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The New AAU: How Redefining Success Helps Athletes Thrive

The spotlight on high school athletes has never been brighter. The opportunities have never broader. So, how do we keep the pressure from getting out of control?

There’s a reason why you can find NBA mock drafts two years in advance when the presumptive lottery picks are not simply still high school students, but perhaps barely old enough to drive. Or why ESPN ranks the top 25 current high school sophomores.

It’s because the information is there and the demand to be included is fierce. It starts with exposure — the more you have, the more coaches and recruiting analysts can see you. The better college offers you receive. The higher your ranking. The more earning potential you have in the future.

The pressures of youth basketball come from all sides — from parents who dream of seeing their children go to college to coaches looking to build an established power on the summer circuit to outside influences trying to steer talent toward a particular school (or sneaker brand). All told, at least one adult in the room has to foster and protect these kids along the path to success.

For Wayne Pratt, program director of Team Durant and father to Kevin Durant himself, that objective is the core of his work. He’s run Team Durant, which Thirty Five Ventures supports, for five years, and takes pride in sending his players off to college.

If they can get there on a basketball scholarship, even better — though that’s not the sole measure of success.

“It’s not about creating pros, it’s more about giving you an opportunity to change the direction that your family might be going in,” Pratt told Boardroom. “Some of the kids that we have, their parents didn’t go to college, their grandparents didn’t go to college, and some of their siblings didn’t go to college, but they have the opportunity to do so.”

At a time where 17-year-olds can sign shoe deals and 16-year olds can earn six-figure contracts to play ball, getting the athletes who aren’t among that select few to college requires buy-in from not just the players themselves, but parents, coaches, and communities. Pratt understands the perspective of all three, coaching the Team Durant 16U team and raising three kids who all played college basketball.

That’s equipped him to help his athletes know what’s coming at the next level.

“Nobody told me what I needed to do,” he said of his kids entering the college process. “Nobody told me about the SAT and ACT. No one told me how to go on a visit and what questions to ask. But now that I’ve been through it, I can teach our parents so they’re not ignorant to the fact when they get there.”

Over five years, every senior who has come through Team Durant has gone to college. Whether those players have gone on to play in the ACC or the SoCon — or anywhere in between — Pratt views each as a success story.

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Moving forward, he hopes to help his players prepare themselves even better. In addition to a new basketball facility, Pratt is working with his colleagues to expand the program’s life skills offerings. He wants to focus on players’ mental health, giving them resources to talk through their struggles and get help as proactively as possible.

It’s a side of youth sports that has become increasingly important as the pressures to succeed continue to rise.

“There is a lot of anxiety in youth sports today,” said Abby Braiman of Mojo, a company backed by Thirty Five Ventures that works to give youth coaches the tools they need to help their players succeed. “We put so much pressure on kids so young, and the reality is that there has to be a better way.”

Finding that better way is a foundational pillar of Pratt’s mission. Making his program an enjoyable and educational experience, he believes, will ultimately yield more success.

“I’ve never seen one AAU coach go to the Hall of Fame, and I don’t know how many wins or losses they have because no one keeps a record of it,” he said. “Let’s get away from the wins and losses and teach the game the right way, and the wins will come.”

And it stands to reason that the father of one of the NBA’s most successful players would know a thing or two about setting young athletes up for success.

The first three episodes of Swagger, a new original series inspired by Kevin Durant’s experiences in youth basketball, are available for streaming now on Apple TV+ with new episodes arriving every Friday. Click here to learn more.

About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.