LAS VEGAS -- The breakthrough basketball star of the London Olympics is going to be Kevin Love. He is going to be this year's version of the star Charles Barkley became 20 years ago.
Barkley had won two playoff series with the 76ers over the previous half-dozen years when he established his value at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. He led the Dream Team in scoring and proved himself to be a peer of the biggest stars. Barkley became an intimidating physical presence around the boards, and the 23-year-old Love is preparing to have the same kind of impact.
But unlike Barkley, who was also able to bully his way to the basket whenever he pleased, Love will be playing to a different style. Instead of creating his own shot, he'll be waiting in the seams to knock down jumpers or attack the basket whenever the ball circulates to him, and that is where the four-year NBA veteran will be a revelation.
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At first glance Love appears to be one of the least accomplished players on the 12-man roster -- a two-time All-Star at power forward who has never played a minute in the playoffs by way of his association with the Minnesota Timberwolves. The truth about Love is that he has never had the opportunity he will earn in the Olympics at the end of the month, and no one in a U.S. uniform is going to be hungrier to prove himself.
Love averaged 5.7 points and 4.9 rebounds at the FIBA World Championship in 2010, which only served to hint at his potential.
"When we were at the World Championships, we'd have a hard practice and afterward he would go in and be running intervals with his strength guy for an hour," U.S. assistant coach Jim Boeheim said. "I went to the workout room once and there he is pounding. Pounding."
Love won the NBA's Most Improved Player award the following season. Over the last two years he has averaged 22.7 points and 14.4 rebounds for the Timberwolves, but those numbers haven't contributed to a winning program.
That's about to change. Love's game is built for the Olympics. The widened lane, zone defenses and closer three-point arc create a demand for shooting, and Love is the best-shooting big man on the U.S. roster. At the Worlds he was 20-of-35 from the field (57.1 percent), but in this tournament he promises to play a larger role than the 8.9 minutes he averaged two years ago.
Apart from 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler, the U.S. lacks traditional centers. Love is going to be among the main candidates to fill that role. His shooting and size will create the kinds of matchup problems that define international basketball, and his ability to rebound will be a go-to strength. Love isn't going to lead the U.S. in scoring, but he is going to have a surprisingly large impact.
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"He has all the skills, he's so strong and if he just taps the ball on a rebound it's his," U.S. assistant Mike D'Antoni said.
Said Love: "I just feel like I'm a unique type of player. I feel like I play different than anybody else has ever really played -- being able to rebound the ball like that and also shoot it, and have so many weapons and score at a high level. I'm confident everywhere out there on the floor, so I really don't know how to explain my game."
D'Antoni does. As a player and coach in Europe, he routinely saw big men trying to acquire Love's array of skills.
"In Europe they were quicker to adapt to the three-point line," he said. "And over there everybody does the same when they go through all of the drill work, and from an early age they're all doing the skill work. There are no coaches over there at the [age] 16 level trying to win games. They're just trying to develop players, and that to me is the biggest difference. They don't get fired from a high school or college if they don't win. They get fired if they don't develop guys."
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Those were the kinds of international players who used to exploit the U.S. at the Olympics and Worlds, because at one end of the floor their shooting would drag traditional American big men away from the basket, and at the other end they could afford to cheat defensively because the American bigs weren't a threat to shoot from the perimeter. Now along comes Love to beat them at their own game, with thanks to the skills and athleticism he has developed.
"He's kind of an international player," Boeheim said, "but he's also become more of an American player because he's gotten more athletic. That's what has made him better. He's not just a shooter -- he's now a shooter-athlete that can go get it. He may not be the fastest guy, but he's going to get his share of rebounds and make plays.
"He can do things physically that he couldn't do before. I don't think I've seen a big guy get that much better in a two year span -- from 2010, when he was a good player, to now, where he is really good."
The U.S. plans to create a variety of lineups in its pursuit of the gold medal. But the most painful twist may be generated by Love, whose size is needed by the U.S., and whose skill-set is perfect for the FIBA games that he and his teammates are about to play. Twenty years ago, basketball fans around the world were surprised by the talent of Charles Barkley. One month from now, they're going to be expressing similar surprise over Kevin Love.