LAS VEGAS — Media time after Day 3 of USA Basketball training camp went a little long, because everybody was watching an extended game of “King of the Hill” between Kevin Durant, Paul George and James Harden.
“King of the Hill” is a three-way game of one-on-one. Player 1 tries to score on Player 2. If he does, Player 2 steps off the floor and Player 3 comes in and to play defense. But if Player 2 gets the stop, he moves to offense and tries to score against Player 3. The game goes on until a player gets five buckets.
That shouldn’t take long, but the trio played the game from several different spots on the floor. (Here’s a vine of a couple of right-elbow possessions.) By the time they were done, they had gone for a good 20 minutes or so, drawing quite a crowd of media, USA teammates, coaches, and other onlookers. And this was after a full practice.
“It was intense,” George said afterward. “At the end of the day, we’re out here to get better. And there’s no better guys for me to go against, for myself to guard than KD and James. And James is quick and low to the ground and KD’s got the length, so it’s good for me, offensively, as well. But at the end of the day, we’re all here to get better and work hard. And I think we took it to another level.”
Yes, that was George giving credit to Harden’s defense. At one point, Harden blocked Durant’s seemingly unblockable shot, getting in some trash talk afterward.
Speaking of Durant and George, they’re the latest USA forward tandem that no other country that can match up with. And by putting them on the same team every day, the U.S. staff is making sure they get time to build some chemistry.
Harden and Durant, meanwhile, are two of only five players in camp with Senior National Team experience. But 12 of the other 15 were here last year for a four-day mini-camp.
The U.S. had no competition to play in last summer. By winning the 2012 Olympics, they automatically qualified for this year’s World Cup and had no reason to send a team to the FIBA Americas tournament. But USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski brought 28 guys to Las Vegas, so they could get to know them and get them integrated into the system.
It was only four days and with so many guys in the gym, none of them got all that much playing time in the scrimmages. But it reduced the learning curve for the whole group and allowed them to hit the ground running on Monday.
“A big thing is their familiarity with me and the coaching staff,” Krzyzewski said Wednesday. “We spent a lot of time trying to get to know them. So, it lends for familiarity.”
And it has paid off.
“We have actually gotten more in in the first three days of this camp,” Krzyzewski said, “than we have our previous three camps.”
DeMar DeRozan was one of those guys here last year.
“It definitely helps,” he said, “because you got an idea. It’s different when you don’t have an idea about something and you go into it blind. It’s different this time around.”
DeRozan said that the one thing he was more prepared for was “the physicality, really understanding how it’s going to be when you’re out there on the court, competing at a high level.”
Those four days last summer didn’t just help the players. It also helped new assistant coaches Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams get a feel for the system and build some bench chemistry with Krzyzewski and returning assistant Jim Boeheim.
“Last year,” Krzyzewski said, “I wanted Tom and Monty, for us to have an active role in it, so we got to know one another. So, as a coaching staff, we’ve hit the ground running.”
We’re always going to focus on the even-numbered years, when the U.S. is competing in the big international tournaments. But the years in between can be critical as well. Krzyzewski called 2013 “a big summer.”
“It provides a foundation of relationships and knowing one another that’s invaluable.”
The scrimmage that the media saw on Wednesday was between two squads of Senior Team members, with the Select Team limited to controlled-scrimmage action earlier in practice.
Here were the lineups:
Blue 1: Stephen Curry, DeRozan, James Harden, Kenneth Faried and DeMarcus Cousins
Blue 2: Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Gordon Hayward, Paul Millsap and Mason Plumlee
White 1: Derrick Rose, Klay Thompson, George, Durant and Anthony Davis
White 2: John Wall, Bradley Beal, Kyle Korver, Chandler Parsons and Andre Drummond
And here are a couple of notes from the scrimmage…
- Basically, it’s Blue 1 vs. White 1 for the first five minutes, and then Blue 2 vs. White 2 for the second five minutes. But Wall subbed in for Rose a couple of minutes early on Wednesday.
- Early in the scrimmage, Rose blocked shots on two straight possessions. The first was on a corner three. He blocked the shot, saved the ball and got it to George, leading to a White Team fast break. On the next possession, he blocked a drive by Harden.
- Focused on the negatives of the other non-Davis bigs, I was talking myself into Plumlee having at shot at the final roster. But a couple of things on Wednesday gave me a reality check. First, Plumlee struggled offensively in the scrimmage, missing two free throws and committing two turnovers (an illegal screen and a traveling violation). Second, in talking about the bigs, Krzyzewski said that Plumlee “is going to be in the scrimmage on Friday.” Reading between the lines (which may be a bad idea), it sounds like Plumlee probably won’t be with the team beyond that.
- I will say that Plumlee was the most vocal big man in the scrimmage. You can see the Kevin Garnett influence, because he’s always letting his backcourt teammates know if they’re by themselves on the perimeter or if there’s a screen coming.
- My favorite play of the scrimmage: A long outlet pass from Cousins to DeRozan, who caught the ball in the air and, before he came down, sent a slick bounce pass across the lane to Harden, who was fouled on the play.
- A lob from Parsons to Drummond reminded you that the latter doesn’t need much separation from his man to go up and catch the ball where no one else can get it. He may now be the most intriguing on-or-off-the-roster question on this team.
- Blue won the 10-minute scrimmage 24-19, with Lillard hitting a dagger, step-back three with 18 seconds to go.
There won’t be any scrimmaging on Thursday, so that everybody is fresh for Friday’s USA Basketball Showcase (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
“Tomorrow is a non-contact day,” Krzyzewski said, “so we don’t get little injuries or whatever, and then that they’re prepared for Friday. You get another chance on Friday to see, with the lights on what goes on.”
As noted in today’s story about Durant and George, those two and Davis are locks to start for this team. I’d guess that Rose looks really good (like 90/10) to start at point guard and Harden is the most likely starter (65/35) at the two. Curry is the other possible starter at either guard position.
Outside of those six, which were assumed locks before camp began, it’s really hard to say that anybody else is definitely on the roster. Colangelo told Sam Amick of USA Today that it would be hard to carry more than two “pure points.” In the same quote, Colangelo says that Rose, Irving and Wall are points.
(Though we saw Curry on the floor without one of the other point guards for the first time on Wednesday, he’s definitely more of a two than a one on this roster. Colangelo calls Lillard “a tweener.”)
Rose is in, so it sounds like one roster spot will come down to Irving and Wall. Wall is the better defender, the better passer and, seemingly, the better fit. But Irving brings better shooting and a history with Krzyzewski.