School is not in session, but this may be the most important time of the year for area high school basketball players.
Summer is the time for travel basketball, often referred to as AAU basketball, and travel basketball season means exposure to college programs. In the modern era of prep basketball, travel basketball has become important for young players who are trying to make it to the next level.
“These kids now have basketball in their hands year-round,” said Nike Elite Stars and Alabama Fusion assistant coach Scott Whittle. “They’re competitive and continuing to develop during the offseason. These kids participating in this type of basketball during the summer where their high school coaches can’t have them in the gym is an advantage for them.”
AAU, which stands for Amateur Athletic Union, is a blanket term often used for travel basketball. Most high-level basketball teams that are referred to as “AAU” teams don’t actually compete as a part of the AAU organization. For example, Alabama’s Nike Elite Youth Basketball League Team, the Alabama Fusion, competes on the EYBL circuit, which is a league sponsored by Nike.
The tournaments Alabama Fusion plays in are not AAU tournaments but rather tournaments put on by Nike.
What people call AAU basketball is more accurately classified as travel or club basketball.
Area travel basketball teams compete in tournaments across the Southeast to play against high-level competition. Since many tournaments take place in major cities, it has become an easy way for colleges to see a large amount of players over the course of just a weekend or two.
Travel basketball clubs exist to help athletes play against a high level of competition that they may not see at their respective high schools.
Doug Bush’s organization, the AL Southern Starz, has become an efficient avenue for girls basketball players to get to college in north Alabama. Seven of the last 10 Alabama Miss Basketball winners have played for the AL Southern Starz. Local stars Moriah Taylor, Kathleen Wheeler, Jolee Cole and McCarley Northway all played for his organization. They all received college scholarships for the sport.
“Our goal is to have a place where girls basketball players who are serious about the game, developing their skills, expanding their horizons and playing with and against the best players can develop and improve their skills,” Bush said. “We want to expose them to college coaches to maximize the opportunities at the collegiate level if that’s what they want to do.”
Those tournaments aren’t cheap for the players, however. Perhaps the biggest roadblock for players looking to play travel basketball is the cost.
Gear, travel and tournament costs can fall on the players and their families. The estimated costs for travel basketball can be $500-$1,500 for just one player per summer. Players usually must pay a player fee that covers their uniforms, tournament entry fees and other expenses their team may have. Those can be anywhere from $350-$750.
Organizations try to keep costs low with fundraising or by partnering with sponsors from their area. Teams that compete on the EYBL or other high-level circuits usually have NBA players from their area act as benefactors. DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe sponsor the Alabama Fusion. DeMarre Carroll sponsors Team Carroll, which competes on Adidas’ version of the EYBL, Gauntlet.
Outside of those costs, parents who travel to see their kids play also have expenses. Nicholas Cole, who is the father of local players Jolee and Wren Cole, estimated his family spends $300-$450 each weekend they travel to see one of their kids play. That includes gas, hotels and food.
Cole, however, is happy to pay those costs because of the money it saves long term. Jolee earned a scholarship to Faulkner because of her performances playing for both the AL Southern Starz and Danville. Wren, who is a rising senior, is being recruited by colleges as well.
“They want to be playing and them getting that exposure has completely helped them,” Cole said. “I haven’t spent nearly as much money on AAU as Jolee got from Faulkner. It’s nowhere what you’d have to pay for four years of college.”
Most players and families are willing to pay these costs because of the exposure. College coaches usually do not have the time or the money to drive around a state visiting high schools to try to find players for their programs.
Under the new recruiting calendar, boys basketball players have an upcoming evaluation period Tuesday through Friday.
Nike EYBL’s Peach Jam, described by Whittle as the “Super Bowl of AAU basketball,” falls during that evaluation period this year.
The Alabama Fusion will compete in that event. The team features local stars such as East Limestone’s Austin Harvell and Lindsay Lane’s Tommy Murr. Both players have made a name for themselves playing for the Alabama Fusion.
Murr led the nation in scoring his sophomore year at 37 points per game and was second this season at 45.1 points per game. Murr plays in Class 1A.
Murr has shown he can deal with a high level of competition. He’s averaged 12 points per game and scored 32 points on 9-of-19 shooting in one EYBL session.
“Coming out of high school ball, I needed to prove that I can score and play the same game I do in high school at this level,” Murr said. “It’s been a good stage for me to prove myself. I think it’s gone really well so far.”
Harvell did something similar last year when teams like Alabama, Auburn and Kansas State started to focus on him based on his performances in travel basketball after he played for Class 2A Clements his sophomore year. He is playing well during this cycle as well.
Many players like Harvell and Murr can use travel basketball to improve their stock, and to expose their own weaknesses by playing against tough competition. Keeping a basketball in these players’ hands during the offseason has been valuable.
Hartselle junior guard Brody Peebles is another example of this. He strung together some impressive performances last summer playing for Under Armour’s Pro One Select team — based in Huntsville — and earned his first offer from UAB. He’s continued to do that this summer and it has caused his recruitment to heat up even more.
“AAU is the biggest time for college coaches to come out,” Peebles said. “It’s super important. It’s really hard if you’re not playing AAU to get recruited. It’s the main way people get recruited.”
For girls basketball players, playing travel basketball in the month of July is an important for recruitment.
July has two evaluation periods of six and four days each. Large travel basketball organizations such as the AL Southern Starz try to spend that time playing in exposure events — or travel tournaments — that feature a high level of competition. That gives their players a chance to be seen playing against the best of the best, which is a must for major college basketball coaches.
Kim Walker, who is the mother of Priceville guard Jenna Walker and an assistant coach for Priceville, said July is crucial for players who want to make it to college.
“I would say July is two-thirds of your opportunity to play in front of (college) coaches,” Walker said. “If a girl doesn’t play in July, they only have that one-third chance of college coaches knowing them or seeing them. They’re not getting evaluated as much in high school because they’re not always playing against other college players like they are in AAU.”
While travel basketball has become an important avenue for players to get to college, high school basketball is still very important in these players’ lives. Bush attributed the development of leadership skills to high school basketball.
Players develop more of a relationship with high school teammates because of the amount of time spent together. Players also learn how to scout opponents and go through the ups and downs of a season, which is something they will have to do if they make it to the next level.
“It’s a sense of community for them, which is different than AAU,” Bush said. “The community gets behind and follows that team. Like Jenna Walker at Priceville, right now, is going to be like Diana Taurasi to those little girls in their community. It serves a different purpose for those players.”
Travel and high school basketball have coexisted fairly well. Both parties recognize the role the other has for young players.
Travel basketball, however, will continue to be a streamlined way for kids in all areas to be easily recruited by college coaches if they perform up to those coaches’ standards.
“It’s been a huge commitment financially and time-wise for us,” Walker said. “(Jenna) had to commit to give up other things so she could commit to her AAU team, because she wants to play college basketball so badly.”