NEW YORK -- Butler's Shelvin Mack had a bag of ice Ace-bandaged to his left shoulder after a scrimmage against the U.S. senior national team last week. The junior guard, who was a member of the college "Select" team USA Basketball assembled to train with its NBA squad, said he was feeling the aftereffects of two similar collisions, first with the Warriors' Stephen Curry, in Las Vegas; and second, with the Clippers' Eric Gordon, at John Jay College in Manhattan.
But Mack was not, in any real sense, getting beaten up by the pros. He said he ran into Gordon while attacking the ex-Indiana phenom off the dribble, and in the brief portion of last Thursday's workout that was open to the media, we saw Mack blow by Gordon in a one-on-one situation for a layup. Mack also left an impression on Curry, who last faced the Bulldogs as a Davidson junior in February 2009. While Butler won that game, 75-63, it was not one of Mack's best freshman-year performances. He shot 3-for-11 from the field and finished with nine points. Curry said he feels that Mack, who averaged 14.1 points and shot 39.1 percent from three-point range as a sophomore, has progressed to the extent that he now has the "total package" of point-guard skills, with the ability to orchestrate offense and shoot from long range.
When I asked Curry if he'd given Mack any basketball advice, the former mid-major darling said something I didn't expect: "I told [Mack] to enjoy this next year in college, because I'm pretty sure it'll be his last. He won't say it, but it probably is."
These USA Basketball experiences can sometimes redefine the way we think about player -- especially a Butler player. Last summer, Mack and former Bulldogs teammate Gordon Hayward went to Colorado Springs to try out for the U.S. U19 World Championship team. I'd seen them a few times prior to that camp, and thought they were nice mid-major players, but didn't expect them to be key members of that squad. Both players made the cut, and for Hayward, it was a coming-out party: NBA scouts were so impressed with his game that they started talking about him as a potential first-rounder, and it became evident that he'd star as a Butler sophomore. No one was predicting, back then, that Hayward would lead the Bulldogs to the Final Four, turn pro, and get taken by the Jazz with the No. 9 pick ... but still, we did get an early warning that he was worthy of attention.
This summer, it was Mack's turn to alter perceptions in a national-team setting. He was hardly an unknown after playing a key role in Butler's magical run through the NCAA tournament, but there wasn't any chatter in April about him jumping early into the NBA draft. His reputation seemed to be that of a good college guard, not that of a high-profile draft prospect.
Things have changed by mid-August. Mack's showings against USA Basketball's NBA squad (as well as his play at the LeBron James Skills Academy and Adidas Nations) put him in the discussion for the 2011 draft, which is extremely light on point guards. While he's far from even a first-round lock, Mack is beginning to make NBA scouts believe he has the right combination of size (he's 6-foot-3), toughness and skills to play point at the next level, despite the fact that he's a combo guard alongside Ronald Nored in Butler's system.
Curry wasn't the only NBA player who spoke highly of Mack. Nuggets veteran Chauncey Billups, who was unofficially mentoring Mack during the USA trials, said he was "ahead of the curve" as a point guard. "His patience is great -- he knows when to take shots, and when to make plays for someone else," Billups said of Mack. "That's something that took me 2-3 years [in the NBA] to learn."
I saw Mack get yelled at by U.S. select team coach Jay Wright once during the scrimmages in New York -- for not taking enough shots. Because they were working with a 24-second clock against a long-armed NBA zone, Wright pulled Mack to the bench to remind him that if he passed up one open shot, he might never get another one. When Mack returned to action, he dutifully launched threes in the face of Gordon and the Celtics' Rajon Rondo.
Wright said that when the U.S. select squad pared its roster down from 20 to 10 between Las Vegas and New York, Mack and Duke's Nolan Smith were the first two guards selected. Mack, Smith and UConn's Kemba Walker shared point-guard duties in New York, while BYU's Jimmer Fredette, Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn, Syracuse's Scoop Jardine, Kansas State's Jacob Pullen, Ohio State's William Buford and Tennessee's Scotty Hopson were the guards that didn't make the jump from Las Vegas.
"I didn't know much about [Mack] before this, because Butler wasn't in our [NCAA tournament] bracket, and I didn't get to watch them before the title game," Wright said. "But as soon as I saw him in Vegas, he was one of the guys that all the coaches said, 'Wow, this kid is really good.' "
Because the collegians' sole purpose in New York was to prepare the U.S. senior team for a scrimmage against China and an exhibition against France, Wright sometimes fed his point guards new sets on short notice to react to the NBA players' defense. Mack, he said, picked up everything extremely fast. "He's got an incredible basketball IQ," Wright said. "He's physically gifted, a great leader, he can shoot, finish at the rim and defend -- he can do it all."
The only thing Mack didn't do this summer, it seemed, was spend much time on Butler's campus in north Indianapolis. "I've only been there for about 20 days, total," he said, estimating that he'd spent more time at camps with Duke's Smith -- whom he guarded in the national title game -- than with other Bulldogs. When Mack does return to Indy full-time, though, his confidence should be sky-high. Butler is Matt Howard, Nored and Mack's team next season, and their run at back-to-back Final Fours could very well be his last hurrah.