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North Dakota high school basketball coaches slowly coming around to benefits of AAU

For a long time, there was a deep divide between high school coaches and AAU coaches. As the seasons have gone by, high school coaches are starting to see some of the benefits of AAU. We explore how AAU and high schools are starting to work together.

For a long time, one issue for high school coaches was the summer season overlapped between AAU and high school.

"When I want them in the gym working on skill development," Legacy head basketball coach Jason Horner said, "they are out playing with their AAU team. So you kind of lose cohesion a little with your high school players. 

AAU takes the best basketball players from around the state and puts them on one team.

"All those girls on our team," Dakota Drillers head coach Jason Harris said. "They get to see athletes in a weekend that they might only get to see when they play each other once in a while."

Lucas Moormann is the director of ECI Basketball, branded as "North Dakota's Premier AAU basketball program for boys ages 12u-17u", he admits that with kids from all over the state practices are few, but they take June off so players can work on development with their high school team.

"[Basketball players] learn a lot through the high school season," Moorman said. "The high school coaches do a great job of doing more than just basketball. Team building. The school work side of it and staying eligible. All of that stuff is super important."

Another big issue: The high school and college basketball seasons take place at the same time. So it's hard for college coaches to get out to gyms during the week, while preparing for their own seasons.

"I can go watch a girl play 14 games in a three-day stretch," U-Mary women's basketball coach Rick Neumann said. "Because our seasons overlap in North Dakota, I might see a high school girl play once or twice live. Especially girls we recruit from distance, that has to be over a Christmas break."

A third issue is development versus exposure. The summer high school season focuses on skill development, while AAU puts players in front of scouts and the opportunity to compete against the nation's top prospects.

"Some of the players they'll see on ESPN some day," U-Mary head coach Joe Kittell said. "[Duke freshman guard] Tre Jones is a kid that just graduated high school in Minnesota. I know that our North Dakota kids were playing against him just a couple of years ago."

University of Mary men's coach Joe Kittell said on this year's roster every player participated in AAU basketball.

"St. Cloud is recruiting this kid," Kittell said. "The kid from Bismarck is playing him. They are kind of evenly matched. [AAU] just gives you a feel if he's going to be able to fit in your program at high level."

U-Mary sophomore guard Connor Hellebust says AAU is essential for players looking to get recruited.

"If he's trying to play college," Hellbeust said. "I would say that in a way AAU is almost more important than high school basketball, but high school basketball is still very important."

On the women's side, freshman Tonya Dvorak did not play AAU basketball, but wishes she did take part.

"My younger years I played different sports like soccer and golf," Dvorak said. "So I had a lot of camps in those [sports]. So I might have played my -- after junior year, I probably would have played [AAU] before season year because I had committed at that time to play basketball."

AAU and college coaches say their could be hundreds of coaches at a weekend AAU tournament.

"Ninety to 100 coaches at some of these events," Moormann said. 

"Four hundred to 500," Kittell said. 

"Our entire league is three of four [coaches] deep," Neumann said. "Then depending on the event they'll be hundreds of Division 1 and other Division 2 coaches. I mean it's wall-to-wall coaches at just about every event."

Mandan head coach Abby Thomas has four girls signed to play college ball. All played AAU basketball.

"Three of them," Thomas said. "Their future college coaches have contacted me a lot. About how the kids are in practice and how they are in a classroom setting."

The AAU coaches I talked to said for players wishing to stay in state, AAU might not make a difference, but for those who wish to leave the state, AAU could be their ticket.

I asked the high school coaches if they have seen kids shift their focus from the high school season to the AAU season and they said no. They say the high school season is where the fundamentals are taught.

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