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Real talk: A college basketball coach explains how to go D-Free

Part 3: Picking the right AAU team is the crucial ingredient

Keith Dambrot holds the keys to the kingdom. As head men’s basketball coach at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Dambrot is one of 700 Division I men’s and women’s coaches with the power to award a scholarship to play college basketball at the highest level. He is a gatekeeper of the “D-Free” dream — a free college education.

I sat down with Dambrot to discuss a coach’s view of summer basketball. Duquesne is the type of college that high school players can reasonably aspire to reach. For the few elite players with enormous talent or size, summer AAU basketball is almost a formality as they rack up multiple scholarship offers from top college teams. But the vast majority of AAU kids are clawing for any opportunity to play Division I. These players will never get a look from a Kansas or Kentucky, or even a Butler or Nevada. At Duquesne, a mid-major rebuilding after decades of mediocrity, Dambrot recruits players who are overlooked and underappreciated and have “intangibles.” That’s the formula Dambrot used at the University of Akron, where in 13 seasons he took three teams to the NCAA tournament before Duquesne hired him in 2017.

Dambrot, 59, has been coaching high school and college teams for more than 30 years, including two years coaching LeBron James at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School in their native Akron, Ohio. The first thing he told me is this:


“The big dilemma is you have to play AAU basketball now in order to really get what you want, unless you’re just such a superstar that it really doesn’t matter,” Dambrot said.

For years, I’ve heard people claim, “If a kid is good enough, they will find him anywhere.” That only applies to the top 100 or so high school players in the country. Meanwhile, there are 9,406 Division I basketball scholarships for men and women. Maybe 2,000 spots are up for grabs each year. It’s hard to count the number of kids playing AAU, but with half a million high school players, it’s safe to say that at least 100,000 are playing summer ball. Those numbers make AAU a necessity for the vast majority of kids trying to go D-Free.

Dambrot’s next piece of advice:


“Parents are in a very difficult position,” Dambrot said. “It’s hard to make decisions when you really don’t know the business.

“There’s a lot of good players that if they’re in the wrong AAU program, they can get overlooked. And so the key is trying to find the right place for your particular son. One of the things I try to tell people is it doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest program, but there has to be some other recruitable guys on that team. We’re so limited in where we can go and how much time we have, if it’s just one Division I guy on a team — let’s say he’s a marginal guy, or an undervalued guy — then we’re not going to see him play. I think you have to have at least two legitimate Division I guys with your particular son.”

That presents another dilemma: Should a kid play for an elite-level team with so many Division I players that it’s hard to get playing time? Or start for a team with less talent? Dambrot said there are no easy answers. He said you don’t have to play for a “shoe circuit” team on Nike’s EYBL, Adidas’ Gauntlet or Under Armour’s Association. Dambrot also recruits at other tournaments. Overall, he advises parents to watch out for teams that make promises about playing time, and to ask potential summer coaches what players they have recently sent to which colleges.

“Parents are in a very difficult position. It’s hard to make decisions when you really don’t know the business.”

It’s common for players to switch teams during the summer, but moving three and four times, and sometimes back to the original squad, is a red flag for Dambrot. “Because there’s no commitment. If they’re not committed to their AAU team, why would they be committed to us?”

Plenty of kids who don’t start on their summer teams get scholarships. At Akron, Dambrot knew he couldn’t sign players who were getting recruited by the likes of Ohio State or Michigan. So he went to the top tournaments and recruited the first kids off the bench.

Once a player actually catches Dambrot’s eye, what’s he looking for?


“If we’re ever going to win at Duquesne, it’s going to be all intangible-based,” Dambrot said. “Guys that just have it.”

What, exactly, is “it”?

It is, somehow, their team always wins. It is, somehow, they always get the loose ball. They’re always talking. Making the right play. Just ingredients that make guys winners. Like, why Earl Boykins made it to the NBA. It wasn’t because he’s big and strong or whatever, it’s because he has it. That burning desire to be great.”

When Dambrot is interested in a player, he goes to a game and watches his every move. He doesn’t see anyone else on the floor. “Everything you do is being watched. So, for instance, a guy that has a good reputation leaves the game, doesn’t play very well, and then he’s got a bad attitude coming off the floor.” That’s a red flag.

“You’d be surprised what diving for a loose ball or taking the charge or playing with emotion or opening your mouth can do for you, because that’s probably the biggest change that I’ve seen in basketball is these kids don’t communicate. When you see somebody that has some leadership, and can talk, and points out people, you’ve got to recruit him. It’s a skill. It’s just as important as that jump shot in a lot of ways.

“Then the last thing probably would be scoring. People think they have to score to be good, and I’ve talked to LeBron a lot about this. He said, ‘Coach, there’s 12 really great players in this league, and the rest are all role players. And when they try to do something they can’t do, they look worse than what they really are and they’re out of the league.’ ”

“It’s the same thing with these kids,” Dambrot said. “They try to do things they’re not capable of, and they make themselves look worse than they really are. So just stay within yourself and understand that it’s not all about scoring. It’s about just being a good player.”

Which can be tough for most parents to evaluate. Here is Dambrot’s most important advice for them:


Averaging 20 points per game in high school doesn’t mean a kid is headed to Villanova. Being able to dunk doesn’t mean he’s Division I. But many parents have overblown dreams, especially those who didn’t play basketball themselves. AAU coaches and trainers, meanwhile, are known for overhyping kids because they want to make money off the parents.

“First and foremost, the first lesson is be objective about where your son or daughter is,” Dambrot said. “How good a player are they really? Or are you just operating with blinders on?”

One good measure of college potential is how a player performs against others with scholarship offers. Another is to seek evaluations from knowledgeable observers with nothing to gain, like a high school coach or a neutral parent.

It also helps to understand the different levels of college basketball. “High majors” are teams in the Power 5 conferences (ACC, SEC, Big 12, Pac-12, Big 10) that compete for national championships. There are a range of “mid-major” schools. Duquesne, for example, plays in the Atlantic 10 conference, which ESPN ranked ninth out of 32 leagues last season and has 11 former players currently in the NBA plus dozens more overseas. “Low majors” are schools that rarely, if ever, reach the NCAA tournament or produce NBA talent.

Don’t send Dambrot a highlight video if your son can’t hang with future pros, either in the NBA or overseas. Matter of fact, don’t send him any highlights, period: “I can’t speak for everybody, but I don’t watch them. I just don’t have enough time, and we’re already recruiting enough guys that we saw play in person.”

If you want a college coach to know about your child, Dambrot recommends going through someone who has a relationship with the program — like good AAU coaches.

Which brings us back to the necessity of summer hoops. At its best, for thousands of very good but not great players, AAU ball is the only avenue to a free college education. That places enormous pressure on players and parents to achieve the dream …


I asked Dambrot what he would tell parents who feel trapped, spending enormous amounts of time and money, in the quest for D-Free.

“You have to first understand that all these kids care about is basketball,” Dambrot said. “You have to make sure that the kids understand what’s important, and if they don’t do what they’re supposed to do, you have to take basketball away from them. If they’re drinking, they’re smoking, they’re not doing their classwork, they’re messing around with girls, you have to take what hurts. You have to parent them.”

And if the player is doing the right things off the court?

“You have to give them every opportunity,” said the coach with the key to the dream. “Because it’s that important to them.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.