While reading 'Sports Gene' by SI reporter, David Epstein, I was compelled to touch on the obvious correlation between early introduction to basketball and the best players in the country.Though I am only in the early chapters, Epstein recites a well known study of "elite" violin players and what separates them, makes for an immediate comparison to youth girls basketball. Epstein invokes a study in which 30 young elite violin players were separated into 3 groups: 10 that will go on to be international soloists, 10 that will make a good living in symphonies and orchestras, and 10 that will go on to be music teachers. All 30 are "elite", but what separates the elite from the Elite?
One of the fathers of the best prospects in the country tweeted the above picture. This 2006 picture features players that were between the ages of 10-12 years old. It includes: Brianna Turner(Notre Dame bound/Consensus Top 3 player), Brooke McCarty (Texas bound/Consensus/Top 20 player), Brittany Branch(SFA), Alex Lapeyrolerie (Univ of New Mexico), Page Tippett(Columbia bound) Gondrezicks Sisters(Consensus Top 100 players), LuLu McKinney(Dozens of D1 offers), Dominique Dillingham(Mississippi State),Veja Hamilton (TCU).
This picture is remarkable in that 10 of the 14 kids went onto become Division 1 players, two are probable All-Americans. As these 2006 Houston Hotshots showed, H-Town is flooded with talent. However, pictures like this one can be found all over the country. Early specialization is such a nasty word in many circles yet the story can be repeated time and time again. IT SEEMS that Elite players pursue the elite path early in their formidable years.
While the Hot Shots were charting their path, the 2007 Martin Luther King Classic, held in an Orange County California gym, assembled some of the best young talent in country. Current Atlanta Dream GM and HC Fred Williams and current UW assistant Kevin Morrison came to watch these 10-12 year old elite girls compete! From LA to the OC to the IE, an area covering approximately 60 miles, hindsight shows the collection of talent was very impressive. Three particular teams featured at least 14 Division 1 players, 20 plus college bounds players and 5 potential All-Americans.
The best young team in LA was GBL, featuring Jordin Canada(UCLA bound/Consensus Top 10), Lajahna Drummer(Consensus Top 10) and Kendall Cooper(Duke/All-American).
NJB Stars 2007 National AAU Champs
The OC's best team, NJB Stars, featured, Arica Carter(Top 100), Jada Matthews(Considering OK St, UNM, Utah among others) Andee Valasco (Top 100), Kahlia Lark(Fresno State), Sabrina Callahan(UCSB) Justyce Dawson(D1 offers) Bianca Velasco(D1 offers)
The IE's best team, Corona Lady Diamonds, featured Recee' Caldwell(UCLA bound/Consensus Top 10), Chyenne Butler(USC bound /Top 60) Monique Billings(Consensus Top 25), Cherice Harris(Univ of Arizona bound).
These three teams battled each other almost every weekend during club season, creating an environment where iron continuingly sharpened iron.
About the same time in San Antonio, the best pre-middle school team was a talent laden Schertz Jaguar squad that featured McKenzie Calvert(Consensus Top 50) Kyra Lambert(Consensus Top 10) Ashley Ross(Numerous D1 offers), Erica Sanders(Former Texas Tech commit). In a younger age group in the city of SA, a 4th grade Amber Ramirez(Consensus Top 10) would frequently face off against a 3rd grade Kiana Williams( multiple D1 offers before HS).
Again, dozens of teams across the country featured the same dynamics. I venture to say that a VERY small number of college bound prospects in recent graduating classes were NOT involved in an "elite" like environment at an early age.
While the book 'Sports Gene' will go on to explain that "extraordinary athletic achievement" may be explained by genetic contributions, simple layman observation is all that is needed to surmise that productive environments and deliberate practice during the youth years is how MOST elite basketball players became so. Revisiting the question of what separates the elite from the Elite, the answer is out my depth, through surely culture, proper instruction, mental toughness, etc. play a huge part. What can not be debated is the overwhelming number of Top 100 players that took up this great game BEFORE middle school. Many of the Top 100 kids may have not been involved in "deliberate practice" before middle school but almost all had been introduced to the game through recreational leagues of some sort. As documented in the Elite Teams above, a good portion of these players found an "elite" environment that would go on to nurture their future success way before middle school.