After beginning training camp with a couple of five-minute scrimmages that were open to the media, U.S. Olympic coach Mike Krzyzewski has pulled the curtain shut.
The last four days have featured games divided into four 10-minute quarters between Team USA and the select team, which consists of younger NBA players. Media has not been allowed to watch.
Although statistics have not been made available, the message from those who are Coach K-approved is that there has been one player who has consistently excelled – 20-year old Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers, a member of the select team.
That’s not to say the Olympians have not had many moments. Any team with LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams is going to put on a show. And then there is Blake Griffin, a.k.a. Human Highlight Film 2.0, who has put on a private dunking exhibition for those allowed in the gym.
But Irving, who had 11 points in a 14-11 select team victory on the first day of camp, has been consistently excellent, and although the next Olympics in Brazil is four years away, it may not be too early to predict that he has locked up a position on the team.
“Kyrie Irving is a player that literally you could move from one court to the other court,” Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo said, referring to shooting drills that have the Olympic team and the select team on adjacent courts.
“He’s that far advanced in terms of his talent, it appears. He’s made a good showing here. He had a terrific rookie season in the NBA and certainly he will be one of the leading candidates going forward.”
Irving recently released a Pepsi commercial that had him disguised as an old man who joins a pickup game against young players and dominates. The video was first released on Youtube and it has gone viral with more than 12 million hits.
While the disguised Irving puts on a dribbling and scoring show against the unsuspecting playground players in the commercial, the real Irving has been just as good against the Olympic team. Someone filmed part of a scrimmage and put it on YouTube. It showed Irving making Westbrook, Bryant, Durant and James Harden look like Washington Generals trying to stop a Harlem Globetrotter.
But Irving said those moves are nothing new, although he understands that Cleveland is a small market and highlights of Cavalier games are not exactly in demand.
“I’ve always had that in my game,” he said. “It’s just that we’re not as much nationally televised as everybody else. It’s weird that everybody is saying, ‘I didn’t know Kyrie Irving had handles like that.’ It’s always been a part of my game. It’s just that nobody has really gotten a chance to see it.”Previous columns from Jan Hubbard at Team USA camp in Las Vegas: Monday, July 9 – Original Dream Team is ancient history for Team USA Sunday, July 8 – Days of self-destruction are over for U.S. Saturday, July 7 – Versatile American squad on a mission Friday, July 6 – The Olympic rich get richer, and the good get better
Irving had a spectacular first season in Cleveland – considering he did not turn 20 until March. He averaged 18.5 points a game, shot 46.9 percent from the field and 87.2 percent from the free throw line.
“He has excellent speed and a great feel for the game,” said Olympic assistant coach Nate McMillan. “He’s played well here that last week, going put against these guys. He shoots the ball well and had a really good rookie year. He’s going to be an All-Star someday.”
Irving was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft despite playing only 11 games in his freshman year at Duke. He was sidelined most of the season with a toe injury but returned for the NCAA tournament. While there were some concerns about his limited time playing in college, they obviously were not major enough to keep the Cavs from drafting him.
As impressive as his basketball skills are, however, McMillan said Irving’s confidence sets him apart from most 20-year-old players. And it is the right kind of confidence. There are many young players who are cocky. Irving’s confidence is healthy.
“After practice, he doesn’t go with the select team to shoot,” McMillan said. “He goes right in the middle of those [on the Olympic team] and he gets his shots and works on his game. You’re looking at him and you can tell he wants to be a part. He feels that he can play with these guys. It’s just not his time right now but he wants to be a part of it.”
Irving was born in Australia and considered playing for that country’s Olympic team. There was some doubt that he would get approval from the International Basketball Federation, the governing body of Olympic basketball. Irving had played on two U.S. teams in international play and would have had to receive a waiver to play for Australia.
Ultimately it was not an issue because Krzyzewski urged Irving to continue playing for the U.S.
“I made a decision a couple of months ago and I’m sticking with it 100 percent,” Irving said. “The USA is going to be in my future. If I am called up to play with USA Basketball I’m going to do so.”
For now, Irving and the select team will continue help to prepare the U.S. for the Olympics. Although the select team had a couple of tough days – “it was brutal for them,” Bryant said – Irving said the select team beat Team USA “twice or three times” on Tuesday. “It was pretty balanced, more than the first couple of days,” he said.
When the competition begins in London, Irving will be watching on TV. When the 2016 Olympics arrive, however, count on Irving will be a player, not a viewer.RELATED CONTENT: Setting the Dream Team Record straight. RELATED CONTENT: 20 Years Later, We’re Still Talking about Isiah Thomas and the Dream Team? RELATED CONTENT: Stern want to ruin the Olympics – Part II. RELATED CONTENT: Stern wants to ruin the Olympics.
Jan Hubbard has written about basketball since 1976 and worked in the NBA league office for eight years in between media stints. Follow him on Twitter at @whyhub.