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.”