LAS VEGAS — The final session of USA Basketball's four-day Las Vegas training camp wrapped up earlier than expected on Thursday, creating an opportunity for a number of intriguing, albeit mostly inconsequential, side shows to take center stage.
Here's a quick-hitting camp round-up as USA continues its preparations for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain.
Rosters set for Intra-squad Showcase
Although final roster cuts are still weeks away, USA Basketball did announce its rosters for Friday's intrasquad scrimmage, which will be held at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus.
The 19 players in the World Cup pool, plus USA Select Team member Mason Plumlee, will be split into two groups of 10 for Friday's exhibition. The teams break down as follows. (Note: players are listed at their NBA positions.)
White Team, coached by Tom Thibodeau (Bulls)
PG: Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard
SG: James Harden, Klay Thompson, Bradley Beal
SF: Kevin Durant, Chandler Parsons
PF: Paul Millsap
C: DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond
Blue Team, coached by Monty Williams (Pelicans)
PG: Derrick Rose, Stephen Curry, John Wall
SG: DeMar DeRozan
SF: Paul George, Kyle Korver, Gordon Hayward
PF: Kenneth Faried
C: Anthony Davis, Mason Plumlee
Most of the media access period on Thursday was spent observing post-practice shooting drills, which wound up being a bit of a letdown compared to the extended full-court scrimmages that unfolded earlier in the week.
Disappointment quickly gave way to excitement, though, when Durant, George and Harden decided to face off in another game of "King of the Hill," a series of one-on-one match-ups that they've been enjoying all week.
The game concept is simple: one of the three players starts with the ball just outside the free throw line, while a second player guards him and a third player watches. If the offensive player scores, he wins the round and the observer enters to play defense. If the offensive player misses, he loses, the defensive player gets the ball, and the observer enters to play defense.
"It was intense, we're all here to get better," George said Wednesday. "No better guys to go against, for myself to guard, than K.D. and James. James is quick, lower to the ground. KD has the length. It's good for me offensively too. We're all here to get better. I think we all took it too another level."
Scores are kept for each player, and eventually the first person to five points is crowned as King.
"It gets tough when you get down to four, because everyone knows you're at game point, so the defense is ramped up a bit," George continued. "It's kind of like being in the fourth quarter, you need that last-second shot. That's what game point is about."
The games have regularly drawn the attention of at least 100 observers. Three things have made the action so enthralling.
First: All three are pushing themselves to the point where they are sweating through their shirts, and lots of interesting things happen when such talented players are maxing out effort-wise.
Second: The game is a perfect showcase for the type of speedy precision — in dribble moves, decision-making and shot-taking — needed to create a shot in a one-on-one situation, and the rapid pace of the game means that the audience gets to see inventive play after inventive play in quick succession. Of course, the defensive work — active hands, sound footwork, the chess-move mental game — is also there to be enjoyed.
Third: Courtside observers are able to hear the conversational exchanges between the players. Eavesdropping on the trash talk and nods of respect adds a personal layer to the affair. Harden gave George a handshake of praise for a jab spin move, and Durant muttered under his breath after getting beaten by the same fake twice in a row.
Put simply, "King of the Hill" has been more entertaining than anything on the NBA's All-Star Weekend docket besides the Slam Dunk Contest and Three-Point Contest. The concept of a one-on-one tournament for All-Star Weekend has been proposed before, and perhaps this game is worth a trial run, or at the very least some consideration. The key aspect of this game is that the dribbling is limited: players are working out of triple-threat positions, often with their back to the basket, rather than pounding the air out of the ball at the top of the key. That increases the cat-and-mouse action and ups the intricacy level considerably.
The NBA has played up its conference battles during recent All-Star Weekends. Even if LeBron James would inevitably skip out on this competition, one can imagine George, Carmelo Anthony and Joe Johnson representing the Eastern Conference, while Durant, Harden and Monta Ellis represent the West. After an opening round in which the players within each conference face each other, a championship round pitting the conference champions against each other could follow.
The key to making this work would be to mic the players and to capture the action from as many camera angles as possible. During breaks in play, replays showing each move from all angles, plus super slow motion, would complete the viewership experience. Again, this event wouldn't need to usurp the Slam Dunk Contest in terms of ratings, it would just need to be more compelling than the lame Skills Challenge and Shooting Stars competition.
A World Cup champion visits World Cup hopefuls
All sorts of Very Important People, or Somewhat Important People, are in the gym during USA Basketball's training sessions, including executives, players, coaches, agents, team security employees, sneaker company representatives, sponsors, public relations folks, NBA Entertainment videographers and the like.
Thursday's practice drew one absolute star: Arsenal midfielder Mesut Ozil, whose German National Team recently won the FIFA World Cup in Brazil. The only problem? No one really seemed to know that such a talent was in the building. Ozil, whose 7.6 million Twitter followers trump every current NBA player except for LeBron and Durant, stood quietly with a group of friends as he waited to pose for pictures with various USA Basketball team members. Even after confirmation spread that the visitor was, in fact, a vacationing Ozil, he still managed to totally avoid a media scrum after taking this photo with Bulls guard, and fellow Adidas athlete, Rose.
At one point, Ozil decided to keep himself busy by shooting hoops. Needless to say, he's deadlier from outside the box than he is from the perimeter.
However, Ozil didn't go entirely unrecognized.
"Congratulations, you deserved it," Durant said, while offering a handshake in recognition of Germany's World Cup triumph.
There aren't too many places on the planet that Ozil could find himself left alone by 100 or so sports media members. Now we know that USA Basketball practice is one of them.
Lights Out Shooting
Earlier this week, I selected both Thompson and Korver for my 12-man roster, arguing that their perimeter shooting acumen could make life easier for USA's alpha dog scorers and potentially overwhelm even the top international teams from outside.
As it happens, Thompson and Korver engaged in a little three-point shootout with cameras rolling, giving a little taste of just how deadly they could be as auxiliary weapons surrounding Durant, Harden, George, Rose and Curry.
Kyrie Irving takes questions, and more questions
It's probably fair to say that Cavaliers guard Irving has had to deal with more media than his fellow USA Basketball teammates, aside from Durant and Rose. The storylines around Irving are numerous: LeBron's return to Cleveland, his recent max rookie contract extension, Andrew Wiggins and Kevin Love trade rumors, a new coach in David Blatt, an outgoing coach in Mike Brown, his relationship with former Duke coach and current USA coach Mike Krzyzewski and his chances of emerging from USA's deep point guard battle.
One of the NBA's more marketable and media-friendly stars throughout his short professional career, Irving has regularly admitted to some media fatigue this week. There was no respite for Irving, not even during a Jeep promotional meet-and-greet with members of the U.S. Air Force, as the troops peppered him with questions about James' arrival and USA Basketball's outlook.
Irving said Wednesday that he felt some media members spread misinformation about his happiness in Cleveland last season. Prior to his new contract agreement, reports had indicated that Irving might want out of town.
"So many false articles and so many people that have inside sources that don’t even know what’s going on inside my circle," Irving said of the reports. "[They] said I didn’t want to be in Cleveland, it was all a bunch of BS. Now that I’m actually in Cleveland for the long term, it’s a great monkey off my back, a great relief. I was going to sign it regardless. I knew it the whole time. That’s what some media people do. They want to make a story. I’m just happy that it’s all over. I signed my contract and I’m in Cleveland for five years."
James' arrival brings a secondary sense of relief, as it alleviates some of the responsibility that had fallen to Irving, who is still just 22.
"Dealing with the daily grind of being 'that guy' every single day [was hard]," Irving said. "I wanted [the responsibility], but it gets a lot harder, especially as you get older and become the ‘marquee guy’. It’s something you have to go through.
"It’s great to have help, a tremendous help in LeBron. Being the No. 1 pick after LeBron left, I became the 'face of the franchise,' but I kind of shied away from that. I was trying to figure my way out as a rookie, and my second year, and last year. I don’t have the perfect way to become a leader ... [James] is the greatest player playing right now. He's shown it year in and year out. To get a chance to play with him and learn from him is great."