Rite of Passage: USA Select Team to USA National Team
• Las Vegas
The USA Basketball Select Team entered UNLV’s Mendenhall Center about halfway through Wednesday’s practice. The 24-man squad works out in a separate gym and then comes in to scrimmage and run through sets against the USA Men’s National Team, and when that happens you can almost see Klay Thompson licking his lips.
“It’s fun beating up on the Select Team because I was in that position a few years ago,” Thompson said. “The 2012 Olympic team would beat the crap out of us every day. It’s fun being on the Olympic team now and doing it to them.”
The Select Team is a sort of rite of passage within USA Basketball, and it’s one that many players on the current Olympic roster went through before reaching the USA National Team. Current Select Team players like Brandon Ingram and Aaron Gordon are in the same position Thompson and guys like Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins were four years ago, and just like them the younger players could build on this experience and move up the ladder.
“Some of them will be on a World Cup team, some will be on an Olympic team in the future, and what that means is we have a program and a good culture, where the older guys teach the younger guys and the younger guys have paid their dues,” said coach Mike Krzyzewski. “Kevin Durant was a Select Team member. Klay, Kyrie, DeMarcus — these guys were Select Team members. Now they’re hopefully Olympic gold medal winners.”
Thompson, Irving, Cousins, DeMar DeRozan and Paul George have gone from helping to train Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant for the London Olympic Games to competing with them in the Rio Olympic Games. Making that a reality required a lot of things, including learning from their experiences as practice players.
“You don’t come into these situations and learn how to shoot or how to jump high or whatever. There are a lot of small things,” Cousins said. “A lot of small detail things that you can only learn from guys of this caliber. So, just picking up those small little (things) and adding them to your bag.”
Ideally, the learning process can start at an even younger age. The USA Men’s U18 National Team is currently competing at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Chile, and in a few years some of those players could be the ones working out in Las Vegas.
“It starts with the junior teams,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. “When you look at the success we’ve had with the 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds, the gold medals that have been won, the pipeline has been full. The next step, the logical step is the USA Select Team.”
What USA Basketball’s leaders really like is seeing guys keep coming back and keep working to move their way up. Those five guys from the 2012 USA Select Team all returned to compete in the 2014 FIBA World Cup — George missed the gold-medal run because of an injury — and now they’re together again to add more hardware in Rio.
Their journey is the blueprint for future USA Basketball hopefuls.
“I’ve been through the trenches coming up through USA,” Cousins said. “I love the brand, I love what I went through — it helped me become a better player and a better person. My moment is now and I’m going to take full advantage.”
Towards the end of Wednesday’s practice, a shot bounced high off the rim while Durant stood there and watched it fall in. That makes sense in the NBA, but under FIBA rules defenders are allowed to swat away shots after they touch the rim, and DeAndre Jordan jokingly chided his teammate for not blocking the shot into the third row.
“Yes! I am excited about that,” Jordan said about the goaltending rules. “It will take a couple of practices to get used to but I will figure it out.”
The USA National Team has officials on hand during training camp, and at various points they have been called upon to discuss differences like lane violations and resetting the shot clock. It’s all part of being as prepared as possible, and for Jordan it’s a chance to live out every big man’s fantasy.
More than 350 youth participants and their families will attend games and spend time with the USA National Team this summer thanks to a new partnership with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). The TAPS program helps surviving family members, casualty officers and caregivers of members of the Armed Forces, and the teams4taps program will put more than 75 surviving military children into positions like ball boys and anthem buddies during this exhibition tour.
“We’ll have at our team meeting tomorrow two TAPS families and in every city that we’re in we’ll do something with TAPS, including a fairly big event in Chicago,” Krzyzewski said.
After Las Vegas, the USA National Team travels to Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago and Houston before leaving for Rio.