Kyrie Irving (left) scored 23 points in the USA Basketball Showcase. (Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS -- The buzz around Kyrie Irving hit a fever pitch last summer, when video of him dribbling circles through All-Stars and talking trash to Kobe Bryant leaked out of USA Basketball’s pre-Olympics training camp. Irving didn’t wind up making the cut for the 2012 gold medal-winning team in London, but it was clear then that he would soon be a centerpiece for the program.
One year later, Irving appears to be at the head of the line of newcomers that will join Kevin Durant, Kevin Love, Anthony Davis and other returning members of the 2012 team and the 2010 World Championships gold medal-winning team for the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain. He generated nothing but excitement at USA Basketball’s Las Vegas minicamp this week and then led all scorers in the USA Basketball Showcase at the Thomas and Mack Center on Thursday, scoring 23 points to lead USA White to a 128-106 blowout victory over USA Blue.
“It was a little bit easier of a transition from last year, especially when you’re playing against the likes of LeBron [James] and Kobe every single day, and they’re beating up on you a little bit,” Irving said, comparing his 2013 experience to the 2012 camp. “That was fun, it carried over to my season, my second year…For me personally I wanted to separate myself from this group [this week] and show what I could bring to this team next year.”
Even though the showcase was a medium-energy affair, Irving dished seven assists, hit six of his eight field goals, knocked down both of his threes and got to the free-throw line 10 times. He freed himself time and again with his quick crossover dribble, and he flashed an explosive burst matched by few point guards in the league.
“Kyrie is one of the most special players in the NBA,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said, a smile creeping across his face. “The ball-handling stuff, he really never had that before he came to Duke.”
Krzyzewski coached Irving during his one season in Durham, and their close relationship should be on display for the world to see in both Spain and during the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Irving’s ability to play both guard positions and his shooting range make him a great fit for the international game, and his steady personality fits in perfectly with USA Basketball’s team-first philosophy.
Anthony Davis led USA Blue with 22 points (on 10-for-13 shooting) and seven rebounds, and he provided the highlight of the night when he snatched an alley-oop pass out of the air before going coast-to-coast for a dunk. Davis is maturing before our eyes, finishing inside and outside and knocking down jumpers from all over the court.
“I think, as good as he was last year, he’s just stepped it up another couple levels,” Krzyzewski said. “That was exciting to see. He got better throughout the week and put on a heck of a performance tonight.”
The longtime Duke coach has attempted to avoid commenting on the performance of individual players throughout the week, and he joked Thursday in response to a question about DeAndre Jordan that he didn’t want to play elementary-school teacher, handing out grades. Exceptions were made for both Irving and Davis, even before Thursday.
“Both of these two guys are exceptional talents,” Krzyzewski said. “As talented as both of them are, they are so easy to coach and they are really good guys. I thought they probably performed the best in the limited time I’ve watched basketball over the last four years, I’d hazard to guess they had great games today. It was fun to watch. They’ll be a big help to us.”
With those words, it seems a foregone conclusion that Irving and Davis, assuming good health, will be on the roster for 2014. Past that, the evaluation process is still just beginning for Krzyzewski and USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo.
“We’re going to watch them all year,” Krzyzewski said. “It’s not like there are only 12 spots. There’s a pool, a very fluid pool. We’re not going to make judgments tonight.”
Here are a few other names of note from this week’s minicamp.
Paul George: It’s hard to imagine a more terrifying pair of young small forwards to try and stop than Durant and George. Good luck, world. The Pacers’ forward’s athleticism was on display on Thursday, even if his shooting stroke (10 points on 3-for-10 shooting) wasn’t.
Harrison Barnes: The Warriors forward finished with 18 points (on 6-for-11 shooting) and three rebounds. He’s a versatile, heady, two-way wing who is comfortable shooting from deep. He’s facing a roster squeeze with Durant’s recommitment to the program for 2014, but keep an eye on the 21-year-old in years to come.
Damian Lillard: The 2013 Rookie of the Year emerged from a crowded pack of point guards to earn a starting spot on Thursday. He did his best to hang with Irving, scoring nine points on 4-for-14 shooting and handing out three assists. Like Irving, Lillard is capable of playing both guard spots and shooting from range, making him the prototypical USA guard.
Kenneth Faried: The buzz hasn’t been as loud around Faried compared to some others, but he showed that he’s capable of being one of the most explosive players on the court, even when surrounded by a collection of elite athletes. The Nuggets forward tallied 11 points and seven rebounds and had highlight plays on both ends.