LAS VEGAS (AP) — 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 two-week 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.”
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