Best of the Best

LAS VEGAS – Even if their week under the scorching Las Vegas sun and the equally withering scrutiny of Team USA officials doesn’t yield a berth on the 2014 national team – and they won’t know anything on that score for months – Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond loved their week in the desert.

“When you’re able to play with players like this, it’s not normal – at all,” Monroe said of the three days of practices and Thursday finale, in which both players put their best foot forward as Drummond’s White team pulled away in the fourth quarter for a 128-106 win. “Some people might work out in different cities and you might be working out with other pros, but the level of talent here is kind of hard to mimic. This is a rare opportunity to get better in the middle of summer.”

“The caliber of players out there, we’re all getting up and down the floor really well and we’re pushing ourselves to get better,” Drummond said. “For me, it was a learning experience. All the other guys are older than me and some of them have been at this camp before. It was fun for me to be out here and compete against some of the guys.”

Monroe finished with 10 points, six rebounds, two assists, a blocked shot and a steal in 18 minutes, scoring three times at the rim in the third quarter, once on a dazzling spin move with a right-hand finish that left DeAndre Jordan flat-footed. Drummond logged 13 minutes but made them count, scoring 11 points to go with six rebounds, a pretty assist and a blocked shot.

“I was just trying to affect the game any way I can,” Monroe said of his first-half performance. “I was able to get my hand on a few balls early, get the ball out on the break. I just tried to get out to a good start and help my team win. (After halftime), I was able to get some easy buckets. My teammates made some good plays and I was able to get some finishes around the rim. That kind of got me going a little bit.”

“Greg did what he did – he played aggressive,” Drummond said. “When he got the ball, he tried to put it in the hole. We both finished in double figures. It was good to see.”

Drummond’s White team got far the better of guard play as Kyrie Irving scored 23 points and Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Mike Conley all played well. Those four guards combined for 53 points and 24 assists against 10 turnovers. Monroe’s guards on the Blue team – Dion Waiters, Damian Lillard, Kemba Walker and John Wall – combined for 26 points to go with 13 assists and three turnovers.

This much was clear: In both halves, both Drummond’s White team and Monroe’s Blue were better when they were on the floor. They didn’t play even a second against each other for the game; Monroe started and was out in both the late first and third quarters when Drummond came on, and when Monroe came back for the game’s final four minutes, Drummond had already sat for the night.

Monroe got his Blue team off to a strong start, taking an 8-0 lead, by filling up the stat sheet quickly in every category except points. Monroe touched the ball rarely, once on the perimeter when he handed off to a cutter and another team after grabbing an offensive rebound, then missing an off-balance put-back try. Monroe scored all seven of his points in the third quarter.

Drummond’s entry into the game for White helped bring them back from a double-digit deficit to a lead in the first half. In six first-half minutes, he grabbed four rebounds and scored four points.

“I go out there and play hard and do what I’m supposed to do,” said Drummond, who for most of his time was matched up against DeMarcus Cousins, who finished 2 of 7 in 17 minutes. “Be a glue guy – grab rebounds and finish strong around the rim. I think I did a great job of that with the minutes I got.”

“He played well, man,” Monroe said. “He got some hoops, alley oops, rebounded great, ran the floor well. I think he had a really good game today.”

Monroe brought Blue back to tie in the third quarter and when he left, White went on a 7-0 run and led by four when Drummond came on with three minutes to play. When Drummond exited with eight minutes left in the game, the lead was up to 14.

“This week was a stepping stone for all of us,” Drummond said. “It’s great they wanted us all here to train so they could take a look at all of us and they’re going to watch us throughout the rest of the season. For Greg and I, for us to be on the same team, it’s a great help to boost each other’s confidence and make each other play harder.”

“It’s a good week,” Monroe said. “Everybody played hard. Everybody competed. Everyone got better this week. I would say it’s a great experience.”

While the 28 minicamp participants, all hopeful to be selected to play for Team USA in the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup next summer in Spain, are keenly aware they were being assessed by the people in charge of filling the roster, they also couldn’t help noticing the legends of basketball who filled the gymnasium on the campus of UNLV for the three days of practices that led to Thursday’s Showcase.

“It was like Who’s Who these past few days,” Monroe said after Wednesday’s practice, as people like John Thompson, Larry Bird, Joe Dumars, Clyde Drexler and many others looked on, as well as a number of college coaches from Roy Williams to Mark Few and too many NBA head coaches and executives to count. “Just looking up there, it’s just been crazy. Isiah (Thomas) walked in today. When you see guys like that – Hall of Famers – you’re always a little star struck. There was definitely a lot of history as far as basketball goes in the gym today.”

It was about as big a stage as it gets, far removed from the glitz of an NBA arena, and Drummond said it made everyone bring their A game.

“For all of us to be out here at one time with a bunch of high-caliber players and to be on the floor at the same time, playing for one goal, you’re going to get the best out of everybody is what it boils down to,” he said.

Monroe admitted there were a few butterflies dancing in his stomach in the early going before working up a good sweat and getting into the flow.

“At the end of the day, this is a big thing,” he said. “This is something that’s important to me and I’m pretty sure it’s important to all the other guys here. To be able to represent your country and to be able to maybe even have a chance to be on a world championship team, a World Cup team or an Olympic team, most basketball players, this is something they would love to do. Guys are taking it very seriously and that’s why you saw guys playing so hard and saw the level of play was so high. Everyone understands what it means.”

Pistons president Joe Dumars and assistant general manager George David watched intently from the balcony, then watched Thursday’s game from the front row along with Josh Smith, and they saw what they’d hoped to see from their franchise cornerstones throughout the week.

“I was very pleased with both of them,” Dumars said. “These guys are going to represent us well. They’re going to be two of the better big men of this group, so I’m happy for both of them.”

“What I’ve seen out here with Greg and Andre that has probably impressed me more than anything else is the high level of play and competitiveness they’re playing with every single possession,” David said. “For us, it’s a tremendous amount of pride to have two players in this camp. To see how hard they’re playing and how much it means to them is special for us.”

Making the cut will be about fit at least as much as talent. After the Team USA veterans commit to play – both Kevin Durant and Kevin Love made their intentions to play in 2014 known on Wednesday – then the roster will be filled with players to fill roles around them. Both Monroe and Drummond have desirable assets to offer, Dumars believes.

“If any precedent has been set in the past, there have been some big guys – the Dwight Howards, the Tyson Chandlers – who displayed the same kind of traits Andre has. I think it lends itself well for Andre. From the international standpoint, (Monroe’s) game fits, as well. He can play low post, he can play high post, he can step outside, he can post up. Versatility for a big man – that’s the European game, as well.”

Monroe and Drummond gave Team USA officials an eyeful in Las Vegas. Even if it doesn’t pay off in a 2014 national team roster berth, they’ll be the better for it. The Pistons, too.