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Centers keep relevance in international game

Jordan, Cousins could help minimize Team USA use of small ball

POSTED: Jul 21, 2016 11:12 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner

NBA.com

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USAB Training Camp: DeAndre Jordan

The LA Clippers' DeAndre Jordan talks about playing in front of Clippers and USA fans in the exhibition games.

— Rare as it is for an established player to be named to the All-NBA First Team without ever being an All-Star, in DeAndre Jordan's case there's a reasonable explanation.

The All-Star ballot only lists "Frontcourt" and "Backcourt" positions, a makeover several years ago to reflect changes in the NBA style of play and a general dearth of traditional big men. The All-NBA First, Second and Third teams, as selected by the media, still goes with old-school positions (two guards, two forwards and one center).

So, for that matter, does USA Basketball in practical terms. Jordan, the L.A. Clippers' 6-foot-11 center, and DeMarcus Cousins, just as tall and even broader in his work for the Sacramento Kings, represent basketball as it long has been played. Just not necessarily the game as a lot of current fans know it, based on the style so many franchises favor these days.

"The game is definitely evolving," Jordan said Wednesday after yet another impressive practice at the Mendenhall Center on UNLV's campus. "It's becoming more guard-oriented. But, at the same time, we've got a lot of big guys who still kick butt. We'll never be extinct.

"Even though there's no more 'centers' in the NBA. Just call me a 'forward' when you introduce me in the starting lineup."

How impressive has Jordan been? Jim Boeheim, the Syracuse coach who is one of Mike Krzyzewski's assistants, didn't hold back.

"This is unequivocal: He has worked harder than anybody we've ever had in practice," Boeheim said.

By anybody, Boeheim means anybody, in a program he's been a part of for a decade.

"We've had some Kobe and LeBron. He [Jordan] busts his tail every day. We put the zone in, he didn't even realize what he was doing, [but] some things he did better than guys I'd taught the zone for a long time.

This is unequivocal: He has worked harder than anybody we've ever had in practice.

– Team USA assistant coach Jim Boeheim on DeAndre Jordan

"I haven't seen that much of him. I think he's incredible. I'd love to have him on my [Syracuse University] team. I don't think there's a center I can think of who I'd rather have on my team. Especially the way we play defense."

Heck, Boeheim was so taken by Jordan that he worked afterward with the Clippers big man on his free throw shooting. Some would consider that worthy of hazardous duty pay -- Jordan, one of the league's usual targets when opponents resort to "Hack-A" tactics, has made only 42.1 percent of his foul shots in his NBA career.

"First of all, his form and release are not that bad," Boeheim said. "I've worked with a lot of guys over the years. Everybody can't be perfect but I think everybody can get better.

"He made eight in a row out there at one point. I told him, 'Listen, if you can make eight in a row here -- this isn't a jump shot, this is a free throw -- you're going to get the same thing in a game. Nobody's defending you, nobody can stop you."

With Jordan or Cousins on the floor, the bigger question will be: Can anyone stop Team USA? Golden State's Draymond Green is available if Olympic opponents get cute and go small -- or if Krzyzewski decides he wants to drive a red-white-and-blue version of the Warriors' Death Lineup. But the Duke University coach said Wednesday he plans to have one of his two bigs on the floor most of the time.

"I'm not big on ones, twos, threes, fours or fives," Krzyzewski said of basketball's "coachese" for point guard, shooting guards, small forwards, power forwards and centers.

"[Jordan is] a big who can really run. He can defend the ball screen whether you switch it or you don't switch it -- which I would guess makes him non-traditional. He's a great teammate. He's one of the best players in the NBA."

Of Cousins, the Team USA coach said: "DeMarcus has been in our program so I know him. He's one of the reasons we beat Serbia [in the 2014 World Cup game] -- his double-double and physical play." Cousins actually had 11 points and a team-high nine rebounds in that gold-medal game, but close enough.

If the rest of the world was playing small ball, there might be concern about the minutes available to Jordan and Cousins. But the international game hasn't swung as far in that direction. Also, some of the most recognizable names on the other national teams in Rio will be big men familiar to NBA fans: Spain's Pau Gasol, France's Rudy Gobert, Serbia's Nikola Jokic and Miroslav Raduljica, Lithuania's Jonas Valunciunas. Spain's Marc Gasol and Australia's Andrew Bogut normally would be among them but both are coming off injuries suffered on their day jobs.

Asked about Jordan's fit with the international game, Boeheim said: "He's not as valuable because they don't post up as much -- though if you're playing Pau Gasol, you have to have [a big man] down there. But you have to have a center who can switch, and he can do that. Chris Bosh won the first Olympics we won [2008] because he played center and he switched on all the pick-and-rolls. DeAndre can do that."

Cousins brings shooting range out to the 3-point line, a stretch-five capability that can cause opposing big men to be lost in space. And Green had plenty of reps in the first three days of Team USA camp with smaller, quicker lineups such as Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Carmelo Anthony and Kyrie Irving.

Asked for his impression of international centers from 2014, Cousins said: "Very versatile, very skilled. Their big men usually have a high IQ for the game. It's a different look from what we're used to [in the NBA]."

As in, all those runty power forwards masquerading as centers?

"I'm all for my bigs, man. I don't think the big position will ever die," Cousins said. "The big position will never die. Ever. Ever!"

Not any time in the next five weeks, not with these guys.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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