Team USA, player-by-player and role-by-role (Part One)

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Thumbnail image for Curry_Granger_USA.jpgNow that Team USA’s roster is finalized, it’s time to break down exactly what each of Team USA’s 12 players will be asked to do. Some members of Team USA are simply acting as an extension of their NBA selves, but others have seen their responsibilities shift due to the team’s needs, the overall makeup of the roster, and the nature of FIBA basketball. In this first installment, we’ll look at the likely reserve core.

Stephen Curry – With Team USA’s touch-and-go offense, having at least one designated shooter/scorer can be a tremendous asset. Curry is one such player. While Steph could definitely run the point if need be, thus far he’s come in with freedom to shoot and he’s exercised that freedom.

Curry has only played about 23 minutes in total, but he’s scored tremendously well in that limited run. His per-game numbers may not be all that impressive, but on a per-minute basis? Curry shines. Three games in, Steph is scoring at a rate of 25 points per 36 minutes, while shooting an even 50% from the field. Curry has incredible range, but he also has an innate feel for all-around scoring; if there was any doubt of Curry’s ability to perform on a FIBA stage, it’s been swiftly decimated.
 
Russell Westbrook – While Derrick Rose’s athleticism is appropriately designated as “pure” or simply “impressive,” Russell Westbrook’s athletic abilities are better termed as “unbridled.” There is some discipline in Westbrook’s game, but he’s at his most effective in bursts of unthinkable speed and power. Simply put, Westbrook has no delusions of being a finesse guard. He just wants to sprint up the court, jump a pass in transit, and throw it down over anyone that tries to stand in his way.

Team USA can use that. Westbrook is a bit of a wild card; he’s capable of playing both on and off the ball, scoring and distributing (and rebounding — Westbrook is a remarkably good positional rebounder), creating turnovers or gambling too much. He’ll have a rough game now and again, but Westbrook is a necessary do-it-all element on this squad, even if his position is probably redundant.
    
Rudy Gay – Rudy Gay has clearly worked into Mike Krzyzewski’s favor, though he did see his minutes drop in Team USA’s last exhibition against Spain. Regardless, Gay seems to function in the same capacity for Team USA that he always has for the Grizzlies. He’s dangerous in the open court, but far too complacent in a half-court setting. That’s all well and good when Rudy’s leaning, fadeaway jumpers are falling, but the majority of the time, when they aren’t? Not so fun.

Still, Gay has been a highly effective scorer in two of the three friendlies thus far, which counts for something. Better shot selection could mean a world of difference for a player of Gay’s skills, but it’s not meant to be. Not in Memphis, and certainly not in Turkey. The fact that he’s so impressive in spite of his lapses in judgment isn’t some intangible positive. It’s just worthy of a deep sigh, and a reminder of what could be if Gay’s mindset were just a bit different. Nevertheless, Team USA will take the status quo Rudy Gay, ill-advised jumpshooting warts and all.

Danny Granger – Danny Granger’s role on Team USA would seem to be clear: park him in the corner to keep the defense honest, and have him knock down a three every now and again, just to prove that he can. On a team lacking in knock-down shooters, Grangers’ ability to hit from both mid and long range is a useful asset against just about any defense Team USA will encounter at the FIBA World Championships.

But there seems to be some disconnect between that perceived role and Granger’s performance. Granger has yet to hit a three-pointer thus far in Team USA’s exhibition games. He’s only even attempted two. Maybe Granger’s too versatile to be strictly a spot-up shooter, but his minutes thus far haven’t brought any kind of scoring production whatsoever. That scoring is what will keep Granger on the floor, so it’s not all that surprising that after Granger failed to produce points-wise in the first two contests, he found himself benched against Spain.

Eric Gordon – It’s not easy to find minutes for Eric Gordon in such a loaded backcourt, but Mike Krzyzewski has managed to do it thus far. Though Gordon’s playing time was sliced in the Americans’ most recent exhibition (in which Coach K leaned more heavily on the big guns), he averaged about 13 minutes per game in the two exhibitions prior, and was fairly productive for Team USA on both ends.

He may not be as talented as Derrick Rose or Russell Westbrook, as lethal as Stephen Curry, or as precise as Chauncey Billups, but Gordon’s ability to hit the three, get to the line, and D up warrants consideration.

Kevin Love – Kevin Love is the last line of defense, even if he doesn’t play much of it.

Love won’t get much playing time on a regular basis, but if anything were to happen to Lamar Odom or Tyson Chandler, Krzyzewski would likely throw Love into the rotation to gobble up rebounds. He’s a pretty awful defender and a useful offensive player, but Love’s magnum opus is his rebounding. He’s an elite NBA player in that regard, and though Love hasn’t had much of an opportunity to hit the boards for Team USA, he could, if he were ever needed. In case of emergency, Love.

Yet as nice as it would be to see the often underappreciated Love get a nice opportunity for playing time with Team USA, Odom and Chandler are playing in front of him for a reason. Team USA needs their length and defense, and Love just can’t provide that.

Utah’s Donovan Mitchell wins throwback Dunk Contest with Vince Carter tribute

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LOS ANGELES — The 2018 Dunk Contest went retro.

And it worked.

The throwbacks started with Cleveland’s Larry Nance Jr. going quick-change to pay tribute to his father, the 1984 winner of the Dunk Contest.

Nance later had the best dunk of the night, but it wasn’t enough in the face of Utah’s Donovan Mitchell‘s strong and consistent night highlight by his throwback dunk — donning a Vince Carter Toronto dinosaur jersey and doing VC’s famed 360 dunk — which got Mitchell the 48 points he needed to hold-off Nance and win the contest. It was over.

“Growing up I was a big dunker,” Mitchell said. “I wasn’t really much of a basketball player. I just dunked and played defense, and I watched a lot of Vince’s videos. I’ve been seeing what he’s been doing all year at his age, which is incredible.

“So I figured, you know, at my size if I was able to get it, it would be a great dunk and a way to finish it, you know. And actually, funny story is I haven’t made that dunk in like half a year. I tried it in practice the past two days and tried it this morning, didn’t make it. Tried it last night, didn’t make it… But to be able to make it was why I was so excited.”

Earlier in the night, Mitchell had done another tribute worn a Darrell Griffith jersey — Utah’s Dr. Dunkenstien, who went to Louisville like Mitchell — for an off-the-side-of-the-backboard jumping over Kevin Hart dunk.

“You know, just knowing your history, I think, is the biggest thing,” Mitchell said of the throwbacks. “Just understanding where this game originated, I guess the OGs of the game, I guess you would call it. But just understanding. Even if it’s just dunking. Whether it’s dunking in the NBA in general, Darrell Griffith, we went to the same school in college. I know Darrell very well. Both got drafted by the Jazz, and he was an incredible player. To be able to pay homage to him meant a lot to me.”

For my money, Nance had the dunk of the night, his first in the Finals, a double off-the-backboard throwdown that you had to see on replay to get (it wasn’t as evident in the building what he had done until it was re-shown on the big screen).

It was a fun contest all night long.

Mitchell (the leader in the Rookie of the Year race) started it off brilliantly — he brought out a second backboard, and did a self-alley-oop off one to the other.

Larry Nance Jr. did his tribute to his father with his first dunk, and on his second one came from behind the backboard, going around the world, and threw it down hard. That got him into the Finals.

Oladipo missed all three of his dunks in the first round, which almost doomed his night. He, however, did a dunk wearing the Black Panther mask for his second dunk, which impressed.

Mitchell said he wanted to beat Dennis Smith Jr. because the Mavericks’ point guard had beaten him in dunk contests for years. Smith had one monster dunk, when he went between the legs and threw it down hard and got the full 50. It just wasn’t enough to get Smith to the Finals.

Nance started off the final round by bringing out his father again to throw an alley-oop to a windmill. Mitchell responded with a self-alley-oop to a windmill that was flat-out wicked. That got Mitchell a 50-46 lead after one round of the Finals.

Then Mitchell went to Vince Carter and “it was over.”

Larry Nance Jr. throws alley-oop to himself, throws alley-oop to himself (video)

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LOS ANGELES — Cavaliers forward Larry Nance Jr. immediately motioned for the replay to be shown of this dunk. It was necessary to properly appreciate it.

Best dunk of the night.

Donovan Mitchell won the dunk contest, though.

Larry Nance Jr. plays tribute to father — rock-the-cradle dunk in Suns uniform

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LOS ANGELES — Back in 1984, high-flying Larry Nance Sr. won the first NBA All-Star Dunk Contest with this set of dunks — most famously a rock-the-cradle move.

Larry Nance Jr. came into the 2018 Dunk Contest and went nostalgic — all the way back to the Suns’ throwback uniform and the same dunk.

That and a good second dunk got him into the Dunk Contest finals. In that round, Nance Sr. threw an alley-oop to his son for the windmill.

Donovan Mitchell throws alley-oop to himself – off second backboard (video)

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LOS ANGELES – Jazz guard Donovan Mitchell set a high standard with the first slam of the 2018 dunk contest.

Very creative. Very well-executed.

Looks like all that preparation paid off.