Zach LaVine named to U.S. Olympic team

Zach LaVine always talks about playing in a meaningful game.

He'll get the chance in the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo next month.

USA Basketball Monday announced that LaVine officially was selected for one of the coveted 12 spots on the U.S. Olympic men's basketball team. Training camp for the team in the delayed Olympic Games will begin in Las Vegas July 6 with five exhibition games starting July 10. The U.S. team will play its first game in Japan July 25 against France. The medal games are scheduled for August 7.

LaVine joins one of the most talented and veterans USA teams led by Olympic scoring average leader Kevin Durant and fellow former gold medal winners Draymond Green and Kevin Love. The high scoring team also includes Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Damian Lillard, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton, Jerami Grant, Jrue Holiday and Bam Adebayo.

It's the gold standard of NBA basketball with playing for gold as the goal.

LaVine will join Kevin Durant among other NBA stars in Tokyo for Olympic play.

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich makes his Olympic coaching debut to replace retiring Mike Krzyzewski. Popovich's staff includes former Bull Steve Kerr, the Warriors coach, along with former Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce and Villanova coach Jay Wright. LaVine is making his first USA Basketball appearance. He was a long shot addition just a year ago when he wasn't even included on the 44-player preliminary roster.

But with the postponement of the Olympics for a year due to Covid-19, several players injured in the interim and LaVine's extraordinary 2020-21 season that included his first All-Star selection and moving up to seventh in the NBA in scoring and first in shooting among shooting guards, LaVine's addition apparently became a priority for the staff.

National team managing director Jerry Colangelo, who is overseeing his final USA team since rescuing the program in 2006, indicated that LaVine's development—as well as his enthusiasm for the team—influenced the selection.

"Zach's come a long way in terms of his game," Colangelo said during a Zoom media call Monday. "He's a freak athlete in that sense, capable of going off and capable of putting some big numbers out there. (And) he's full of enthusiasm.

"I remember it wasn't that long ago he and I spoke on the phone," Colangelo recalled. "He almost jumped through the phone he was so excited about the opportunity. And I love that. When you have a few people who maybe didn't expect to be there who are just so exuberant about the opportunity, they add a lot of juice to the whole situation; that's where he falls. I think he'll make a contribution in whatever amount of time he might get. He'll be ready to go. He's going to push some people, and I like that."

It's an exceptional honor for LaVine, 26, in a season in which the 6-5 guard and slam dunk champion made his first All-Star team, though still seeking that first NBA playoff game with the Bulls. Only Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Jimmy Butler won Olympic gold medals while they played for the Bulls. That's the team's goal as Colangelo makes way for Grant Hill to manage the program for the next Olympics.

Zach LaVine soars for a dunk against Memphis

"USA basketball is as strong as it's ever been," said Colangelo. "There's work to be done. I think we've put together a strong team to represent the United States. I think we have a blending of players with international experience, some medal experience and new blood, which is always important. There is one goal in mind: That is to bring back the gold medal."

Colangelo in consultation with the coaching staff selected players, he said, for versatility, athleticism and length. Colangelo, who played basketball for the U. of Illinois and was on the staff of the Bulls expansion team in 1966, said the ability to play multiple position with multiple skills was emphasized for the roster. Plus, the need to bring in so called new blood. "Every team needs some newcomers," he said.

It's a relatively small team with no true big man centers. The inside players are Adebayo, Love and Green, the latter who Colangelo said is highly regarded for his defensively ability against centers. Though the seven-foot Durant also defends inside. Colangelo said Kerr considers Green one of the best defenders of centers in the NBA. Love was a somewhat controversial selection given his history of injuries. Colangelo said Love's experience as a two-time gold medal winner led to his addition. Durant also won gold medals with the 2012 and 2016 teams.

Colangelo acknowledged Booker, Holiday and Middleton could be playing in the NBA Finals literally a few days before the start of the rescheduled games. But he said all were anxious to fly to Tokyo the next day and play even it became a seven-game Finals.

There will be extraordinary restrictions on the team because of the virus lockdown and rules in Japan, where vaccinations are proceeding slowly. Family and friends cannot accompany the players. They'll mostly be together, though Colangelo said they'll pursue some activities for diversion. Colangelo said the USA traveling party was so limited they weren't even allowed to bring Hill. The team leaves Las Vegas July 19 after five games.

The American men will open preliminary round play on July 25 against France and then will play Iran on July 28 and will close out preliminary play on July 31 versus the winner of the FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Canada. France was 2019 FIBA World Cup bronze medalist. Their roster includes NBA players Rudy Gobert, Nicolas Batum, Evan Fournier, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Frank Ntilikina. In addition to host Japan, nations qualified for the Tokyo Olympics men's basketball competition include Argentina, Australia, France, Iran, Nigeria, Spain and the United States. The final four teams will qualify through four tournaments. Six wins are required for the gold medal.

USA Basketball said the U.S. men have collected a medal in all 18 Olympics in which they have competed, including 15 gold medals, one silver and two bronze medals. The American men are 138-5 in Olympic competition. Since NBA players began representing the United States in 1992, the USA is 53-3 in seven Olympics capturing six gold medals and one bronze medal. The USA currently owns a 25-game Olympic win streak that dates back to the bronze medal game of the 2004 Athens Olympics.