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Game of little import has big lessons
On one of the first days the United States basketball team convened in Las Vegas for a week-long training camp earlier this summer, Blake Griffin was out on the court, working on taking a jab step once with his dribble, then twice, before stepping back to shoot a jumper from the wing.
Then he would do it again.
Alongside Griffin, critiquing his footwork and encouraging him, was not one of the half-dozen coaches but a fellow teammate, Carmelo Anthony, who has refined this move.
“You get that and nobody’s going to stop it,” Anthony said, noting that defenders would be wary of Griffin blowing by for a dunk. “They’re going to give you that.”
As NBA commissioner David Stern has suggested that it is time for the Olympics to be limited to under-23 players, one of the arguments made by the players for keeping the tournament open to the best players is that rather than putting the NBA’s greatest assets at risk, it is actually helping them get better.
To many of the younger participants, a summer spent with some of the best players in the NBA amounts to a master’s program for their craft.
They can pick up new tools for their trade, be it about competitiveness, preparation or the nuances of a new move.
And, they say, the benefits are tangible.
Consider that after the United States won the 2010 World Championships, many of its players had breakout seasons.
Derrick Rose won the league MVP. Lamar Odom won the Sixth Man Award. Kevin Love went from a will-he-or-won’t-he prospect to an All-Star, as did Russell Westbrook. Tyson Chandler helped the Dallas Mavericks win a title.
“That was a slingshot force for me,” Love said.
It is easy to see how many players on this team could benefit, but no American will reap greater rewards this summer than the last man on the bench, forward Anthony Davis, the rookie who was the top pick in the NBA draft.
Davis, 19, is on the team only because of a slate of injuries, the last of which happened when Griffin tore cartilage in his knee on the last day of practice in Las Vegas. Davis was then added to the team.
He played the final eight minutes of the United States' rout of France on Sunday, and in a 110-63 victory over Tunisia on Tuesday, Davis scored 12 points — five dunks and a pair of free throws — and added three rebounds, one steal and one blocked shot in 14 minutes.
Asked what he had hoped to see from Davis, United States coach Mike Krzyzewski said: “What we saw. He got accustomed to the physicality and what he has to do.”
While his contemporaries were spending part of July getting their professional baptism in NBA summer leagues, Davis is getting his on an international stage.
Sometimes, as it did Sunday, that means banging against a savvy NBA veteran like Boris Diaw. Others, like Tuesday, it was Makram Ben Romdhane, an athletic 6-foot-10, 23-year-old forward whose quickness and toughness had to open the eyes of international scouts as much as his 22 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
“It’s a big adjustment,” Davis said. “The game’s a lot faster (than college), a lot more physical. The NBA’s not this physical, so this is going to help.”
Westbrook said the intensity level in international play is akin to the NBA playoffs.
“Players fight for their country differently than they play with NBA teams,” Westbrook said. “There’s a different level of intensity that you need, and that’s something I carried with me.”
Most of Davis’ education is not coming in games. It is coming in practice, and just being around players who are at the pinnacle of the profession.
Center Tyson Chandler has taken an interest in mentoring Davis on some of the finer points of defending near the basket. Davis said some of the most valuable lessons he has learned so far are simple ones: icing, stretching and what to eat — bananas and fruit before games.
“He’s learning a lot before he ever plays a game,” said Chris Paul, who threw Davis one of his alley oops Tuesday. “We have a lot of fun away from the game, but when it’s time to work you’ve got to work. You’ve got to lock in. You can listen to music or whatever before, but when coach comes in there and it’s time to meet, you’ve got to put your game face on.”
It sounds almost like summer school.
“Definitely,” Chandler said. “It’s the best basketball players in the world, and you learn from each other.”
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