Inside Australia’s Basketball Talent Factory
Posted by Dean Holden at November 27th, 2015
by Kieran Pender and Elliot Williams, 31 October 2015
By any measure Australian basketball is on the rise, and the centre deserves its share of credit. Three Australians have earned NBA championship rings in the past two seasons, while the most recent finals series pitted the Golden State Warriors’ Bogut against compatriot Matthew Dellavedova of the Cleveland Cavaliers. History was made in January when four Australians shared the floor, and this on-court success has fuelled considerable interest at home – Australia has the largest number of League Pass subscribers outside North America.
In total, seven Australians will begin the 2015-16 season on an NBA roster: Bogut, Dellavedova, Ingles (Utah Jazz), Dante Exum (Utah Jazz), Patty Mills (San Antonio Spurs), Aron Baynes (Detroit Pistons) and Cameron Bairstow (Chicago Bulls). Every single one attended the Centre.
With exciting prospects Ben Simmons and Thon Maker due to join the league within two years – the former is currently projected as 2016’s No1 draft pick – the burgeoning Australian contingent could soon reach double digits. Newsweek even asked recently: “Is Australia Basketball’s Next Powerhouse?”
The nation’s female program has also had considerable success, medalling at every Olympics since 1996 and producing numerous top players. Standouts Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor both starred in the WNBA, collecting five championships and 10 All-Star nominations between them, while many others have followed in their footsteps. It is no surprise then that Australia currently sits fourth on the combined world rankings produced by international governing body Fiba, behind only the United States of America, Spain and France.
The significance of these achievements is amplified by two factors. With just over 23 million people the nation is smaller than Texas. As Basketball Australia has previously noted: “This success is a phenomenal feat from a country with a relatively small population and is testament to the strength of the development programs and pathway in Australia.” Consider also that basketball lags behind the likes of rugby, cricket and Australian Rules football in popularity, and swimming, football and cycling from a participation perspective, and the sport’s current vibrancy thousands of miles from its American epicenter appears a minor miracle.
How to understand and explain this impressive success? A sunny spring day spent at the Centre of Excellence, known previously as the Australian Institute of Sport basketball program until a name and governance change in 2013, provides plenty of answers.
It was July 1976, and the sports-loving Australian public were not happy. “Australia’s Golden Days Have Gone” cried one newspaper headline, after the nation’s athletes had failed to win a single gold medal at the Montreal Olympics. Australia finished the competition ranked 32nd, behind even neighbors New Zealand, causing serious self-reflection for a country that had long prided itself on sporting prowess.
Several years of politicking later, the Australian government announced its decision to proceed with the long-recommended creation of a national institute of sport. Driven by minister for home affairs Bob Ellicott QC, a campus was built in the Canberra neighborhood of Bruce and programs were established for eight key sports: swimming, athletics, netball, basketball, tennis, football, weightlifting and gymnastics. On 26 January 1981, Australia’s national day, prime minister Malcolm Fraser opened the Institute by predicting that the work of coaches and athletes undertaken there would “carry Australia’s name high”.
Influenced by American, Soviet and Yugoslav models, the two initial basketball coaches Dr Adrian Hurley and Patrick Hunt began crafting a program to accelerate player development, with future Olympic triumph the primary ambition.
“When we first started we worked with 18- and 19-year-olds, and had some reasonable success,” explains Hunt. “But we reviewed the process after 1984 and thought we weren’t having the influence or impact on the players that was needed to equip them to play at the international level.”
The decision was made to move down an age bracket, selecting 15 to 18-year-old school kids from around the country and bringing them to Canberra. A gangly Victorian joined the program in 1986, and would soon become perfect proof of product when he was picked at No7 in the 1991 NBA draft. That teenager, Longley, would go on to play alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen during Chicago’s championship three-peat of the late 1990s.
Fast forward to the present, and little has changed since Hunt and colleagues began developing wave after wave of top Australian basketball players. While the coach no longer works directly with the centre – he is President of the World Association of Basketball Coaches and chairman of Fiba’s technical commission – he regularly stops by to cast an eye on the latest crop of talent. 34 years since the program’s inception, those founding principles explicated by Hunt and Hurley remain central to its mission.
“We are dedicated to producing future Boomers and Opals,” explains Paul Goriss, who coached the men’s program from 2003 to 2013 and is now associate head coach of the women. “We identify players that have the potential to be senior national team representatives, and put them in a daily training environment at that key development stage. We give them the best of basketball training, strength and conditioning, education, physiotherapy and nutrition in an environment where they can focus almost exclusively on their own individual skills, because how the team performs is not so important.”
That latter point is a key factor highlighted by Gorris and his men’s team counterpart, Adam Caporn. While high schoolers in the United States are trying to win tournaments and impress college recruiters, Centre of Excellence players are shielded from the spotlight and compete against opposition often twice their age in the South East Australian Basketball League. It follows that development rather than success is the primary motivation.
“This place is designed to improve athletes without anything else involved,” says Caporn, who came through the program himself and more recently was an assistant coach at Saint Mary’s College in California. “That seems really simple, but everywhere else I have been has had some other agenda – whether that is winning the professional season or creating opportunities for college scholarships. At the centre we are uninhibited by all that – we have a singular mission to develop great players.”
A positive consequence of this non-results-driven system – Caporn jokes “my job does not depend on the weekend’s game” – is that players are taught to develop their entire skill set, not just positional attributes. Program graduate Bogut has previously spoken about the benefit of this approach to his later career, telling Bleacher Report: “I was taught to handle the ball at an early age. I was taught to be able to play all five positions as a young fella. Believe it or not, I used to shoot threes at a good clip up until I was 19 or 20”.
The NBA is rapidly embracing small-ball basketball, a development epitomised by the success of Bogut’s Warriors last season. As a result, power forwards and centers with ball-handling and shooting ability are at a premium. In light of the holistic approach employed by the Centre to multi-skill their athletes, Australian imports may become an even more valuable commodity in the future.
Indeed, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant is a big admirer of international players, recently suggesting that the American system is lagging behind. “It doesn’t teach our kids how to play the game,” he despaired to ESPN. “It’s a big problem for us because we’re not teaching players how to play all-round basketball.” The Centre’s desire to foster such a broad skill set even extends to teaching the players how to tape their own ankles before games – long-time senior physiotherapist Tony Ward notes: “We are trying to make them well-rounded athletes.”
Such an approach does however necessitate a demanding schedule for the players. As young guard Anneli Maley explains: “On an average day we might have a 6.30am start for weights, followed by an individual skills workshop. Then we go to school, and if we have any gaps during the day we will schedule in a physio or nutrition appointment. Then we usually have team training in the afternoon for two hours, and school study in the evening. Of course you’ll put in your own work as well – you have to be self-motivated.”
Observing a meeting between Goriss and his many service providers – psychologists, physiologists, recovery experts and more – a genuine interest in the players’ wellbeing beyond the court became immediately apparent. It is easy to forget that these young athletes are also dealing with the constant pressures of everyday teenage life, and the Centre’s entire team embraces a pastoral care role. Caporn, meanwhile, told his players during a team meeting that they would not be good basketball players unless they ate their vegetables.
One of the service providers in attendance, Personal Excellence Senior Adviser Bronwyn Bock Jonathan, explains: “Our role is to support Basketball Australia to empower the athletes. We help them navigate the high performance system and equip them to make informed decisions when dealing with the contemporary issues they face. In a residential environment this involves ensuring they have an atmosphere that is conducive to high performance behaviours.”
This holistic support allows the Centre to fulfil a higher-level function – helping the young athletes mature into well-rounded individuals. Hunt sums it up best. “Excellence in basketball and excellence in life,” he explains, have always been their dual goals. “To look back and see that these people are not only fantastic basketball players, but incredible young men and women is very satisfying.”
The program certainly impressed American college coach Cuonzo Martin, who visited the centre with his California Golden Bears in August. While Berkeley’s team featuring top prospects Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb bettered their understrength opposition in a training game, the Australians performed admirably against players several years their senior.
“The centre has great facilities and great resources – everything athletes need to be successful,” explained Martin before the game. “And it’s not just basketball – you have a lot of Olympic sports here – the best athletes in the country in one place training to get better. That produces a great atmosphere and a great culture.”
Cal was not the only college team to journey across the Pacific this pre-season, with Yale and Louisiana State University also visiting. The latter’s star new recruit Simmons is an outlier in the Australian basketball system, having spent just three months at the Centre of Excellence before departing for a sports-oriented high school in Florida.
“I left early because it just was not for me, and headed over to the United States to play,” Simmons told the Guardian US in August. “There are more options than just the [Centre], and I have tried to show everyone that – give hope to players who want to come over here and do their thing.”
This new pathway, bypassing the Centre of Excellence in favour of American high schools, may eventually threaten the institution’s position at the pinnacle of Australian basketball’s development hierarchy. Nicholas Lagios has a well-informed opinion on the subject – he has worked at Stanford University and now provides analysis for domestic club the Sydney Kings while intermittently assisting with the Australian youth national team programs. Although he speaks glowingly of the centre, he admits: “Playing at high school level in the United States is going to be pretty attractive to a 16 or 17-year-old trying to make it in basketball, especially if they go to a major program with big exposure every single weekend.”
While the centre’s staff do not appear overly concerned and are instead buoyed by the success of their graduates – Goriss in particular coached every Australian currently in the NBA except Bogut, they are determined to keep improving. Program ownership has recently switched from the Australian Institute of Sport to Basketball Australia, reflecting broader changes in the nation’s sporting landscape. This has facilitated direct involvement from Andrej Lemanis and Brendan Joyce, respective head coaches of the Boomers and the Opals. Goriss hopes this new structure – a world away from the American system where Team USA boss Mike Krzyzewski would have little contact with most players until they become NBA regulars – will reap rewards at future tournaments.
“I think the calibre of athletes that we are producing demonstrates that no fundamentals need to change, but there is always room for improvement,” he says. “I think the recent transition, with Andrej and Brendan now based here full-time, has created a stronger relationship with the national team and that is only going to benefit the players going forward.”
History runs deep at the Centre of Excellence, as does the program’s connection with the NBA and WNBA. Of the 15 Australian men to play in the league since Longley broke new ground with his 1991 Minnesota Timberwolves debut, only two did not spend time at the Centre (excluding Ricky Grace and Darnell Mee who were naturalised after beginning their careers elsewhere). Similarly, 23 of the 31 Australians to grace the WNBA began their basketball careers with a stint in Canberra.
This long and proud tradition is instilled in new recruits almost immediately following their arrival, and was consistently referenced by players and coaches alike during the Guardian US’s visit. The hallway leading to the training courts is filled with framed photographs of past graduates, a daily reminder for current players of the legacy they are tasked to uphold.
“It shows that there is no excuse, with the resources we have at our disposal, not to get to the highest level, to represent our country and even play in the NBA,” admitted the centre’s Jack White, a 6ft 6in wing from Victoria. “It is definitely encouraging to see these guys who have achieved what we are aiming for – we can follow that path and learn from them.”
White and his team-mates know that if they perform at the highest level, future generations will aspire to replicate their success while using the same locker or glancing at their image on the way to training. If they achieve true greatness, they too might have a walkway named after them in a secluded corner of Australia’s capital city.
Category: academics, age-appropriateness, analytics, athleticism, career counselling, coaching culture, competition, deliberate practice, education, evaluation, expertise, LTAD, metrics / measures, motivation, olympics, passion, philosophy, planning / periodization, scouting, skill acquisition, Skills, sporting culture, talent, talent ID, talent selection, work ethic