LAS VEGAS — Before this week, Julius Randle and Gregg Popovich hadn’t really crossed paths.
But in three days at USA Basketball training camp, Popovich — the head coach of Randle and the rest of the USA Select Team — has been pleased with the way the 21-year-old carries himself.
“I didn’t know him at all until he got here, and what I found out is he’s got a great sense of humor first of all,” Popovich said on Wednesday. “He’s a fun guy to joke with and he’ll joke back. And he’s worked very hard. He’s very coachable. He listens. He takes direction. So he’s been very enjoyable so far.”
Popovich and Randle share a common source of pride when it comes to representing USA Basketball.
The young Laker led the U.S. U18 team to a gold medal at the FIBA Americas championship in 2012, while San Antonio’s five-time champion will succeed Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of the U.S. National Team after next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.</p
“It’s just an honor to wear the USA across your chest,” Randle said. “It’s just a high standard, high accountability when it comes to this. Just an honor overall.”
In addition to the prestige of representing the country, this week at UNLV has also served as a classroom for Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Brandon Ingram to study the games of some of the best players in the NBA.
All three constantly highlighted the need to bring a competitive attitude to scrimmages against the likes of Draymond Green, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant.
That hasn’t changed three days into the four-day camp.
“(It’s important to) be able to go against these guys and see where you are every day and just compete,” Randle said. “I’m a competitor and that’s what I love to do more than anything. Just to be able to compete is fun.”
The week has also given Randle a better chance to examine Ingram’s game. Randle practiced briefly with Ingram and the rest of the Lakers’ Summer League team two weeks ago, but he didn’t participate in the event itself at UNLV.
“This is really kind of like the first time I’m seeing him other than the practices,” Randle said. “You can obviously see he’s getting better every day (and) learning how to play at this level. He looks good.”
Someone who shares that sentiment is a former MVP currently at the center of the basketball world: Kevin Durant. Per Sports Illustrated’s Ben Golliver, the seven-time All-Star called Ingram “the first person that I can say that I can look at him and say I’m looking in the mirror.”
Popovich doesn’t see as identical a resemblance as Durant does, saying that now Durant has “gotta with (the comparison).”
Like Krzyzewski — Ingram’s coach at Duke — Popovich doesn’t see much merit in making parallels between one of the NBA’s top players and an 18-year-old who has yet to play a minute in the pros.
“They’re bodies are pretty similar, but it’d be pretty tough to compare somebody to Kevin Durant,” Popovich said. “It’s almost unfair. We’ll see as time goes for both of them.”