Play­ing for Popovich big perk for USA Bas­ket­ball hope­fuls

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY TIM REYNOLDS

Make no mis­take, the 17 play­ers left in con­sid­er­a­tion for the 12 spots on the team that USA Bas­ket­ball will take to the FIBA World Cup in China des­per­ately want to play for the red, white and blue.

They also want to play for Pop.

Most of the play­ers who went through Week 1 of train­ing camp in Las Ve­gas had never pre­vi­ously played for new USA coach Gregg Popovich. Get­ting a chance to spend time with one of the best in the NBA was a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor in de­cid­ing if they wanted to make the time com­mit­ment to play for this team.

“Pop’s do­ing a great job of let­ting us know he wants us to be our­selves,” Bos­ton guard Kemba Walker said. “It’s been ev­ery­thing I ex­pected. He’s such a great coach, a great guy. He’s the best.”

The first phase of get­ting ready for China was com­pleted Fri­day night, when USA Bas­ket­ball held its in­trasquad scrim­mage in Las Ve­gas to wrap up Week 1. The na­tional team can­di­dates had no trou­ble beat­ing the se­lect group of young NBA play­ers brought in to chal­lenge them over the course of the week, win­ning 97-78 in a game where the lead stretched to 30 at one point.

Scrim­mages in prac­tice over the course of the week were much closer. Popovich’s mes­sages are al­ready start­ing to sink into the na­tional team.

“As a team, we’re get­ting bet­ter,” Walker said. “We don’t have any self­ish guys. Guys are go­ing to make the right plays. We’re get­ting bet­ter each and ev­ery day.”

In prac­tices, Popovich has been let­ting his as­sis­tants – Golden State’s Steve Kerr, At­lanta’s Lloyd Pierce and Vil­lanova’s Jay Wright – han­dle much of the coach­ing in scrim­mages and drills. Popovich roams about, some­times ad­dress­ing the en­tire team at once and some­times pulling play­ers aside for 1-on-1 chats where he slings an arm around them and of­fers words of wis­dom.

“Play­ing for Gregg Popovich, I’ll do that any day of the week,” Bos­ton’s Jaylen Brown said.

Added Mil­wau­kee center Brook Lopez: “To be play­ing for coach Pop, that’s al­ways been a dream.”

There are still many ques­tions

about what the fi­nal ros­ter will look like, the ro­ta­tions within that ros­ter and who will start and come off the bench.

There is no ques­tion about lead­er­ship. Pop's in charge.

“He's my fa­vorite coach of all time,” the Los An­ge­les Lak­ers' Kyle Kuzma said. “Grow­ing up, I was a hoops junkie, watch­ing a lot of the Spurs teams and he's won at ev­ery level he's been at. So, to be here and learn, to be around him, it's re­ally great.”

The 17 re­main­ing play­ers will re­con­vene for Week 2 of camp on Tues­day night in El Se­gundo, Cal­i­for­nia. The Amer­i­cans will prac­tice for three con­sec­u­tive days at the Lak­ers' train­ing fa­cil­ity, then head to Ana­heim for an ex­hi­bi­tion against Spain on Fri­day. The twoweek FIBA World Cup in China starts Aug. 31.

Popovich ex­pects Week 2 to be crisper, now that a foun­da­tion has been laid.

“Peo­ple were fig­ur­ing out the terms, what things mean,” Popovich said. “It's like a new lan­guage for some peo­ple. It is bas­ket­ball, but of­ten times you use dif­fer­ent words for dif­fer­ent ac­tions on the court. As they get used to that, the de­fense gets bet­ter. … Now it's just a mat­ter of get­ting wiser, be­com­ing more ha­bit­ual, ev­ery­body re­act­ing cor­rectly more of­ten. That's what we're look­ing for.”

Play­ers ex­pect the same.

“Like coach Pop said, this is just the be­gin­ning of a long jour­ney,” Utah guard Dono­van Mitchell said. “I think we're a lot closer af­ter this past week than we have been. Con­tin­u­ing to build that re­la­tion­ship on and off the floor will help us com­mu­ni­cate, help us do what we need to do to win.”


Der­rick White drib­bles the ball past De’Aaron Fox dur­ing the U.S. men's bas­ket­ball team's scrim­mage in Las Ve­gas on Fri­day.

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