Anthony Davis steps into spotlight, is Team USA’s lynchpin

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LAS VEGAS — Monday was the first day of scrimmages for Team USA in its preparation for the World Cup and Anthony Davis was in the heart of the action for the white team. He got the ball on a cut to the rim but missed a contested shot in the paint. The other blue team got the ball and as Team USA wants to do was off to the races with an outlet pass and an attempt to score in transition before the defense sets. Davis sprinted back on defense, eating up ground with his long strides, and as a guard rose up for what he thought was an open midrange jumper five seconds into the clock Davis came flying through and swatted it out of bounds with authority. It was the kind of block maybe only a couple players in the world could have made.

It was exactly what Team USA is counting on Davis to do. Every game.

The USA is going small in its run for World Cup gold, playing a lot of Kevin Durant as the four, and that puts Davis in the spotlight — he is the big man who must protect the rim on defense, he must own the glass, and also get points in the paint on offense.

Davis is the lynchpin for Team USA’s plan and for casual fans could be the breakout star of the World Cup.

“We think he’s one of the top players in the league and we need for him to be that five that nobody has,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said praising Davis. “Everyone talks about things we don’t have, well they don’t have him.”

“Kevin’s at the four, so of course we have four guys now who can play on the perimeter, so we need somebody in the paint,” Davis said of his role. “So I’m just trying to make sure I run to the front of the rim, set screens and do everything a five would do for the team. I’m not trying to get outside my lane here, just trying and do what Coach K asks.”

Look for Davis to end up on a lot of highlight reels — the floor is spaced with shooters and slashers such as Durant, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving, and John Wall among others and when they get in the paint the big watching Davis is going to have to slide over and block that drive. When he does Davis is going to roll to the rim.

“With the shooters the lob to him has got to be used,” Krzyzewski said.

Wednesday Davis got a couple of those alley-oops in a late scrimmage courtesy Wall and you could see how this could be all over SportsCenter when the real games start.

“It’s good to see the ball go up in the air,” Davis said with a smile.

His biggest impact, however, is going to be at the other end of the floor — he has to own the paint. Davis said he has bulked up, adding 15-20 pounds of muscle, and is ready for the more physical brand of basketball played internationally.

“There’s nothing really different except the physicality,” Davis said of playing international ball compared to the NBA (where he primarily is a power forward). “There’s no defensive three seconds which really helps be because I like to block shots.”

Davis’ shot blocking, versatility and athleticism allows Krzyzewski play the aggressive, trapping style he wants on the defensive side of the ball. Team USA has better athletes than any team in the world and the system of pressure and fast breaks is set up to take advantage of it. Davis lets that happen, blocking shots on one end and rim running on the other. Davis has a midrange jumper and the ability to put the ball on the floor that lets him work as a pick-and-pop big or rolling to the rim.

In fact, Krzyzewski wondered aloud how the USA’s offense would change when Davis had to go to the bench and his backup — likely DeMarcus Cousins or Andre Drummond — came on the court. Do they have to tweak what they do because there isn’t another Davis?

Davis was a raw late addition to Team USA for the London Olympics two years ago, where LeBron James and Kobe Bryant took Davis under their wings and tried to teach the rookie to be about the work and mentality needed to be a superstar in the NBA. Davis heard them — Wednesday after practice, when most guys at Team USA camp were icing their knees or taking part in half court shooting contests, Davis and USA assistant coach Monty Williams were working on post positioning and movements in the offense for Davis. There has been a lot of post-game work by Davis.

Davis hasn’t been seen much by casual hoops fans these past couple seasons, playing in the small market of New Orleans for a Pelicans team that didn’t make the playoffs and doesn’t get a lot of national television games. But Davis is poised to break out, with Durant saying he thinks Davis is a future MVP.

That breakout could happen in Spain, on the World Cup stage.

If Team USA is going to defend its gold medal this summer, it will happen because Davis was a big man no other team in the world could match.

That he really was the five nobody else had.

Gregg Popovich says he was ‘guilty of over-coaching’ LaMarcus Aldridge

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LaMarcus Aldridge has been much better for the San Antonio Spurs this season. This comes after a tumultuous offseason in which it became clear that Aldridge was unhappy with his time in Texas.

That information came to light over the summer, and indeed both Aldridge and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat down to have a discussion to work out their differences in preparation for the upcoming season.

The results have been stupendous, with Aldridge playing better than ever in San Antonio despite the team lacking star Kawhi Leonard. Aldridge is averaging career highs in points per-100 possessions, which makes sense given his career-high 119 offensive rating.

Apparently part of Popovich’s change in dealing with Aldridge was how he coached him. Popovich told NBA.com recently that he made the mistake of over coaching Aldridge, saying that the veteran didn’t need as much guidance as young star players did when they came to him in the past.

Via NBA.com:

“We broke bread a few times, talked about it, laughed about it, discussed what we thought needed to happen, and frankly 95 percent of it fell on me because I made an error in trying to change him too much. That might sound odd, but he’d been in the league nine years and there’s one way he plays on the offensive end and feels comfortable with. I tried to turn him into Jack Sikma, told him I was going to teach you how to play on the elbow, go on the wing, face up. It was confusing for him. It really didn’t fit his style of play. I was guilty of over coaching in a sense.

“We came to an agreement on what had to happen. Well, on defense, I told him ‘I’m going to get on you like I do everyone else. But on offense, I don’t even want to talk to you. When they double you, kick it. Other than that, you be LaMarcus Aldridge.’ You see the result right now. He’s happy, confident and kicking everybody’s butt.”

Now that everything is sorted for the Spurs, we just have to watch out for them as they gain momentum heading into 2018. Leonard made his debut for the season on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks, and as a publication time he had nine points in 10 minutes.

God help us if Gregg Popovich has finally found a way to make the mercurial LaMarcus Aldridge happy and pair him with a fully healthy Leonard.

Raptors’ Jonas Valanciunas offers advice to Ball brothers on Lithuania

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Lithuania is a hoops-mad country.

The Baltic nation has fewer people in it than the Seattle-Tacoma metropolitan area, yet it has three players in the NBA right now — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total (such as Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis). The country has won three bronze medals in the Olympics ( 1992, 1996, and 2000). It’s Lithuanian league also has been the launching pad for Celtics’ Aron Baynes to make the NBA.

Now the Ball brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo are headed there on professional contracts.

One of those players — the Raptors’ Valanciunas, had advice for the Ball brothers, speaking to ESPN.

“They’re getting themselves into a great opportunity. Lithuania is beautiful country… We have great basketball history. We’re such a small country, but we have many, many great players. Our basketball school is good., so they chose a really good school. They just gotta work hard — it’s all about working. You can be as good as you can be by working. Talent is one thing, but work you put in, that’s gonna show up.

“If they have any problems, let me know. I can help them out.”

Good luck finding anyone around the NBA who thinks this ends well, especially those who know the Ball family. They are sending a college freshman and a high school junior to a small city in a former Soviet bloc country with a very different culture, that will be a major adjustment. The coach doesn’t speak English and his former American players have not spoken highly of him. The Lithuanian league itself has men — far more physically developed than the Ball brothers — and is known for a physical style of play. It’s also known as a league where the players have a reasonably high hoops IQ and don’t like undisciplined players.

But if LiAngelo and LaMelo have any problems, they can call Valanciunas.

Paul George on return to Indiana Wednesday: “For whatever reason, I’ll be booed”

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This week is the Oklahoma City Thunder’s “you can’t go home again” week of the schedule. On Saturday night, Carmelo Anthony will return to New York where Knicks fans should welcome him with cheers and open arms — he meant a lot to that franchise in recent years — but may very well not.

First up, however, Paul George returns to Indiana in a Thunder uniform Wednesday night.

There’s little doubt how he will be greeted by Indiana fans, who felt betrayed by a man they stuck by through recovery from a severe injury. George knows what is coming,

Here are the key lines from PG13:

“Boos. I honestly wouldn’t think it would be any other way. The Pacers fans outweigh the Paul George fans. That’s what I’m looking forward to. For whatever reason, I’ll be booed, but I’m gonna embrace that. I’m gonna thrive on that.”

For whatever reason? You asked to be traded and fans take that personally. There is no loyalty in sports — I have no problem with players asking out because teams show no hesitancy in dumping players they no longer have a use for (and fans are almost always good with that) — but he had to know how this would be taken in Indiana.

What George might want to worry about is stopping the red-hot Victor Oladipo (he averaged 35.7 points per game last week), because he and the Pacers are playing better than the Thunder right now.

Kawhi Leonard returns Tuesday on minutes restriction

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The Spurs have been the Spurs this season, going 19-8 with an elite defense and offense that’s good enough to get them wins, thanks to LaMarcus Aldridge playing at an All-Star level.

Starting Tuesday, they add Kawhi Leonard back to the mix.

He will return to the lineup against Dallas, but will be on a minutes restriction, coach Gregg Popovich said on Tuesday. He would not say how many minutes, although around 20 seems a logical starting spot.

Leonard is one of the five best players in the NBA (and that may be selling him short). He averaged a career-high 25.5 points a game last season, he’s arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA, and he finished third in the MVP voting last season.

However, there are going to be adjustments. LaMarcus Aldridge has been the focal point of the offense, but he could see fewer touches, particularly in crunch time. Kyle Anderson could see fewer minutes, and Rudy Gay may as well because Popovich liked some small-ball lineups last season with Leonard at the four. A lot of players will see their rotations change.

That said, it’s the Spurs. Do we really expect them to be anything but an incredibly good regular season team? One that is about to get better?