Nothing Mini About It
Posted Jul 30 2007 7:11PM
SECAUCUS, N.J., July 25 2007-- It may have just been dubbed a "mini-camp," but last weekend's get together for Team USA was a huge step toward the U.S. returning to a first-place finish next month and eventually gold medal glory in Beijing.
There were no games played (that counted for anything, at least), no opponents from overseas, no raucous foreign fans, no Olympic torch burning in the vicinity -- but no matter.
Anybody who was at Cox Pavillion on Friday and Saturday to witness USA's practices or in the stands at the Thomas & Mack Center on Sunday will tell you that all three days had a bit of reverie to them, a dollop of Dream if you will.
"Weíre really pleased with the training camp," said head coach Mike Krzyzewski after Sunday's scrimmage that was successful in providing a great show for the fans, but more importantly, in getting the best out of the players involved.
"The mini-camp went even better than we imagined and I think thatís because of the veterans we added to the team and the maturity of our team both physically and emotionally was just a lot better."
There are still many obstacles to overcome before this squad can consider itself in the same class as the '92-'96-'00 stretch of first-place finishers fielded by USA Basketball. Hell, this group still has a lot to prove just to consider itself equals to the '04 bronze medal bunch, as it still has to end up in the top two in next month's FIBA Americas Championship just to guarantee itself an Olympic berth.
However, I think that this weekend was just an indication of even bigger things ahead.
And now, these are the 10 things I learned from three days in Las Vegas with Team USA ...
1. Veterans are the Difference Makers
Yes, the captains of Team USA are the young trio of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade, but the two players who had the biggest impact on Team USA this weekend were Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant.
Neither player was on the team in Japan last summer, Bryant had his knee to rehab and Kidd hadn't received his USAB invite in the mail yet, but both players made their presence felt in Vegas. It's just the clout that comes from experience. If a two-time scoring champion is taking extra shots after practice, you might want to follow his lead. If a 35-year old man who has made the NBA All-Defensive Team seven times in his career is out there taking charges in scrimmages, you're bound to sacrifice your body just a little bit more.
Here's a closer look at the old guys:
2. Jason Kidd:
"I didnít come here to lose."
That's what Kidd said after Sunday's scrimmage, telling the gathered media the same thing that he told to the rest of the team a few days before. J-Kidd is 28-0 all time in international competition. How can you lose with a guy like that? Remember when Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez started off his career 8-0 in the playoffs? When he took the mound, the Yankees' collective confidence soared and they expected to win. The same goes for Team USA when Kidd is running the point.
The Blue-White game was vintage Kidd; eight assists, six rebounds, two steals and zero shot attempts through the first 39 minutes of the game and then with his team trailing by one, he drives and puts in a go-ahead layup with 21 seconds left in the game.
3. Kobe Bryant:
The scrimmage didn't count for anything, but for somebody as competitive as Kobe who wants to win at everything, that game-winner over Tayshaun Prince had to feel good. He's so competitive he probably takes personal satisfaction when his luggage is the first to pop out onto the conveyor belt at baggage claim.
Bryant scored the Blue team's last seven points to take the lead, and then deftly defended LeBron James on the final possession to secure the victory. Kobe finished the scrimmage with 26 points, five assists and five steals.
"Iíve been looking forward to this for a while and to be in this position to be able to represent my country, itís special man. Itís special," Bryant said on Friday after participating in the first USA practice in his 11-year career.
4. Stock Rising: Miller, Durant
If you took a look at the Team USA 17-player roster before Friday, Mike Miller probably would have had the lowest Q-rating out of all the guys. He just doesn't have the name recognition that the rest of the guys do, despite being a former Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man Award winner. Well, the former Florida Gator made a name for himself over the weekend as he was a pleasant surprise on the court, not just due to his outside shooting but by hitting the boards and playing the passing lanes as well. Miller was the White team's leading scorer on Sunday, dropping in 22 points on 8-for-19 shooting.
The other guy to knock my socks off was the young Kevin Durant. I preface his name with "the young" because all of his accomplishments deserve to be magnified because they are happening at such a young age, sort of like how an infant Harry Potter was celebrated for thwarting Voldemort. Durant enjoyed a wildly successsful weekend, capping it with a 22-point, six-rebound, three-steal performance in Sunday's scrimmage.
5. Stock Falling: Hinrich, Battier
Both were key parts of last summer's FIBA World Championship squad that took home the Bronze in Japan, but participation in August's FIBA Americas Championship is far from guaranteed for Kirk Hinrich and Shane Battier.
Hinrich and Battier both held their own in the practice sessions on Friday and Saturday. It's not like they were missing shots or being exposed on defense. I was actually particularly impressed with Hinrich's perimeter defense on Saturday when he closed out on LeBron late in Saturday's scrimmage and got LBJ to give the ball up rather than attempt a shot. And Carmelo Anthony told me how much he was impressed by Battier's understanding of playing live balls on the rim, a wrinkle of international basketball that Melo had yet to master.
During Sunday's scrimmage however, Hinrich went just 2-for-7, including 0-for-3 from deep, with three turnovers in 13 minutes and Battier was 1-for-4, and 0-for-3 from three in 17 minutes. It's just going to be tough for them to make it, especially with Kidd, Billups and Deron Williams also vying for the point and Melo, LeBron, Miller and Durant fitting the small forward spot.
6. Room for Improvement
Some coaches say that free throws are more mental than anything and hire team psychologists to help their players visualize making the game's only guaranteed unguarded shot. Other coaches insist that shooting from the foul line at the end of practice when your legs are already exhausted will prepare you to take big freebies in late-game situations. No matter the practice method, all coaches agree that a team that makes its free throws puts itself in a much better position to win the game.
Coach K says the team's Achilles' heel last summer was free throws, and Sunday's scrimmage couldn't have done anything to boost his confidence that it isn't a weakness any more. The Blue squad shot 11-for-16 (69 percent), which isn't that bad, but the Blue team was a paltry 9-for-18 (50 percent).
7. Q&A with Nate McMillan
I spoke to assistant coach Nate McMillan on Friday after practice to get his take on the team's defense and Greg Oden's future with Team USA:
You were talking to the team about defense, has [U.S. Managing Director Jerry] Colangelo preached about defense to the team? And is that your role to be the sort of defensive coordinator?
8. Howard's Perfect Game
Mike Krzyzewski had the pleasure of coaching Christian Laettner during his legendary 10-for-10 from the floor, 10-for-10 from the line game against Kentucky and was fortunate to be watching courtside 15 years later as Dwight Howard pulled off a perfect 9-for-9 from the field, 3-for-3 from the foul line showing in Sunday's scrimmage.
9. No Cuts Yet
Colangelo and Krzyzewski emphasized that no cuts would be made at the mini-camp unless somebody got hurt or had a family issue arise, so there is no official word of who the final 12 will be. I saw these guys practice all weekend, attentively taking notes, so purely based on performance I think I have a pretty good idea of who my 12 would be. Of course, I wasn't privy to the conversations the coaches had with the players to get to know their character, so this is just my list and is in no way the official word of Team USA.
Whew, glad to get that disclaimer out there. I'll put them in order of certainty that they'll make the team:
First Five: Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, Dwight Howard
That's my squad. For the last two spots, I'm going with youth so they can learn from the experience, but also because I think they deserve it. Now, I wouldn't be surprised if Tyson Chandler made it over KD to give the team another post defender, but I also think that Durant outplayed Chandler over the weekend. Chandler had a nice scrimmage on Sunday -- 13 rebounds, two blocks and a steal -- but he was limited on Friday and Saturday in stopping Amare and Dwight and he had several nifty passes, that should have been sure scores, bounce off his hands.
10. New Blood
The Team USA talent pool is ever expanding as Colangelo revealed that a select squad of young NBA talent will be coming out to Vegas in August to scrimmage with the current 17-man roster. The only names that Colangelo mentioned that are sure to be there were Brandon Roy of the Blazers and Nick Collison of the Sonics. I wonder who else will be on that team. Here's the pool of young, upcoming American players that could be on a short list of invites:
Andre Iguodala, Jameer Nelson, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tyrus Thomas, Al Jefferson, Craig Smith, Devin Harris, Jason Maxiell, David Lee, Kevin Martin, Gerald Green, Emeka Okafor, Hakim Warrick, Rudy Gay, Randy Foye, Josh Smith, Monta Ellis, Raymond Felton and Daniel Gibson.
Have a question or comment for The McTen or care to share what you learned this week? Send an e-mail.