Thursday July 23rd, 2009

LAS VEGAS -- There was a time, a time not too long ago, when the prospect of playing for the United States national team was considered a chore. Beginning in 2002 with the U.S.'s undignified sixth-place finish at the world championships and continuing in 2004 with their only slightly more acceptable bronze medal at the Olympics -- the first time Team USA had not won gold since professionals began playing in 1992 -- playing for the red, white and blue had lost its luster. Instead of embracing the opportunity to play for their country, American players began to fear it. One by one the NBA's heavy hitters balked at the chance to play. Antonio Davis, a member of the ill-fated 2002 team, called the U.S. jersey "the heaviest I have ever worn." Players publicly spoke of the enormous pressure they faced to win.

Team USA's struggles during that period weren't just the fault of the players. It was management, too. After the '02 debacle, the U.S. selection committee, who again battled a wave of players refusing to play, loaded the 2004 team up with great individual players like Amare Stoudemire, Shawn Marion and Stephon Marbury. They ignored the reality that the rest of the world was catching up quicker than anyone anticipated and chose not to focus on picking the right players but the best ones. Said German coach Hinrik Dettman back in '02, "Ten years ago, I thought it would have taken us 50 years to reach this point."

However, four years later the U.S. is back on top, thanks largely to superior management by USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo -- who demanded a three-year commitment from most players and restored the team's swagger -- savvy coaching by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and a commitment from veteran leaders like Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant. With Colangelo and Krzyzewski at the helm and Kidd and Bryant commandeering practices, playing for the U.S. became fun again.

Which brings us here, where 23 of the NBA's top young players will eagerly participate in a two-day minicamp (and a intrasquad scrimmage on Saturday) to try and impress the USA Basketball staff enough to earn a coveted spot on the U.S. roster. Though there is a very realistic possibility there won't be a single spot available. Colangelo says he has spoken to every member of the '08 team and they each have expressed interest in playing both in the 2010 world championships and the '12 Olympics in London.

Of course, that can change. Kidd will be 39 in 2012 and may not be up for an extended summer. And injuries are always an unknown variable.

But let's assume that there will be roster spots available. Let's say three are up for grabs. Who has the best shot? Here are five Vegas participants who loom as the strongest possibilities:

Kevin Durant, F, Oklahoma City Colangelo values versatility and there aren't many more versatile players in Las Vegas than Durant, who can play both wing positions and with a few years (and a few more pounds of muscle) could be capable of playing power forward in the international game. Durant is a fluid scorer capable of putting up points inside and out. And don't discount that many NBA-types see Durant as a future MVP candidate.

David Lee, F, NY Lee, who won't participate in the active parts of the minicamp while he sorts out his NBA contract situation, is a ferocious rebounder who last season added a soft 15-foot jump shot to his repertoire. He also runs the floor well for a big man and can score in transition. Moreover, Lee's current coach, Mike D'Antoni, is an assistant on the U.S. team and can advocate for Lee.

Greg Oden, C, Portland Traditional centers haven't performed well for the U.S. in recent years (hello, Tim Duncan), but if healthy, Oden could be just the type of dominating shot blocker the U.S. team needs behind Dwight Howard. Oden wouldn't have to play big minutes (Howard's athleticism makes him ideal for international play), but he would be a frightening sight camped out in the lane.

Derrick Rose, G, Chicago Point guard won't be a position of weakness, even if Kidd backs out. But Rose, the '09 Rookie of the Year, is a dynamic scorer who will probably be right up there with Chris Paul and Deron Williams by the '12 Olympics. Rose needs to improve his jump shot (what young point guard doesn't?) but his ability to create in the lane and beat everyone off the dribble is a skill the USA could use.

Thaddeus Young, F, Philadelphia Young (21), versatile (plays both forward spots effectively in Philly), runs the floor well, shoots with a high percentage and has an improving three-point shot -- Young could be a dark horse in Las Vegas. If he can limit his turnovers (1.6 per game last season) and move the ball more (1.1 assists), Young could become a more offensive-oriented Tayshaun Prince for the U.S.

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