SAN ANTONIO -- A slew of thoughts (and images) from three days spent at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship, which ended on Wednesday with Team USA rallying to win gold over Brazil, 81-78.
• The U.S. assembled a deeply talented roster for this event, but the three guards coach Jeff Capel relied on to carry the team were Duke-bound Kyrie Irving, Marquette-bound Vander Blue, and high school senior-to-be Austin Rivers, the son of Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers. Each player offered glimpses of his college potential.
• Rivers should just reclassify and jump to college now. The 6-foot-3 guard was the most lethal perimeter scorer in the entire tournament, and on Tuesday he set a new U.S. record for points in a FIBA U18 event, dropping 35 on Team Canada (on 9-of-12 long-range shooting). Rivers is a killer three-point shooter off the dribble, using a crossover/step-back combo to create space for his shot or get into the lane, where he's a fluid finisher. On numerous occasions, he reminded me of a Davidson-era Stephen Curry.
Doc Rivers follows his sons' hoops careers so actively that on at least 11 Celtics off-days this season, he jumped on a private jet following practice, flew to Florida for Austin's games, and then back to Boston the same night. The proud father was a mainstay in the stands at St. Mary's University, even on the day it was announced he was returning to the Celtics for another year. As a career 32.8 percent three-point shooter in the NBA, he would not take credit for Austin's form.
"If I had taught him how to shoot, he wouldn't be able to shoot." Doc said. "Austin developed his own little shot and style, and I remember looking at it three years ago and saying, 'It goes in -- I'm not touching it.' "
Austin has honed his shot in the gym at Rollins College, near the Rivers' home in Winter Park, Fla. The coach there, Tom Klusman, lets Rivers use the gym for training each evening, but alas, Rivers will not be playing for Rollins. By the end of the summer he might be ranked the No. 1 overall player in the Class of 2011. So where will he go to school?
• Rivers appears to like Duke -- a lot. He was once committed to Florida, but is now viewed as heavily leaning toward the Blue Devils. Strong evidence of that: When he emerged from the U.S. locker room after Wednesday's win over Brazil, in which he scored 19 points, he was wearing his gold medal over a Duke 2009-10 national champions T-shirt. And he was wearing a pair of official Duke shorts. He said not to read too much into it, but how can you not?
I asked Irving if he had any influence over Rivers' wardrobe, given how well they played off of each other this week, and the prospect of them comprising the most lethal college backcourt in 2011-12. "Honestly?" Irving said. "Those are [Rivers'] shorts, those are his choice to wear them. That's all him."
• Irving, whom I'd only seen in all-star game settings prior to this, was such an effective leader in crunch time against Brazil -- igniting a U.S. rally and finishing with 25 points and 10 rebounds -- that I don't think he'll have much of a learning curve at Duke. As Florida recruit Patric Young, Irving's co-captain, said, "He's just a natural-born point guard." After getting firsthand looks at new Blue Devils Irving and Seth Curry (at CP3 Elite camp) over a three-week span, I'm even more confident that Duke -- and not Michigan State or Purdue -- is the right pick for preseason No. 1.
• Blue is a four-star recruit who came into the FIBA tourney with less name-recognition than Irving, and a four-star (rather than five) rating. But it became clear rather quickly that Blue is an elite combo guard. He's an explosive wing player with a slashing ability and a slick pull-up jumper, and he's great at jumping passing lanes on D and getting out in transition. As I tweeted earlier in the week, I can't remember the last time my home state of Wisconsin produced a hoops athlete of his caliber -- and I can understand why there was such controversy in the state over him switching his commitment from Wisconsin to Marquette. The Golden Eagles will have a future pro in their backcourt this season.
• Armed with the FlipCam in press row, I made an amateur highlight reel of the Irving-Rivers-Blue trio in action ...
• The extensive backcourt minutes played by the Irving-Rivers-Blue crew -- as well as Illinois-bound Jereme Richmond -- meant that the lone player with college experience on the roster, Washington's Abdul Gaddy, was mostly left on the bench. He saw only four minutes of action against Brazil in the title game. Prior to the tournament, Gaddy had talked about using the FIBA experience as a way to get his "swagger" back after a disappointing freshman year with Washington. He came to UW as a five-star point guard, but averaged just 3.9 points (on 15.0 percent long-range shooting) and 2.3 assists last season. I'll have more on Gaddy next week; he certainly still has potential to be a good college point guard once he finds a way to regain the free-and-easy style that made him so effective in high school, but I don't think he had the opportunity to get his swag back in San Antonio.
• Richmond's length and defensive tenacity were such assets that Capel used the Waukegan, Ill., product to contain Brazil's brilliant point guard, Raul Neto, when neither Irving, Blue, Rivers or Gaddy could keep Neto out of the lane late in the gold medal game. At 6-7, Richmond is so versatile that I saw him defend four different positions during the tournament. He also has a crazy streak (staring down his man, talking trash, complaining to refs), though, that might needed to be reined in at Illinois in order for him to blossom into a team leader and Big Ten star.
• Florida fans should be getting excited about Patric Young. After watching the 6-9 power forward anchor the U.S. frontcourt for three games, I regret not placing the Gators higher than No. 18 in my offseason Power Rankings. They haven't had a post presence like him since Al Horford and Joakim Noah left, and Young's communication skills on defense -- he controls the paint like a loud middle linebacker -- are beyond what you see from a lot of college seniors. He has Noah-level energy -- "I probably model myself after him the most," Young says -- without the rock star/rebel attitude. He left a positive impression on everyone in San Antonio (NBA scouts, USA Basketball officials) except the Brazilian team, one of whose players caught an inadvertent Young knee to the stomach during the gold-medal game and laid on the floor, incapacitated, for a few minutes. Driving guards in the SEC best beware.
• Young will probably have more defensive than offensive value for Florida as a freshman, but he does have an advanced set of moves in the post. In one short sequence of the U.S.-Argentina game, I taped him taking feeds from Irving and effortlessly hitting a righty, and then lefty baby-hook:
• Missouri-bound Tony Mitchell and Duke-bound Josh Hairston were Young's cohorts in the frontcourt for most of the tournament, alternating minutes as Capel opted for a three-guard lineup. Mitchell, who's 6-7 and extremely agile, looks like the perfect kind of forward for Tigers coach Mike Anderson's hectic attack, and a future star in the Big 12 ... if Mitchell is eligible to play as a freshman. His high school transfer credits are reportedly under investigation, although Anderson said this week that he expects Mitchell to enroll.
Mitchell told SI.com he'll be fine. "Everybody is worried about it," he said, "but I'm good. I finished my ACT and I'm just waiting to hear from the clearinghouse. I have to take tests to get [the transfer credits] back."
• The two most impressive non-American prospects in the tournament both came from Brazil:
1. Lucas Nogueira, a 7-0 center who is just 17 years old: He has legit, first-round NBA potential, and made that clear by scoring 22 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and blocking three shots against the U.S. in the gold medal game. Lucas is already a pro for Estudiantes in Spain, and could enter the NBA draft as soon as 2011, according to his agent, Aylton Tesch, a Brazilian who works with Dan Fegan's BEST agency out of Los Angeles. Tesch said that Nogueira's contract buyout was "manageable."
"It's pretty much the same situation we faced with Ricky Rubio in Spain," Tesch said, "but Lucas' buyout is like one-quarter of Rubio's [which was reportedly $6.6 million]."
2. Raul Neto, a 6-2 point guard (18 years old): The kid they call "Raulzinho" wasn't consistently great in San Antonio, but he did drop 34 points on Argentina in the semifinal. Using his speed and a mix of crossovers, floaters and a smooth three-point jumper, Neto showed why he already earns minutes for Minas Tenis Clube's senior team, where his father is an assistant. Brazilian U18 coach Walter Rose, the associate head coach at Hawaii, says Neto "has a great understanding of the game."
Neto has yet to sign a pro contract in Brazil, and has interest in coming to the states to play college. (He briefly considered coming to the U.S. for high school last season, as well.) If he does land in the NCAA in 2011-12, he could be the best foreign point guard to hit D-I since Australian Patty Mills, who starred at St. Mary's from 2007-09.
• Since there's little-to-no chance you'll be seeing Nogueira or Neto on ESPN this season, I'll leave you with a few FlipCam highlights ... and an example of how Brazilians celebrate basketball victories. The U.S. reaction to its gold medal was subdued compared to Brazil's party after beating Argentina in the semis: