there. We went over there, the refs don’t really call anything,” 5-star forward Kevin Knox said. “It’s more physical. The fans hate you. So that’s just something that you have to have the right mindset for. You have to have the right mentality going into the games.”
As the favorites to win—and also the squad representing the country in which basketball was founded and is most popular—the American team always has a target on its back when playing overseas.
Attendance grows (especially with NBA personnel, scouts and college coaches) for each American game, while the mere presence of the team elicits huge responses from international fans.
But off the floor, the atmosphere can be very friendly and make the USA players feel like rock stars.
“People just absolutely love our kids when we’re over there. And then when we play, they absolutely hate us,” USA U17 coach Don Showalter said.
“It was kind of weird. The fans, they love you outside the court. They see you and they want to take pictures with you. We went to the mall and they took 500 pictures. Then when we step in the arena it’s all boos and people are throwing stuff at you. You have to have your mind right. It’s all fun and games. Kids love you there when you’re overseas but when you take the court, it changes,” Knox said.
Showalter, a seven-time gold-medal-winning coach with USA Basketball who owns a perfect record in U16 and U17 competition, said American teams have been cursed at, spit on and had stuff thrown at them in foreign tournaments all over the world.
If the USA is to reach the gold-medal game, they’ll have played seven games in an 11-day span.
“It’s an environment that you can’t duplicate [at home],” Showalter said.
July Live Evaluation Weekends
The U17 FIBA World Championship game is scheduled for Sunday, July 3, and the opening day of the July live evaluation period is on Wednesday, July 6.
All of the nation’s top high school prospects play during this July window to earn scholarship offers and validate their national status. Players coming off the FIBA U17 World Championships still have three more five-day stretches of play to complete in the next three weeks. Those who have played for USA Basketball in Spain this summer have had minimal time off since training camp started, and now they have to play for three more weeks after nearly a month away from home.
Not even NBA players travel across an ocean and have to play on a few days’ rest after competing in a major international tournament.
“No question [these kids play too much]. And I think that’s the result of a lot of injuries. [5-star forward Jarred] Vanderbilt’s got a fifth metatarsal stress fracture. I think that’s just from playing in too many games,” Showalter said. “You have growing situations. Kids play too many games. Sixty games is too many in a summer. And then what happens is, they don’t get any skill work done because they’re tired from playing games.”
But playing in high-profile events like Nike’s Peach Jam, the Under Armour Association Finals and the Las Vegas events—headlined by Adidas’ Summer Championships—are a big deal to a lot of these players as they want to stay atop the national rankings while getting scholarship offers.
It leads to some sloppy play and potential injuries. Vanderbilt, Showalter’s example, went through this same USA Basketball stretch last summer and his foot injury often has to do with taking a constant pounding on feet. After being away from home for nearly a month to compete with the FIBA Americas U16 team, Vanderbilt had to get through three more weeks of play in July in front of college coaches. By the end of last summer, Vanderbilt seemed mentally and physically worn out during the Las Vegas events.
“I don’t think I’ve had more than three days off at a time since school ended. It’s been a long summer,” Vanderbilt said at the time.
The many games and commitments of summer basketball have led to some injuries, but the growing concern is that players are logging a lot of games and minutes at 16 and 17 years old that will hurt them later in their careers. If the current system stays the same, then elite players have to pick and choose when to play in order to stay fresh during a difficult stretch of summer.
Many of the elite prospects relish the chance to travel the world, play basketball and build a profile for the future. If USA Basketball and the July live period continue to play a significant part in a prospect’s basketball future, then players will continue to play through the summer and do what is best for that future.
This post originally appeared on Bleacher Report. Copyright 2016.