US Coach K Returns Basketball

Players at USA Basketball mini-camp trying to impress with minimal guidance from coaches

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LAS VEGAS — The USA Basketball roster is not only at capacity, it’s overflowing with talented players who all want to represent their country on the world stage.

This week’s mini-camp in Las Vegas on the campus of UNLV is an opportunity for 28 additional players to make an impression on chairman Jerry Colangelo, head coach Mike Krzyzewski, and assistants Tom Thibodeau and Monty Williams before playing in their next NBA season.

But through the first two days of camp, they’ve been playing with little to no guidance or instruction from the coaches in attendance.

It’s by design, as Thibodeau explained on Tuesday.

“Right now we’re starting a new pool,” Thibodeau told NBCSports.com. “Yesterday we put a little structure in just so we could get to playing, and we wanted to have an opportunity to watch each team compete against each other. We feel that’s probably the best way to evaluate. So that’s where we are right now, but each day will be a little bit different. We’re putting parts of a new system in, giving them the opportunity to play with each other so they can learn each other, and it gives us a better understanding of who fits well together. And that’s what we’re trying to evaluate right now.”

In talking to some of the players, they had a sense of what was being valued on the court, even if it was mostly qualities of the intangible variety that could be seen without guys being given a structured environment to participate in.

“They’re just letting us go a lot right now,” Klay Thompson said, after putting on an impressive shooting display in scrimmages on Tuesday. “I haven’t been getting that much feedback, I’m just playing as hard as I can.”

And does he have an idea of what the coaches are looking for?

“Just how hard we play, how focused we are, and playing defense,” Thompson said. “Playing with energy, diving for loose balls — all the little stuff. They know we can all score and play, so it’s just the little stuff.”

Damian Lillard said essentially the same thing.

“They’re looking for us to play hard,” Lillard said. “For guys to have each other’s backs, to be team players and do what it takes to help your team win.”

And how about that lack of hands-on coaching?

“They’re pulling guys aside giving pointers, and when we huddle up they’re saying things to the team,” Lillard said. “But for the most part, they’re not turning us into robots. They’re letting us have a lot of freedom and seeing what we can do and what guys can bring to the table.”

It’s been all scrimmaging, all the time, with Krzyzewski, Colangelo, Thibodeau, and Williams sitting on the center court sidelines, taking the games in seemingly without any reaction to what’s transpiring in front of them, and in complete silence.

That might be tougher for some of the younger players to deal with, but considering that this event is geared toward evaluating who is capable of fitting into a team that will eventually be playing for the literal title of World Champions, it’s completely understandable.

“It’s how you function with the team,” Thibodeau said, when asked what he and the rest of the coaches have been communicating to the players. “You’re not really looking for individual play. We’re trying to give everyone a fair opportunity — you just evaluate each and every day, you try to prepare well. They have to learn a new system, they have to learn each other. The most important thing is how it all fits together.”

Aaron Gordon both legs over the mascot, ball-under-the-legs dunk (VIDEO)

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TORONTO — Zach LaVine won the NBA All-Star Saturday Dunk Contest, but in an epic night for my money this was the single best dunk.

Orlando’s Aaron Gordon broke ground with this one — guys have jumped over mascots and other players before (and a Kia hood), but by splitting their legs apart. Gordon just put both legs over Stuff (that’s the mascot’s name, Stuff the Magic Dragon, I don’t make this up) — and took the ball off the mascot’s head, went under his legs, and threw it down.

Insane.

Gordon deserved a trophy for his performance in this dunk contest.

Zach LaVine edges Aaron Gordon in epic, insane Dunk Contest

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TORONTO — That. Was. Amazing.

In a dunk contest that will go down with the all-time greats — Jordan vs. Dominique, Dr. J from the free throw line — Minnesota’s Zach LaVine defended his dunk contest title. Barely. Because Orlando’s Aaron Gordon was doing dunks nobody had ever seen before.

And LaVine was bringing it just as hard.

The two men advanced to the finals — dismissing Will Barton and Andre Drummond, each of whom had good dunks — and that was when it got wild.

There were four second-round dunks, and four perfect scores of 50. (That was in spite of Shaq, who wanted to give nines for second attempts.)

“I was prepared for four (second round dunks),” LaVine said. “To tell the truth, he came with something that no one else has done. He did two dunks that were just crazy with the mascots, jumping over them. We just kept pushing each other until the last dunk. I’ve got to give it up to my boy Will “The Thrill” Barton. It’s because of him I think I won. Because he said try to go from the free-throw line. I’d never done that before, and I just tried it. So I guess it was a great dunk. I think it was the best one ever.”

The Air Canada Centre crowd was exploding with every dunk. The two men went to a dunk-off — and got two more 50s.

“If I knew it was going to be like that, I would have prepared better and we would have been here dunking all night, going back 50 after 50 after 50 after 50,” Gordon said. “We would have been here all night. I didn’t know it was going to be like that. I was just hoping Zach was going to miss, and it wasn’t going to happen. You could see as my facial expressions when Zach dunks it, it’s like okay, that’s a 50. Like I know we’re going to have to dunk again.”

So they went to a second-round of overtime, where LaVine put up another 50 and won the contest.

Gordon was close to perfect.

Zach LaVine can flat-out fly.

Magic’s Aaron Gordon with the over-the-mascot mad dunk

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TORONTO — Aaron Gordon was giving Zach LaVine all he could handle in the Dunk Contest.

He blew the lid off the Air Canada Centre with this dunk in the first round — and it wasn’t even his best dunk of the night. Never seen this before.

This dunk contest was awesome, so much more video to come.

Zach LaVine opens Slam Dunk Contest title defense with spectacular behind-the-back slam (VIDEO)

during the BBVA Compass Rising Stars Challenge 2016 at Air Canada Centre on February 12, 2016 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.
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TORONTO — Zach LaVine clearly heard all the talk that Aaron Gordon or Will Barton had a chance to upset him in the Slam Dunk Contest. He came out ready to prove his superiority right off the bat. This behind-the-back slam was his first attempt of the night:

Even better was the reaction, both from Andre Drummond and from LaVine’s Minnesota teammates: