Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis shine in USA Basketball showcase

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LAS VEGAS — The White team beat the Blue team 128-106 in the USA Basketball intra-squad showcase that put a bow on a four-day mini-camp held in Las Vegas this week, but the event was about anything but this game’s final score.

The powers that be were looking for mostly intangibles from players in terms of how hard they worked, how well they adapted to the team dynamic, and how quickly they were able to pick things up and make an impact in the short time they were here.

In Thursday night’s showcase, there were two players’ efforts that stood out above the rest.

Kyrie Irving was the game’s best player, and had no trouble showing why he is one of the top overall talents on the 28-man mini-camp roster. He dazzled from the very start, going head-to-head with Damian Lillard in an entertaining first quarter back-and-forth, before pulling away from Lillard to dominate the rest of the game.

Irving got to the basket from the perimeter seemingly at will, and finished at the rim in traffic on more than one occasion. He finished with a game-high 23 points and seven assists in just 19 minutes of action.

Anthony Davis was the other standout performer, and by all accounts had one of the better showings of any player in the camp’s attendance. Davis was active inside defensively and on the boards, but his mid-range jumper and the high percentage with which he shot it all week long, both in scrimmages and in Thursday’s showcase, were huge signs of improvement in his game.

Davis finished with 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds in his 23 minutes on the floor.

“As good as he was last year, he’s just stepped it up another couple levels,” Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Davis afterward. “And that was exciting to see. He got better throughout the week, and put on a heck of a performance tonight.”

Davis didn’t speak too much about his own game once the event had finished, but instead took the opportunity to talk up the camp and the way the other guys competed — a sign he gets what the USA Basketball message is all about.

“A lot of guys showed up and competed,” Davis said, in recapping the four-day camp. “Usually when you go to camps, not just USAB, but guys just don’t take it as seriously. For guys to show up and actually compete the way they did and make each other better, it was an excellent thing. And you could see it on the floor tonight — guys were playing hard, sharing the ball, weren’t complaining about any fouls, hustling, and playing defense. You don’t see that, especially in the summertime.”

No decisions will be made as to which players will make the official Team USA rosters based off of this week’s camp; Jerry Colangelo made it clear that this was just one step in the process, and that they’ll be monitoring players throughout next season, as well as looking to start a pool from scratch with 25 or so more individuals — a list they’ll hope to finalize sometime after the first of the year.

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A few notes to wrap things up from the showcase here in Las Vegas:

– DeMarcus Cousins got a second chance to impress at this week’s mini-camp, and from an attitude standpoint he seemed to do just fine. He was underwhelming, however, in the glimpses we got of him during scrimmages, and didn’t do much to write home about on Thursday, finishing with six points on 2-of-7 shooting, to go along with seven rebounds in just over 12 minutes of action.

– Damian Lillard started off extremely strongly on Thursday, going toe-to-toe with Irving early in an entertaining first quarter. He had seven points, two assists and no turnovers in the game’s first four minutes, keeping pace with Irving’s eight points and two turnovers in the same amount of time. Except for finishing a two-handed dunk off of a baseline cut in the second half, however, Lillard was unable to sustain his tremendous start. He finished with nine points on 4-of-14 shooting, to go along with three assists in 19 minutes of action.

– The USA Basketball brain trust likely was thinking the same thing I was at one point during Thursday night’s showcase: Why is Dion Waiters here? He did nothing to shake his reputation of being a chucker, getting up 10 shots in just 15 minutes, while making only two. He also committed some silly fouls defensively, and while he’s obviously still young and shooting is at a premium in international play, he’ll need to do a lot better in the future than he showed in this one to be seriously considered for the squad.

– Kenneth Faried had a strong camp, impressing observers all week long with the activity level and athleticism he brings to the floor.  He was active on the boards and got loose for some high-flying dunks in the showcase, finishing with 11 points and seven rebounds in just 12 minutes of action.

– Paul George was largely “meh” in the showcase, but his overall skill set and the way he performed throughout the four-day camp is still likely to land him a spot on the roster for the Worlds if he’s interested.

– Pistons big men Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond played on opposite teams, but each showed some signs on both ends of the floor during the limited minutes they saw.  Drummond finished with 11 points and six rebounds in just nine minutes, and Monroe had 10 and six in 14 minutes.

– Overall the showcase was something that those who watched the Lakers closely last season could completely relate to, in that there was a ton of talent on the floor that simply had no idea how to play together. Chemistry is real on the basketball court, and in a game like this, there’s a reason that essentially all the guards shined a bit — from Irving and Lillard to Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson, and Mike Conley. Guys with the ball in their hands have the advantage when no one is quite sure what the plan is, and that was certainly the case in more than one of the half-court sets we saw guys attempt to run through in this one.

USA Basketball Showcase – Final Box Score

Dwight Howard on Hornets’ coach Clifford: “It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you”

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Dwight Howard‘s game is much better than his reputation among fans.

He’s not the Defensive Player of the Year/All-NBA/MVP candidate level player he was back in Orlando, but Howard is still one of the best rebounders in the game, he’s strong defensively, and he’s an efficient scorer inside. He’s a quality center, if he plays within himself and is used well. His perception as a guy who does not take the game seriously and held back Houston and Atlanta in recent years has validity (he plays better in pick-and-roll than on the move, but wants the ball in the post), but the idea he is trash is flat-out wrong. He’s still good.

Howard wants to change his reputation, rewrite the final chapters of his career, and told Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN that Steve Clifford’s Charlotte Hornets are the place that is going to happen.

“The other places I was, the coaches didn’t really know who I am,” Howard told ESPN. “I think that they had perception of me and ran with it. Cliff knows my game. He knows all the things that I can do. I’m very determined to get back to the top. It’s a great feeling when somebody believes in you. They aren’t just saying it; they believe it. It really just pushed me to the limit in workouts: running, training, everything. I want to do more.

“In Orlando, I was getting 13-15 shots a game. Last season, in Atlanta, it was six shot attempts. It looks like I’m not involved in the game. And if I miss a shot, it sticks out because I am not getting very many of them. But I think it’s all opportunity, the system. I haven’t had a system where I can be who I am since I was in Orlando.”

Howard averaged 8.3 field goal attempts per game in Atlanta, which is about five a game below his peak. Last season 75 percent of Howard’s shots came within three feet of the rim — is is not there to space the floor, however, he can still move fairly well off the roll and is a good passer for a big.

Last season, 28 percent of Howard’s possessions came on post ups, and he averaged a pedestrian 0.84 points per possession on those. On the 21 percent of shots he got on a cut, he averaged a very good 1.36 PPP. When he got the ball back as a roll man (again on the move), it was 1.18 PPP. The challenge long has been Howard is better on the move but doesn’t feel involved unless he gets post touches, and if he doesn’t feel involved and engaged he’s not the same player.

Maybe Clifford can make this all work with some older plays where Howard feels comfortable.

Charlotte, with Howard in the paint and on the boards, should get back to being a top 10 NBA defensive team, not the middle of the pack as they were last season. Clifford is better than that as a coach, and Howard is an upgrade in the paint (on both ends). Charlotte should be a playoff team again in the East.

But it all will come back to Howard. Fair or not. And Wojnarowski is right, this is Howard’s last best chance to write the ending he wants to his career.

Friday afternoon fun: Watch James Harden’s 10 best plays from last season

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James Harden had a historic season in Houston.

Since it’s Friday afternoon and your sports viewing options consist of watching guys about to be cut from NFL rosters try to impress, why not check out Harden’s best plays from last season. It’s worth a couple minutes of your time.

Mavericks sign Jeff Withey to one-year contract

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Jeff Withey‘s ex-fiancée accused him of domestic violence, but he was not charged.

That frees him to continue his basketball career, which he’ll do in Dallas.

Shams Charania of Yahoo Sports:

The Mavericks could use another center, even if they re-sign Nerlens Noel. Salah Mejri is the only other true center, though Dirk Nowitzki will now play the position.

Withey is a good rim protector. Just don’t ask him to do anything away from the basket.

Dallas annually brings excess players to training camp and has them compete for regular-season roster spots. Whether or not his salary is guaranteed, Withey will likely fall into that competition.

Marc Gasol: If Grizzlies don’t share my goal of continued growth, we might have to revisit things

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The Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind era has ended.

Zach Randolph signed with the Kings, and Tony Allen appears likely to leave Memphis, too. The Grizzlies are prioritizing younger/cheaper players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans.

Marc Gasol via Ala Carta, as translated by HoopsHype:

I’m very ambitious and I’ve wanted Memphis to be a great franchise. We’ve grown a lot the last 6-7 years, but we have to keep growing. If this is not lined up, maybe we may have to revisit things.

Gasol has been loyal to Memphis, and his first wish is probably winning there. But Giannis Antetokounmpo put it well: Teams must also do right by their players. Gasol is 32 and doesn’t have much time in his prime left. I see why rebuilding wouldn’t interest him.

But what will he do about it if the Grizzlies don’t prioritize the present? They made their push last summer with a max contract for Chandler Parsons, but because Parsons can’t stay healthy, that deal only inhibits team growth.

Gasol is locked up for two more years before a player option. He doesn’t have much leverage. This is part of the reason LeBron James keeps signing short-term contracts. Gasol doesn’t have the same ability to steer his team in his desired direction

On the potentially bright side, rebuilding teams often don’t have much use for 32-year-olds guaranteed more than $72 million over the following three years. If the fit devolves, Memphis becomes more likely to trade him.