Luka Doncic is one of thé sensations of this current NBA season. On his way to become Rookie of the Year, he’s breaking one record after the other, making clutch shots and decisions as a veteran. His age? 19 years old. Looking backwards, it seems incomprehensible that he was only selected as a 3rd pick in the NBA draft. It has been overlooked too much that Doncic was already at this age a proven player against adults (MVP of the Euroleague, MVP Euroleague Final Four, winner Eurobasket, MVP of the Spanish’ ACB, …). Well, the reason Doncic plays as an experienced player is because he is … an experienced player.
At the age of 13, Doncic left his home country Slovenia to sign a 5-year contract for Real Madrid. After some successful years in one of the best youth programs in the world, he played his first minutes in the Spanish ACB when he just turned 16 years old. During that first season in the Spanish D1, I had the chance to have a look behind the scenes with Coach Pablo Laso and Real Madrid for a couple of days in preparation to El Clasico, the match-up with big rival FC Barcelona. A neutral fan attending practice and the game would never be able to identify the 16 year old, because he was treated and respected 100% as a rotation player. Even in the game, playing minutes when the game was on the line and not the traditional garbage time when the game is decided. Only his babyface could reveal his age :-).
Another example is Ricky Rubio (currently Utah Jazz), who was only 14 years and 11 months old when he played his first ACB game. In Belgium for example, at that age you’re not allowed to play on any seniors team. It makes you reflect about things.
In how many leagues do you see talented youngsters on the bench for mediocre import players? Youngsters can join practice, but are waiting icecold on the side, and have to step in whenever one of the dozen import players is out with an injury. Things get even worse when teams are chanceless to win the game or a title, but still the coach prefers to let an import player on the court in order to soften the loss or to end 6th instead of 8th in the ranking. It is better for his CV, since very often in professional basketball, coaches are evaluated based upon short term results instead of the process. At the same time such an import player is either very good and will leave the club next year to a better league, or either he’s not good enough and will be replaced anytime soon in a “hire and fire”-policy. Some clubs struggle to bond with a solid fan base over the years, because fans have to do effort of getting to know too often new and mediocre import players. Of course in such leagues the import players add an extra value to the product of basketball. And they help the youngsters by raising the level of basketball.. But it is all about finding a good balance between homegrown talents and quality import players.
Too easily, young talents get the label of “not being ready yet” and they are stalled in some kind of waiting room of the pro team. In Holland they created the Dutch Talent League, a U23 competition (with on top two exceptions allowed for U25 players) in order to enhance and facilitate Dutch talents to make it to the D1 domestic league. In my modest opinion, this DTL is for 95% filled with players that will never play a significant role in D1… To compare it with France, the “espoir” competition is limited to the U20 age group, being part of an obligatory Centre de Formation for all professional clubs with all kinds of regulations (professional coach with coaching degree, minimum/maximum number of hours of practice a week, …). In Belgium for example, this juniors (U21) level almost bleeded to death. Talents play rather in a second team / farm team in D2 or D3 against adult players then on the juniors level, since the competition is simply not good enough. In recent talks between Belgium and the Netherlands about a “BeNeLeague”, the modalities of a possible talent league or regulations for young talents to play with a double affilation deserve some deeper reflections.
Probably not every club has the next Luka Doncic or Ricky Rubio playing for them. Youngsters need to showcase their potential and their desire to go all the way with the chances they get. But I truely believe that if these conditions are fulfilled, a young player needs to get his chance. At the highest possible level he has to potential for. And that he gets the chance to make mistakes and learn from it. Basketball experience cannot be taught, you pick it up by doing, by struggling and by learning from mistakes. This appeared a proven pathway for the most promising players by the best powerhouses in Europe.
Belgian talent Haris Bratanovic made a smart choice in choosing FC Barcelona as his next destination after D3 BEL Falco Gent. Smart because of the policy of Barça regarding young talents. So far, Bratanovic has been playing on the U18 team, participating on the ANGT Euroleague tournaments and gets his chance with Barça’s 2nd team in LEB Gold (D2), which is a huge level. Another example is the 17 year old Franz Wagner (younger brother of 2018 draftee of the Lakers), playing for ALBA Berlin. Franz does get his chance on the first team, in the German BBL as well as the EuroCup, and plays extra minutes for Bernau in Pro B (D3). Oh, and his coach? A certain Aito Garcia Reneses, the one that launched Ricky Rubio in the ACB at the age of 14…
Young players nowadays are often blamed for not putting basketball as #1 on their priority list. Maybe that question should be reversed. How many talents lose their desire along the road within because they realize step by step that they will always come behind some mediocre import players? While such a young gun on your squad is cheaper, boosts your youth program, pumps your fan base and is more valuable to your club on the longer run. Don’t put them in an eternal waiting room hoping he’ll be “ready” (read: make no rookie mistakes). Any proven player was one day a rookie and made rookie mistakes. Which young gun deserves a chance in your club?
Visiting Real Madrid & El Clasico (Dec 2015)