Momentum Sports Group

“Youth Basketball: Why Serbians Get It Right”

JUNE 2024

“Youth Basketball: Why Serbians Get It Right”

Read time: 5 minutes

For those who watch the NBA Playoffs, you may have heard a comment that TNT analyst Charles Barkley made recently which sums up everything that will be discussed in this post:

“What kind of world do we live in where the two best basketball players are slightly overweight (Serbian) white guys?”


Although he said it jokingly, there is a lot of truth and true curiosity behind the statement. How do the two guys in question – 3x league MVP Nikola Jokic and perennial all-star Luka Doncic – stand out among a sea of superiorly gifted athletes who are quicker, faster, jump higher, etc.? NBA fans will remember Jokic leading his team to a championship last season and will have just finished watching Doncic fall slightly short of one himself with an underdog team.

Let me provide a little bit of context which may be a good starting point. Serbia, a country with a total population of just over seven million (the size of the GTA) and very modest economic means, has been a powerhouse in sports, particularly in basketball, for decades. Despite its small size, Serbia consistently produces world-class basketball players and coaches who make significant impacts on the global stage. Among a long list of elite athletes, Serbia also produced arguably the greatest tennis player of all time, Novak Djokovic. I would argue that there is a multitude of reasons for this, but that most of the phenomenon is rooted in a unique approach to player and coach development, distinct from other countries.

Additional Historical Context: From Yugoslavia to Serbia

Before the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the region was already renowned for its basketball prowess. Yugoslavia won multiple Olympic medals, World Championships, and European Championships. This legacy laid the foundation for Serbia’s continued dominance in the sport. Our own Coach Miki – co-founder and Director of Programming at Momentum – was a member of several iterations of the Yugoslavian youth and senior national teams throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Philosophies in Player and Coach Development

  1. Emphasis on Fundamentals

Serbian basketball philosophy places a strong emphasis on mastering the fundamentals of the game. From a young age, players are drilled in the basics: shooting, passing, dribbling, and defensive techniques. This foundational approach ensures that every player, regardless of position, has a comprehensive skill set. This positionless approach to coaching is what allowed European players to always be supremely skilled regardless of size. If we take the above-mentioned Jokic and Doncic as examples, one is 7 feet tall and the other is 6’8, yet they finished 2nd and 3rd in the NBA this year in assists per game, with just under 10 per game each. 

  1. Holistic Player Development

In Serbia, the focus is not just on physical skills but also on mental and tactical understanding of the game. Players are taught to read the game, understand different playing styles, and adapt their strategies accordingly. They are also constantly pushed mentally to develop resilience, learn how to regulate their confidence levels, and encouraged to develop their drive for achievement and improvement. This holistic approach produces versatile players who can excel in various roles and situations.

  1. Rigorous Coaching Education

Maybe the most overlooked aspect of their success, Serbia invests heavily in the education and development of its coaches. Prospective coaches undergo extensive training programs that cover not only technical and tactical aspects but also strength and conditioning, psychology, pedagogy, and leadership skills. This comprehensive training ensures that coaches are well-equipped to develop young talent effectively.

Differences from Other Countries

  1. Player-Centric Approach

While many countries adopt a coach-centric approach, focusing on the authority and strategies of the coach, Serbia emphasizes a player-centric model. This model encourages players to take ownership of their development, fostering creativity and independence on the court. This is not to say that coaches are not the highest authority within the team/program in Serbia – trust me, they enforce their authority freely – but rather that they encourage players to develop true understanding rather than just rely on detailed instructions about what to do. This approach allows players to become better at split-second problem-solving and decision-making, which ultimately makes their progression exponentially quicker.

  1. Community and Club Integration

In Serbia, basketball clubs are deeply integrated into the community. Local clubs often serve as the primary training grounds for young players, offering a structured yet supportive environment. This close-knit community support system contrasts with the more fragmented or commercially driven models seen in other countries.

  1. Long-Term Development Focus

Serbian basketball prioritizes long-term development over immediate success. This is something I talk about quite often to anyone who will listen, with my main point being that there is too much emphasis placed in North America on winning/playing for the best team at a young age. Everyone loves winning. A younger me used to get extremely competitive during board games, and it took a while for me to train myself to take them less seriously, so I truly do understand the competitive drive. But emphasizing winning so early sends the wrong message to the children and prioritizes things that serve them only in the short term. It’s about learning and improving, to win long term. By instead focusing on where their children will receive the highest quality instruction and have their talents and character nurtured in the right way, parents set the athletes up to be developed more holistically and in the long run usually they outpace their peers in terms of progression.

Serbia’s success in basketball, despite its small population and economic challenges, is a testament to its unique and effective approach to player and coach development. I could write a long list of notable players and coaches that have made a huge impact on the sport globally but the specifics are less important. I didn’t even mention that the only non-American head coaches in the history of the NBA were both Serbian, Igor Kokoskov and current Toronto Raptors head coach Darko Rajakovic. The important point to make is that by focusing on fundamentals, holistic development, rigorous coaching education, and long-term growth, Serbia has created a sustainable model that continues to produce world-class talent. This creates an enduring legacy for my home country that we are trying to bring to North America in a more meaningful way, and that other countries would be smart to try and replicate.

Written by: Nem Mitrovic


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