Posts Tagged ‘Kevin Love’

Rubio wants Wolves’ leadership reins


VIDEO: Rubio breaks down the upcoming season in Minnesota

HANG TIME SOUTHWEST – Yes, his jumper needs work and that’s why the Minnesota Timberwolves hired noted shot doc Mike Penberthy to help Ricky Rubio. Shots can be fixed, but when it comes to enhancing a player’s leadership, outside of hiring a team psychologist — which the Dallas Mavericks do, the Wolves do not and more teams should — there’s really not a coach, a sage or swami to bring in for a quick “fix.”

Leadership mostly has to evolve naturally to develop the maturity, self-assuredness and self-confidence that emboldens one to direct others. In Minnesota, that job is on Rubio. The Wolves, sans Kevin Love, are his team.

Nineteen-year-old No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins might one day become the face of the franchise, but in this transition season, it is up to the young Spaniard, still a couple weeks shy of his 24th birthday, to manage the emotions of an intriguingly athletic squad of relative pups who are likely to go through this season riding alternating waves of fun and frustration.

“It’s a different team, of course, but we have to move on,” Rubio told NBA.com in a phone interview Thursday. “We have to step up, especially me as a leader, be more vocal. Our young guys, they need someone to guide them. I think we have a lot of vets here that can do that. Mo [Williams] is a great example. Me and Kevin Martin can do the same thing.

“What I’ve been doing, since I am young, is leading by example, practicing hard and doing everything on the court. I have to learn how to be more vocal. I’m not good at that and I have to improve.”

One key for Rubio is to block outside noise. At the team’s media day earlier this week he didn’t want to discuss ongoing contract negotiations because he thinks it affects him on the floor. Last year he grew weary of the media’s inquiries into an increasingly restless Love.

“Of course we had a lot going on last year and the media was talking, they were wondering if Kevin wanted to be here, blah, blah, blah, and that hurt the team and hurt himself,” Rubio said. “Now that he’s not here, the media’s not going to talk about that anymore. I think that’s going to be good for him and for us.”

With the Love chapter closed, Rubio, fully healthy and now more experienced as an NBA player, could be headed for a big year, the year everybody has been waiting to see. For critics who wonder why he’s yet to make an All-Star team, it’s easy to forget the turbulence of his first three seasons.

A terrific start to his lockout-delayed rookie season — 10.2 points, 8.2 assists — ended abruptly in Game 41 with a torn ACL in his left knee. He didn’t return until December of the following season, one which Love played 18 games and Rubio never truly bounced back from the devastating injury.

“It was tough for me, physically, but mentally. That hurt me,” Rubio said. “When you come back, you’re thinking you’re going to be back 100 percent; you’re not. You can be in shape after a tough injury like I had, but you are not in game shape. That comes with games and it took me time to realize that. I was playing and I was going home thinking about what’s going on with me and all this stuff. So it was tough, plus people talking made it even tougher. So my second year was tough.”

There again he references “people talking” about his performance. And maybe such chatter has played mind games with his shot, too. Still, his Year 3, although ending again with no playoffs amid a slew of close losses and Love’s declining interest, finished strongly, with Rubio playing as assertively as he has in the NBA. He’s carrying that confidence into training camp, understanding the new responsibility before him.

He is excited about the new makeup of the team and the up-tempo style it will play. Whether an extension gets done by the end of the month or he goes into next summer as a restricted free agent (Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher predicts the Wolves will trade him), Rubio says he believes he can win in Minnesota. He said he’s not putting that type of pressure on his young team just yet. But, he said, ending Minnesota’s decade-long playoff drought is his focus no matter how improbable it might seem in a rugged Western Conference where Phoenix and New Orleans appear next in line to challenge for a final playoff spot.

“I feel more mature. I’ve been through good things and bad things that helped me grow up,” Rubio said. “Every season you can learn a lot of things even if you don’t make the playoffs like we haven’t done the last three years. Every time you don’t make the playoffs, you have something inside that you want to prove again next year. So it’s growing up. It’s something that we have to be patient, take our time and make it.

“I want to put my team in the playoffs, so all I’m thinking right now is growing up with my team and being the best I can to help my team win.”

Morning shootaround — Sept. 28


VIDEO: Nets’ expectations for 2015

NEWS OF THE MORNING

LeBron: ‘This is Kyrie’s show’ | Kupchak still talking titles in LA | Hollins installing new system one step at a time | Vogel still believes in Pacers

No. 1: LeBron: This is Kyrie’s show — The new look comes with a new outlook for LeBron James, whose return to Cleveland puts him in a position where he has to adjust his game significantly for the second time in four years. He had to make adjustments to the way he played when he left Cleveland for Miami in 2010 to play alongside fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and will have to do so again now that he’s back home in Northeast Ohio playing alongside fellow All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.  While it’s clearly LeBron’s house, the world’s best player makes it clear that it’s Kyrie’s show now. Dave McMenamin of ESPN.com explains:

With two championships under his belt and the storybook factor of coming back home on his side, the presumption was that LeBron James would be the unequivocal top dog of Cleveland’s new-look Big Three.

Instead, it turns out James is more than willing to share the spotlight, as well as when it comes time to decide which player will have the ball in his hands for the majority of the Cavaliers’ possessions.

“I’ll probably handle the ball a little bit, but this is Kyrie [Irving's] show,” James said Saturday following the team’s first practice of training camp. “He’s our point guard. He’s our floor general, and we need him to put us in position to succeed offensively. He has to demand that and command that from us with him handling the ball.”

James split ballhandling duties with Dwyane Wade most of the time during his four years with the Miami Heat, causing Mario Chalmers often to play off the ball on offense even though he defended the opposing team’s point guard on the other end.

Now, James will have another ball-dominant guard in Irving to play with, and not only is it something that he accepted in his return to Cleveland, it actually played a role in selling him on the move from Miami.

“Coming back, my [Sports Illustrated] letter kind of spoke for it, what this city and Northeast Ohio, what I mean to it. That had a lot to do with it, probably 95 percent of it. And the fact that Kyrie was here as well. That’s a huge part,” James said. “I’ve never played with a point guard like Kyrie Irving, a guy that can kind of take over a game for himself. We need it. So, that was a huge thing and that was way before we even got [Kevin] Love and signed Mike Miller and Trix (Shawn Marion) and the rest of the guys. That was very intriguing.”

(more…)

Morning shootaround — Sept. 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

New LeBron leads Cavs’ new era | Presti wants to ‘invest’ in Jackson | Budenholzer opens up on Ferry’s comments, Hawks’ roster | Carter-Williams not cleared for contact

No. 1: New era in Cleveland begins with a new James — Among all the teams that will host their team media days either today or Monday, perhaps no other squad’s will be more anticipated than the Cleveland Cavaliers’. Ex-MVP LeBron James is back in the fold, point guard Kyrie Irving has a new contract extension to live up to and All-Star Kevin Love came over from Minnesota this summer. All that combined means the Cavs will be the story all season long. As Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com notes, though, this LeBron return to Cleveland isn’t about warm fuzzies and jersey sales — it’s about him using his championship experience gained as a member of the Miami Heat to lift the Cavs to that level, too:

The version of James who is reporting for work this week isn’t just a touching coming home story and a ticket- and jersey-selling machine. This is an all-business man who is accustomed to an all-business attitude. He is not afraid to issue demands for those around him to follow suit.

The Miami Heat influence on James is undeniable. James may be gone from Miami, but he will no doubt carry the lessons of that franchise for the rest of his career and, probably, his life. Heat president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra are all business. From the way they practice to the way they play down to the way they eat, they conduct their franchise in such a manner.

James embraced many of the Heat’s principles. He called his time in Miami a college experience. In some ways, it was a military school experience. It is not an accident that James wanted Mike Miller and James Jones with him in Cleveland, and his recruitment of Ray Allen is part of the same idea. James knows he is going to need help in applying a makeover to the Cavs’ comfort zone.

The young Cavs players are about to learn who the last ones on the court will be after practice. This is how it is done in Miami, and this is how James will want it done in Cleveland.

This was evident in the way James handled himself over the summer. Within moments of making his free-agency announcement, James was on the phone with Love, Miller, Jones and, later, Shawn Marion. He helped close those deals shortly thereafter. Nearly 30, James is about execution these days, not just the show.

James will do all this from the position of knowing that he will be in top physical shape, he will put in the work at practice and in the film room, and he will know not just where he is supposed to be all the time but where everyone else is supposed to be. He is a two-time champ, a two-time Finals MVP, a four-time MVP and a man starting to feel his basketball mortality who has put his reputation on the line — again — to make it finally work in his hometown.

He is going to live up to his end of the bargain. If anyone with the Cavs doesn’t live up to theirs, and that starts with owner Dan Gilbert and goes right down to the ball boys, James is not going to let them get away with it.

The Cavs organization will remember the James who liked to joke around and plan pregame routines and then run away when ownership and the front office came to him when they needed real help. It wasn’t that James failed as a recruiter for free agents and coaches his first time in Cleveland, it was that he wasn’t even interested in taking part.

Those days are over. James will have his fun and involve teammates; that’s why he has become so well-liked in the league. But you better execute your job because James will execute his.


VIDEO: New Cavs coach David Blatt talks about getting ready for training camp, LeBron and more

(more…)

A dozen stories to open training camps

Little has changed with the ageless Spurs since the confetti rained down on the champs, but much is now different with the rest of the NBA. So as the first handful of training camps open this week, here are a dozen storylines that will require immediate attention:

LeBron rocks, Cleveland rolls

LeBron James, 2007 (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty)

Is it really as simple as putting the giant sign of LeBron James back up in downtown Cleveland and turning the clock back to the days of the Cavs as contenders for them to win it all? With Kyrie Irving‘s continued growth, his performance at the FIBA World Cup fresh in our minds, with the arrival of Kevin Love to be the third leg of the stool, it only seems a matter of time before the Cavs are on the main stage in June. Let’s remember that Irving and Love have never even been to the playoffs, let alone made a deep run. But let’s also remember that this is the Eastern Conference and that means the door is open.

Kobe vs. The World

Let’s face it. Nobody — not LeBron, not Carmelo Anthony, not Kevin Durant, not anybody — will have every step he takes on the court scrutinized and analyzed more than Kobe Bryant as he battles the calendar and what would seem to be common sense as he tries to come back from a torn Achilles tendon and a knee fracture at age 36. He’ll be determined, defiant, maybe even destructive to his own well-being. More than anything, you have to hope he can stay healthy all the way through the long grind of the season, if for no other reason than to see how he drives and browbeats a ragtag collection of post-Pau Gasol era Lakers in a quixotic quest.

Big Man in the Big Easy

They’ve changed owners, changed their team name and solidified the face of the franchise for the first time since New Orleans was last in the playoffs. Now it’s time to see if Anthony Davis can build on his big dog experience with Team USA in the World Cup and put some bite into the Pelicans. Davis averaged 20.8 points, 10 rebounds and made his first All-Star Game appearance last season. But based on the way he played in Spain, that might have only been scratching the surface. There are some ready to jump Davis over reigning MVP Durant as the next “best player in the game.” He’ll get up front support this season from Omer Asik, and if Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans can stay healthy, this could be the beginning of a whole new era.

Stuck on the launch pad

Until LeBron went back home to Cleveland, it was hard to top the last two offseason jackpots hit by the Rockets — landing James Harden and Dwight Howard. But that streak hit a wall when the Rockets went all-in to bring Carmelo Anthony or Chris Bosh to Houston. It was a bold and grand gamble that required trading away Omer Asik (to the Pelicans) and Jeremy Lin (to the Lakers) to create salary cap space. It also led to allowing Chandler Parsons to become a free agent and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. Now with neither prize free agent, the Rockets are a team that won 54 games a year ago, lost in the first round of the playoffs and have the depth of a one-night pickup at a singles bar. How much can they get from Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas and Isaiah Canaan? What does Jason Terry have left? How much of the weight can Harden and Howard realistically carry?

(more…)

USAB program solid from top to bottom

Team USA, gold medal winners at the FIBA Basketball World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Team USA, gold medal winners at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

MADRID — It’s as American as apple pie, the deep-seeded need to be the best. For USA Basketball, gold has always been the goal.

It hasn’t always been as easy as it was Sunday, when the U.S. confirmed its international basketball dominance with a 129-92 win over Serbia in the gold medal game of the FIBA Basketball World Cup. There was a time, not that long ago, that the national program was in shambles. It turned ugliest when the U.S. hobbled to a dismal sixth-place finish at the 2002 World Championship in Indianapolis. That was the first time a team composed entirely of NBA stars lost in international competition.

The blueprint for rebuilding Team USA was designed shortly after, born out of a respect for the global game that replaced the sense of entitlement that many with the team carried.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski understood  the gains the rest of the world made after the original Dream Team came here and dazzled the world at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

“When we started out nine years ago with Jerry and his staff, we had two goals,” Coach K said . “One was to try to win gold medals, 1A, and 1B was to win the respect of our country and the world and how it would be done. I think one of the reasons we won is because we do have that respect. We know how good everyone is. It’s beautiful basketball. We prepare like crazy and we learn from the international community.”

There were stumbles early, lessons to be learned from those stumbles and plenty of ground to be made up in terms of internal structure and a culture that had to be created. But USA Basketball is once again the gold standard. The best talent on the best teams at every level — U-19 and U-17 included — fly the USAB banner.

“I’m very pleased and excited and happy for where USA Basketball is today,” Colangelo said. “I can think back to 2005 when I was asked to take on that responsibility, and we had a game plan and now we’re seeing the fruition of that over the last decade. And it’s resulted in four gold medal championships, and it doesn’t get much better than that.”

Four cycles — World Cup/World Championships and Olympics alternating every two years — four straight gold medals and 45 straight wins later, it’s obvious that the master plan for USA Basketball’s championship infrastructure is firmly in place. (more…)

Morning shootaround — Sept. 15

NEWS OF THE MORNING
USA romps, silences critics | Irving caps off amazing summer with MVP | Rose gets early jump on 2014-15 season | Rubio never got to talk Love into staying

No. 1: USA silences critics, takes home the gold — As the superstar names either opted out or dropped off the Team USA roster for the 2014 FIBA World Cup, the questions seemed to grow with each missing player. Could this U.S. team continue the dominance it had previously enjoyed on the world stage? Who would step up to fill the superstar gap left by (pick one:) LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Love and others not taking part? As our Sekou Smith points out, though, Team USA’s romp of Serbia not only clinched the gold medal for it, but proved once again why the U.S. has the best overall basketball talent:

After being asked about it for weeks, they can answer honestly and without the least bit of arrogance.

They are indeed unbeatable, the U.S. National Team, winners of 45 straight games in World Cup/World Championship and Olympic competition.

Yes, the best from the U.S. is way better than what anyone else can offer up on basketball’s global stage.

With the win the U.S. captured its fifth title and this team put the U.S. in elite company, joining Brazil (1959 and ’63) and Yugoslavia (’98 and 2002) as the only nations to repeat as champs.

For weeks this U.S. team, devoid of superstars like LeBron James, Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony, not to mention Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Paul George, heard about how vulnerable it was. Spain, and not the U.S. was being touted as the favorite early on.

What is basically an under-25 squad of U.S. stars silenced their critics with one dominant performance after another. Not all of them were as pretty as Sunday’s gold medal game, when Irving set the tone early by connecting on his first five shots and piling up 15 points by halftime. He was a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the 3-point line, saving his best showing for the final game in Spain. He led the U.S. charge with a game-high 26 points and was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

The U.S. started pool play in Bilbao, plundering through Group C without playing their very best and still smashing the opposition in all five games. They weren’t tested deep into any of their three games in the medal round in Barcelona, smashing through Mexico, Slovenia and finally Lithuania in the semifinals. They won their first eight games by an average of 32.5 points.

Not only was this game and the entire competition a showcase for an up-and-coming group of young NBA stars — Faried, Davis, Cousins, Klay Thompson and even a young All-Star like Irving will all return home to greater expectations with their respective NBA teams — it serves as proof that whatever leaks there have been in the USA Basketball pipeline in recent years have been plugged.

USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski have made sure of it with their resuscitation of the program over the past nine years.

“Coach K told us before the game that we were going to play our best game tonight,” Thompson said. “And we proved him right. I can’t put this into words, man. I haven’t won a title since high school, certainly nothing this big.  Winning in high school was great, but this is something I’ll hopefully be able to show my grandkids one day. I’ll cherish this the rest of my life.”


VIDEO: James Harden talks with GameTime about the thrill of winning FIBA World Cup gold (more…)

Blogtable: The state of the States

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: The state of the States | Getting untracked | The Hawks



VIDEO: A “turrific” Spain team will not be intimidated by the U.S., says Charles Barkley.

> Charles Barkley is picking Spain at the FIBA World Cup. What if the U.S. doesn’t win gold? What does that say about the state of basketball in the U.S.?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.comNo biggie. The whole Dream Team experience 22 years ago was intended, yes, to re-assert U.S. superiority in basketball but also to spread the gospel of the game around the globe. Well, mission accomplished on both fronts: That team shredded the competition but also upped everyone’s game internationally. If Coach K & Co. could just cake-walk over everyone in 2014, the second objective would have been a failure. Let’s not forget, either, Team USA doesn’t have the NBA’s very best participating.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: No time to panic and trade in your passport. It says what we already knew. The basketball world has changed dramatically since the 1992 Dream Team.  The talent gap has shrunk and the “awe factor” of Team USA is gone.  With a Spanish lineup of Pau and Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Ricky Rubio, Rudy Fernandez and Juan Carlos Navarro, to name a few, it means the U.S. needs to put its very best — LeBron, Carmelo, Durant, etc. — to beat a first class Spanish team before a home crowd.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: It says a group of Spaniards came together as a team better than this group of Americans, which, frankly, is our B/C team. These Spanish players are talented and many have played together for quite some time. This young American squad can’t say that. If Spain wins, great for them. The U.S. can begin plotting revenge at the 2016 Games when the American team will feature LeBron, KD, CP3, K-Love, Blake Griffin, Dwight Howard, Russell Westbrook … must I go on?

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: It would say Spain is definitely better than the United States’ backup squad. No LeBron James, no Kevin Durant, no Chris Paul, no Paul George, no Blake Griffin, no Kevin Love — there is no referendum on basketball in the U.S. if the Americans do not win the gold, as much as some people will pull a muscle straining to reach the conclusion. Maybe Spain would beat a Team USA at full strength, but we’ll never know. Based on actual events, if — if — the U.S. misses the gold, it will be more of a statement about the commitment of players to the program than the level of talent.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: It’s no big statement about the state of the game in the U.S. Yes, there needs to be more practicing and less traveling at the AAU level. And yes, there needs to be more focus on the fundamentals, teamwork and passing skills that we see from some of these international teams. But the absence of both LeBron James and Kevin Durant makes such a huge difference that if the U.S. loses, it doesn’t mean that it’s not still the best basketball nation in the world.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comAbsolutely nothing. As good as the 2014 FIBA World Cup team has been, and they are 40 minutes from playing or gold in Madrid on Sunday, the entire planet knows that the A-Team didn’t make the trip. Spain knows it. Lithuania knows it. Everyone knows that to the be the case. Coach K has made it clear that this team is no invincible. He learned that the hard way in 2006 against Greece. That’s why  I would argue that this team winning gold here would be as impressive a feat as any team under the Colangelo-Kryzyewski USA Basketball banner . No one outside of their own locker room expects them to win here. But let’s be real about this, if Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook and a few other top flight NBA stars were here (I’m not even talking about LeBron, CP3, Carmelo and the guys who won gold in London), this discussion wouldn’t be taking place. And while everyone else is concinved the U.S. contingent cannot win here, I disagree. I think they can. All that said, I think the better question is what does it say about basketball in the rest of the world, and Spanish basketball in particular, if this U.S. team defies the odds and does walk away with gold against a better and more seasoned foe on its home soil?

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: It says we didn’t have our best team on the court. Not to take anything away from Spain or the other teams in the World Cup, but a Team USA with, oh, let’s say some permutation of LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Kevin Love, Tim Duncan, Russell Westbrook or even Paul George, I think it’s safe to say we would have a more powerful team. Are other countries catching up to the United States? Yes. Have they caught the United States? No. Not yet, at least.

Cousins is U.S. wild card going forward


VIDEO: Before World Cup play, DeMarcus Cousins did major work last season for the Kings

BARCELONA — DeMarcus Cousins might barely play in the U.S. National Team’s quarterfinal matchup against Slovenia here Tuesday at the Palau Saint Jordi.

Circumstances beyond his control will dictate whether the biggest and perhaps best, by NBA standards, big man on the U.S. roster has a chance to show what he can do.

Such is life in the USA Basketball bubble, where All-Stars are asked to be reserves and a dominant big man has to wait his turn against an opponent that will spread the floor with as many as five 3-point shooters in an attempt to agitate the U.S.

One night you are the man. The next, you’re on the bench watching someone else play that role, depending on the matchup.

“It’s definitely a change for me,” Cousins said. “It’s an adjustment. I’m not used to coming off the bench, not used to playing limited minutes. It’s a huge adjustment. But everybody has a different role, and in order for us to get that ultimate goal, that gold medal, we have to play our roles to the best of our abilities.”

The fact that Cousins is even here and a part of this particular team raised eyebrows for some. Like several players on this team, he wasn’t viewed as the ideal fit. The need for fleet-footed bigs with shooting range out to and beyond the 3-point line is a must in FIBA competition.

The skills Cousins brings to the table — a traditional, low-post big man who does best work around the basket and with his back to it often — don’t mesh with the style of the day. But he represents a strategic shift for the U.S. and a serves as a potential wild card as this week goes on. If the U.S. is able to win its way through to this weekend’s medal games in Madrid, a rugged big man with his size and skill could come in handy.

As well as Anthony Davis and Kenneth Faried, the U.S. starters at center and power forward, respectively, Cousins has proved himself indispensible as the Plan B big man.

“I think he’s come a long way,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. “I’m really, really happy for him. And I’m really happy for us. The one thing, he came in with a desire to make it. This was big to him. So he already had a leg up in terms of attitude and he wanted this thing. I think he’s paid his dues. He’s worked hard. Had a little setback when he went down. Fortunately it wasn’t something that knocked him out. But right now he’s playing really well. And his size and his ability could be real factor before this is over.”

Cousins was needed in Saturdays win over Mexico, whose Gustavo Ayon worked the U.S. for 25 points and eight rebounds and worked over Davis and Faried in the process but wasn’t able to take physical advantage of Cousins.

U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski praised Cousins for his work and lauded his diligence in making himself a factor on this team.

“We have believed in DeMarcus right from start of training camp,” he said. “All the reports about him not making the team and all that were all … not right. We felt he would be the perfect guy with or in place of Anthony at times, but more in the place of Anthony, and I think it’s just a matter of him continuing to get in better shape, our guys getting accustomed that when he does come into the game he’s different than Anthony and so to look for him. I think they see him more now, and I think his defense has really improved. He tried to take three charges (against Mexico). He played Ayon pretty well without getting help, so they couldn’t get a three off of him. I thought he played. He’d get an A+ from me, let’s just put it that way.”

The strategic shift to incorporate a more traditional big man into the mix was done partly out of necessity and also based on the specific challenges of this particular competition (Spain and the brothers Gasol and Serge Ibaka loom in a potential gold medal showdown).

Having the physical firepower to play any style was a part of the U.S. game plan this time around.

“Since we’ve been together, and I’m going back now to 2005, we didnt have a major presence in the middle,” Colangelo said. “We just didn’t. Dwight Howard was a young Dwight Howard then and Chris Bosh was his back up, a young back up. After that it was different. We didn’t have that real dominant kind of guy in the middle. We went with more of a perimeter game and we were structured that way.

“So this was a little change in strategy. And it just so happens, as things developed. If you were to add Kevin Durant and Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin, that still would have put us in a situation where we might not have looked to some of the bigger guys in the middle. So circumstances caused us, not forced us, but caused us to see what other options do we have here. And we looked at our bigs and said, ‘let’s go with them.'”

That was music to the ears of Cousins and fellow behemoth Andre Drummond, another surprise addition to the roster.

What sort of impact they have, however, depends on the specific matchups.

“The only thing that is on our mind is to win,” Coach K said. “And winning means that you should have a nine or ten man rotation, so that’s all we are looking for. The game will give you the opportunity to put the right people in, because of matchups, and that is what we are looking for … We are going to match up according to what they do, because the first thing is we have to play defense against them.”

Cousins has shown himself to be a willing defender and rim protector in his minutes here, not to mention a more than capable rebounder and physical force. He’s never had a problem scoring and hasn’t against anyone he’s faced so far.

And yet he readily admits that he’s still finding his way against the big men he’s dealt with the past six games.

“Basically, it’s just me finding my role, getting used to the style of play and learning how to be effective,” he said. “It’s the first time for me, playing this way. For me it’s a process. But I’m coming into my own. I think you can see that from the way I’ve been playing. I’m getting better as we keep playing.”

World Cup stint helps Irving hone leadership skills

Kyrie Irving is learning a lot in Spain (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images).

Kyrie Irving continues to hone his craft in Spain (Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images).

BARCELONA — A hard fall late in a September game a year ago would have been just a part of the deal for Kyrie Irving, nothing out of the norm for an NBA player getting ready for the upcoming season.

But this summer has been anything but normal for the Cleveland Cavaliers star. From the moment LeBron James announced he was coming home until the day the Kevin Love trade was finally completed, things have been completely abnormal for Irving.

So he wasn’t surprised at the intense scrutiny that followed that hard fall in the U.S. National Team’s final pool play game last week against the Ukraine. Irving was back on the practice floor Friday and in the starting lineup for Saturday’s Round of 16 win over Mexico. But that didn’t stop Cavaliers Nation from worrying.

“We’ve got a few more followers now,” he said, laughing sarcastically as he spoke the truth. “I realize that everything that I do now interests a lot more people, even something like this.”

Irving’s work here, as the starting point guard on a team that boasts a former MVP in Derrick Rose and an All-Star in Steph Curry (who is also in the starting lineup but not as a point guard like he is for the Golden State Warriors) speaks volumes about Irving’s still evolving game.

It speaks the trust U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski and his staff have in Irving and the belief his teammates have in his abilities and leadership skills. This competition is the ideal place for Irving to hone those leadership skills. He’s directing traffic for a group of stars, All-Stars really, with the world watching.

It’s the same sort of thing he’ll have to do from now on in Cleveland, albeit with the biggest star in the game on his side.

Normal got flipped overnight.

Expectations changed in an instant, the moment LeBron said he was coming home. And that’s what makes this summer crash course in accelerated leadership the perfect preparation for Irving.

“This is awesome for me,” Irving said. “It’s one of the greatest experiences I’ve had up to this point in my career. This is one of the biggest things I’ve played for at this point in my career, so I’m just looking forward to the challenge.”

There’s never been any question about Irving’s talent. When healthy, he’s proven himself to be among the NBA’s truly elite point guards. A two-time All-Star before he’s ever tasted the intensity of playoff competition, this is his first time competing and running a team on a stage like this. And he admitted that it’s been an eye-opener in many ways.

“We all come from different organizations and we all have different roles on our teams,” Irving said of the leadership style on this U.S. National Team. “So it’s not more or less about picking and choosing when to say something. We all have respect for one another and tell each other the truth and look each other in the eye. That’s how we’ve come together as a group thus far. And that’s why we’re as close as we are after a month and a half together, because we have respect for each other’s games. Obviously, I’m a fan of all these guys games. And it’s a great opportunity to play with all of these other great players.”

The best part in the USA Basketball environment is that everything is earned. Irving was so good in training camp that even if Rose was 100 percent healthy, Irving would still have been the right fit with the first unit.

Either way, he’s learning a lesson in how to handle things from Rose, who has experience in this realm that Irving is just now seeing in the flesh.

“You have players like me, Klay [Thompson] and the rest of the starting five, almost all the players on our team, you have to sacrifice coming off the bench,” Rose said. “With me in the second unit, I believe there is no second unit that can stick with me when I’m on the floor, and that’s vice versa with Kyrie if he was to come off the bench, no one could stick him. That’s what makes us unique.”

How much of this translates to the NBA season and what Irving will be asked to do with LeBron and Love in the mix, remains to be seen. Roles will have to be adjusted. Chemistry will have to be developed. Sacrifices will have to be made.

But if it’s a choice between winning at the highest level and having to sacrifice a few of the comforts he’d grown accustomed to in Cleveland the past few seasons, it’s not even a debate.

“I’m all about winning, winning gold here and winning at the highest level in everything I do,” Irving said. “That’s the ultimate challenge for any of us, to find out if you have what it takes inside to win like that.”

Before he decided to return home to Cleveland, James was already a fan of Irving’s. A well-versed “student of the game” as he likes to call himself, he’d had an eye on the kid going all the way back to Irving’s high school days.

Playing against him while in Miami and alongside him during the All-Star Game, proved what he already knew about Irving.

“Kyrie’s special,” James said after watching Irving earn All-Star MVP honors in February. “It’s just that simple. Very special basketball player, very smart basketball player — his ability to shoot the ball, get into the lane, make shots around the rim. He has the total package. I’ve always known that, always witnessed that ever since he was in high school.”

What they’ll do together, with Love as the third member of the latest Big 3, could be special, too.

All those folks and new followers in Cleveland and around the world are counting on it.


VIDEO: Kyrie on injury, team chemistry

The Manimal bursts onto world stage

Kenneth Faried shot better than 79 percent in the first round of the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

Kenneth Faried shot better than 79 percent in the first round of the FIBA World Cup. (Garrett Ellwood/NBAE)

BILBAO, Spain — Kenneth Faried sticks out in a crowd.

On a couch in the U.S. National Team’s hotel lobby on an off day, Faried dominates the scene, his dreadlocks scattered over his broad shoulders, the ideal accessory for a man whose profile is rising with every outing in the FIBA World Cup.

It’s been the same way on the court for the Denver Nuggets star, who has been the most dominant force on any team heading into the single-elimination round of the tournament. The most unlikely breakout star on a team few expected him to make, Faried has been a revelation for those unfamiliar with his relentless game.

Faried silenced his critics through the five-game pool play portion of this competition with consistent fury and a motor that lives up to every letter of his gold medal, social-media infused (#unleashthemanimal) mission on his first trip with the National Team.

This notion that an old-school power forward (not a “stretch-4″) could dominate in this fashion is reminiscent of another physical force of nature who invaded Spain years ago with the USA logo plastered across his chest. While any NBA comparison between Faried and Dream Teamer, Hall of Famer and TNT’s very own Charles Barkley end there, the proof that Faried’s trademark game made it through customs without issue has been on display since the day the National Team convened for training camp.

“Overall, from the start of training camp, he’s been the biggest and best surprise and has turned out to be a very, very important player for us,” U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski said of his starting power forward, who at one point last week was shooting a jaw-dropping 80 percent. “He’s made that happen. We never call a play for him.”

A social media superstar is born

Faried makes his own plays. He steals an inbounds pass, spins and dunks all in a single burst, leaving coaches, teammates and especially opponents in awe of a man whose energy never seems to wane.

“These first five games didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. I know what Kenneth can do,” U.S. guard James Harden said. “Energy and hustle works no matter where you are, overseas, NBA, college. No matter who it is and no matter what sport. He’s done a tremendous job here in showing everybody what he can do. He’s setting screens, rebounding, offensive rebounder and scoring. He’s doing everything that we’ve asked him to do and more. He’s definitely a huge part of our team.”

Not bad for a guy who was considered a longshot, by some, to be here.

With reigning KIA NBA MVP Kevin Durant dropping out at the last-minute, just days after an injury forced Paul George out of the mix (and Kevin Love withdrawing before him), the U.S. was in need of not only a starter at power forward, but also a catalyst. Faried stepped into both roles with his usual zeal.

Silencing critics and gaining fans? That’s fine with Faried.

“I don’t know. If I am, then thank you to all my followers,” Faried said. “If I’m not, then it don’t worry me none. I just came out here to play basketball and do the sport I love to do each and every day.”

Harden, Derrick Rose and Steph Curry all have experience in the program and have won gold medals. Any one of them could still be needed to play a bigger leadership role before this tournament is over.

On to Barcelona

In the meantime, the U.S. has found a dynamic pair  of pacesetters in Faried and Anthony Davis. They are still working their way up the big man food chain in the NBA. But here in Spain, they are the unquestioned leaders of the pack.

Davis showed signs and potential when he earned a gold medal in the London Olympics in 2012. Seeing him do the things he’s doing now shouldn’t be a surprise. But no one in Bilbao saw Faried coming, including New Orleans Pelicans coach Monty Williams, an assistant on the National Team staff who also happens to work with the big men.

“I think he’s surprised everybody, just because you can’t scout energy,” Williams said. “It’s the one thing you can’t quantify, how hard a guy plays and what his heart is made of. He’s played the same way since the first day of training camp. And he’s used to playing that way. Everybody has had to adjust to him. He hasn’t made any adjustments because that’s how he is all the time.”

The world now awaits in Barcelona, where the U.S. takes on Mexico Saturday (10 a.m. ET, ESPN2) in the round of 16 single-elimination portion of the competition.

Faried said he’s playing the only way he knows how, all-out at all times. He’s proud of the “Manimal” nickname. He earned it with years of tireless work, the stuff the world is seeing now on this grand stage., the same stuff that’s made him a force in Denver.

“I don’t think he’s playing any different now than he plays in the NBA,” Williams said. “Sometimes this [international] game slows down a bit. But he doesn’t. And that helps us. But that’s his game. He plays hard every possession.”

It’s easy to tag Faried a hustle guy, an energy guy and not necessarily recognize the skill level involved in operating that way full-time. Williams knows better, though, having to deal with Faried on a regular basis in the Western Conference.

“Back in the day playing hard was expected,” Williams said. “Now it’s a skill. So guys who play at that level they stand out. With all of the attention on shooting 3s and stretch this and stretch that, the analytics, I don’t know how you analyze energy, toughness and heart. That’s what Kenneth brings every night.”