What Each Team USA Hopeful Must Prove at Chicago's FIBA Tournament Event
With so many players forcibly or voluntarily removed from Team USA's roster, this group's primary focus is making it through Saturday night's exhibition against Brazil with a clean bill of health.
Avoiding the injury bug is just one of a number of challenges the remaining 16 players will face leading up to the World Championships in Spain at the end of the month, though.
Heavy on talent but light on size and experience, coach Mike Krzyzewski's team is still adjusting to life after Kevin Durant. The four-time scoring champ and reigning MVP withdrew from consideration for the team citing "physical and mental fatigue," via ESPN.com, forcing the roster to attempt to pick up the pieces he left behind on the fly.
"It's one of those things; you don't replace Kevin Durant," Krzyzewski told reporters Thursday. "You look different. And so we have today and [Friday] to look different before we play a really good team. That's of concern for me because we were pretty far along."
With 16 players vying for 12 roster spots, that adjustment period comes with the added pressure of competing for an official place on the team. While some have less to worry about than others, each of them has something to prove heading into this weekend's tuneup.
Must Prove: He's Healthy
The burly Sacramento Kings center suffered a right knee injury at practice Thursday, and while Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports reported an MRI showed no structural damage, DeMarcus Cousins is still not expected to participate in the scrimmage.
That makes this challenge somewhere between difficult and impossible. "Boogie" cannot show how well he can move if he isn't allowed to actually step foot inside the lines.
However, Cousins will need to do something soon to prove himself capable of shouldering a significant burden at the upcoming World Cup. As thin as this frontcourt has gotten, Team USA can ill afford to burn a roster spot on someone who might not be able to give 100 percent.
If Cousins can convince the coaching staff he's good to go, though, the 270-pound big man could play a valuable role going forward. The style of play on the international circuit might limit his low-post scoring chances, but his wide body will be needed if when Team USA runs into Spain's towering trio of the Gasol brothers and Serge Ibaka.
Must Prove: He Can Play Well Off the Ball
Stephen Curry has the tools needed to survive away from the ball. Despite his emergence as one of the game's premier playmakers (career-best 8.5 assists a night in 2013-14), he doesn't need to run an offense to punish a defense.
With off-the-bus shooting range, he's a scoring threat from anywhere on the floor. The Golden State Warriors leaned heavily on his distributing skills, but they still managed to give him three catch-and-shoot field goals per game. Of the 136 players who averaged at least as many such shots, only five had a better conversion rate than Curry's 48.9 field-goal percentage, per NBA.com's StatVU player tracking data.
Team USA has a wealth of talent at the point guard spot, so it'll rely on Curry as an off-ball shooting threat far more than the Golden State Warriors can afford to. On the surface, that's hardly a bad thing. It lightens his load and allows him to do what he does best: light the lamp from distance.
However, this could be a new challenge for Curry. Not only does he figure to be spending more time off the ball than ever before, he's also one of a number of gifted shooters on this roster. If he's already missing out on touches as a primary ball-handler, he has to stay engaged even if his offensive involvement varies dramatically.
Must Prove: He Can Dominate on the Interior
Even if players like Kevin Love, Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge hadn't taken their names out of the hat, there was still a strong chance that 2012 Olympian Anthony Davis would play a major role on this frontcourt.
The 21-year-old looks more than ready for the opportunity. He wrapped up the 2013-14 campaign ranked 15th in scoring (20.8), 10th in rebounding (10.0), first in blocks (2.8) and fourth in player efficiency rating (26.5), per Basketball-Reference.com.
However, Davis isn't simply playing a major role in the middle, he has the biggest job on Team USA's interior.
"We're going to have to have active bigs," Krzyzewski said earlier this summer, per Jimmy Smith of The Times-Picayune. "Our main guy is Anthony Davis."
The roster is built for the pace-and-space style that favors stretch 4s, so Davis might not often have the luxury of sharing low-post duties with a fellow bruiser. That puts the onus on him to provide impactful post production on both ends of the floor.
It's a role he looks equipped to handle but one he'll have to master on a nightly basis for this fractured frontcourt.
Must Prove: That He Can Find an Offensive Niche
DeMar DeRozan deserved his training camp invitation.
In five NBA seasons, the 25-year-old has transformed from a top-tier athlete to a top-shelf scorer. A deft shooter from mid-range and explosive finisher at the basket, DeRozan poured in a career-best 22.7 points a game while booking his first NBA All-Star Game last season.
That said, earning the invite and securing a roster spot are two different things. In order to get from the former to the latter he must add new elements to his offensive arsenal, as the sets he's used to running won't be available.
Last season, 22.9 percent of the offensive plays he finished were pick-and-rolls and another 13.6 percent were isolations, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). He shot just 39.7 percent from the field as a spot-up shooter and misfired on 15 of his 19 off-screen threes.
With Durant and Paul George off the roster, Team USA might need DeRozan's length and athleticism. But he must learn how to take advantage of the opportunities created for him by these point guards to see any sort of consistent minutes.
Must Prove: He's More Than a Physical Specimen
Considering Andre Drummond's freakish physical profile, that's actually harder than it sounds.
It isn't often that a 6'10", 270-pound center with a 7'6" wingspan and 33.5" vertical, per DraftExpress.com, comes around. Add a high-powered motor and the desire to get better to the mix, and you're left with a player who seems like an automatic roster lock.
Yet, Drummond appears firmly on the bubble. As good as his physical gifts are, he's still in the early stages of bringing them along.
He's ready for the big stage as both a shot-blocker and rebounder. He corralled 13.2 boards and tallied 1.6 rejections a night last season.
But his offensive range is almost entirely dependent on his leaping ability. Of his 479 field goals last season, more than 91 percent were either dunks (183), layups (177) or tip-ins (78), per Basketball-Reference.com. That limitation combined with his woeful career 40.2 free-throw percentage are major concerns for the international game.
Must Prove: He Can Maximize His Minutes
Kenneth Faried said he's "very high" on his chances of snagging a roster spot, per Nuggets.com's Aaron Lopez, and there might be reasons for his optimism.
The frontcourt needs bodies, and he's an active presence who could make major noise above the rim. His mobility also makes him an intriguing fit for the uptempo offense this group will run.
That said, the "Manimal" will likely be working with playing-time scraps. He doesn't have the body to keep opponents away from the basket (6'8", 228 lbs), and any time he spends at the 4 will eat into the offense's spacing.
For Faried to survive the final cut, he must prove himself capable of producing in limited spurts. The end of this roster could use an energetic specialist, but only if he shows that his energy—and the numbers that come with it—is something that can be relied on regardless how much floor time he receives.
Must Prove: He Can Do More With Less
A late arrival to help cushion the blow of Durant's departure, Rudy Gay could be in line for a significant role once the real games start.
He suited up alongside Curry, Davis, James Harden and Derrick Rose at Thursday's practice, all four of whom are likely to start on Saturday night, a source told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo Sports. It doesn't seem as if Gay has locked up a starting gig, but he figures to factor prominently in Krzyzewski's rotation.
So, where does the "less" part of this task come in? Look at the names he was surrounded by: Curry, Davis, Harden and Rose. Those four players averaged a combined 86.1 points last season, and that was with Rose losing all but 10 games to a pair of knee injuries.
Gay, who has averaged 15.4 field-goal attempts a night for his career, might struggle to find shots with so much offensive firepower around him. The challenge for him is not to go out hunting shots, but to get his looks within the flow of the offense and impact the game in other ways.
If Gay can be an efficient complementary scorer and an active, aggressive defender, he could answer some of this team's looming questions at the forward spots.
Must Prove: He Will Compete Defensively
Is this just wishful thinking? A certain viral video that showcased James Harden's "defense" suggests it's more of a pipe dream than anything.
The funny thing is Harden is such a potent offensive player (25.4 points, 6.1 assists), it's tempting to forgive his anemic play at that end of the floor. Even at his most generous, he's probably not giving up more than he's getting at the opposite side.
But if Harden wants to embrace a leadership role—not only on this team, but also his Houston Rockets—he must make significant strides as a defender. He doesn't lack for ability; his problems have seemed to stem from a lack of commitment and focus.
"When Harden shows a modicum of effort, he’s not that bad," noted Bleacher Report's Kelly Scaletta. "But the problem is that 'effort' part."
Harden might be able to argue he needs to conserve energy to carry the Houston Rockets offense, but he'll have more than enough scoring help with this group. There are no excuses for him playing anything less than passable defense.
Must Prove: He Deserves Some Playmaking Opportunities
Versatility could have been what put Gordon Hayward on Team USA's radar, and his ability to seamlessly transition anywhere between the 2 and the 4 could be what ultimately keeps him around.
However, that's not a unique trait on this roster. Most of the players offer some type of positional versatility, providing Krzyzewski an endless array of lineup combinations.
Hayward will need something else to stand out from the crowd, and not even the three-point shot that has often treated him well in the past (40.1 three-point percentage over his first three seasons) will cut it. Not with so many other marksmen on the floor.
Perhaps his most intriguing asset is his ability to create for others off the dribble. So many of these talented guards are lights-out shooters from distance, so Hayward should be able to find prime driving lanes.
But he has to give this team a reason to take the ball away from its other playmakers first. Keeping the defense on its toes is nice, but only if it leads to the same quality scoring chances these guards can't create on their own.
Must Prove: He Can Keep Everyone Involved
Consider this a trial run for the incendiary offense Kyrie Irving will take over when the regular season starts.
While his NBA resume paints him as a scoring point guard (career 20.7 points, 5.8 assists), he'll have to be so much more than that for Team USA and the Cleveland Cavaliers. There are only so many times he'll need to call his own number with players like Rose, Curry, Harden and Davis around him—or LeBron James and Kevin Love when he returns to Cleveland.
That's not to suggest that Irving is a poor fit for either roster. Far from it, in fact. ESPN.com's Marc Stein dubbed Irving as one of "only five inarguable roster locks," and the former No. 1 pick earned that distinction for a reason.
It has felt like his scoring has come more by necessity than out of his nature. In 2011, NBADraft.net's Aran Smith labeled Irving "a 'true' PG" and "a facilitator who shows the ability to make those around him better."
Irving simply may not have had teammates capable of being elevated before, but he definitely does now. He just has to make sure the bit of tunnel vision he's adopted the past three seasons doesn't prevent him from utilizing all the weapons at his disposal.
Must Prove: His Three-Point Trigger Is Ready
The way Kyle Korver can sling it from distance he looks an awful lot like a three-point specialist.
Nearly 55 percent of his career field goals are triples. Over the last five seasons, he has taken 1,476 threes and buried an astounding 45.5 percent of them.
However, he's more than just a hired gun. If he was only a shooter and not also a heady defender, clever passer and glass contributor, he'd struggle to ever see the floor.
"Three-point shooting better be the best part of my game, but if that's all you do, you don't get to play that much in the NBA," Korver said, per Ray Glier of USA Today.
He's right—he has to bring more to the table. But he isn't up for this roster spot without having that three-point cannon in his arsenal.
Shooting alone won't buy him minutes, but he must convert the long-range looks that come his way. Judging by his past, that shouldn't be a problem.
Must Prove: He Understands How to Pick His Spots
Damian Lillard's numbers are hard to overlook. His career 19.9 points-per-game scoring average and 6.0 nightly assists output has already netted him Rookie of the Year honors and an All-Star Game appearance.
On this team, though, they struggle to stand out amid a sea of talented floor generals. For Lillard to stick around long enough to partake in the World Cup, he'll need to prove he's more than the confident, clutch, sharp-shooting point guard who has helped put the Portland Trail Blazers back on the NBA map.
"It's going to take getting into the lane and making that extra pass and getting somebody an easier shot," he said, per Kurt Kragthrope of The Salt Lake Tribune. " ... I'm just trying to get myself comfortable doing that, instead of coming out here and saying, 'I can do this and I can do that.'"
Of course, he'll need to adapt without abandoning his instincts entirely. Distributing is key to surviving these cuts, but so are his perimeter prowess and forceful drives to the basket.
If he can strike a balance between creating for himself and for others, the former Weber State star could continue his ascension up the NBA ranks.
Must Prove: He Has the Defensive Discipline to Play the 4
Offensively, Chandler Parsons doesn't have many weaknesses.
The Dallas Mavericks' new jack of all trades boasts a steady three-point stroke, the vision to pick apart a defense with his passing and the explosiveness to finish plays at the rim. Add his work on the boards to the mix, and you're left with one of the game's more versatile players. Last season, he was one of only seven players to average at least 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.
Standing 6'9", he also has the size to give Team USA a reliable option as a stretch 4—if he fully commits to the defensive end. When he's engaged, he has the smarts, speed and strength to harass opposing scorers.
"I think I can guard pretty much one through four," he said during an appearance on ESPN Dallas 103.3 FM's The Afternoon Show, via ESPN Dallas' Tim MacMahon. " ... I've just got to be locked in out there for as long as I'm out there. I can really cause havoc on the defensive end."
On a defense looking to transform turnovers into transition opportunities as often as possible, Parsons could be an ideal spark. He might have to be to snag a spot on this tightly packed wing.
Must Prove: He's Willing To Do the Dirty Work
On a roster littered with elite-level talents, Mason Plumlee stands out for the wrong reasons.
He's not a ballyhooed prospect like so many of the players around him. He was the 22nd player selected in the 2013 draft class that looks like one of the weakest in recent history.
He didn't really improve his stock that much during his rookie season either. He logged only 18.2 minutes a night, notching double-digit points in 19 of his 70 games. He's a young player finding his way, which should spell his demise given the caliber of players he's competing with.
However, he's still in the running for a couple different reasons. He has the speed, agility and athleticism needed for this fast-paced attack. He also has a perfect understanding of what his potential role would be.
"They're not gonna be looking for Mason to take jump shots," Plumlee said, via Alex Raskin of The Wall Street Journal.
As a rebounder, rim protector and above-the-rim finisher, Plumlee might fit better with these players than it first appears.
Must Prove: There Is Substance To These Glowing Reviews
To hear those at Team USA training camp tell it, Derrick Rose has been something of a superhero this summer. Listen to the descriptions of those closest to the action, and it's hard not to imagine some wildly productive, two-way power.
Something a lot like the pre-injury Derrick Rose, which Syracuse coach and Team USA assistant Jim Boeheim says is exactly what this roster has.
"He looks, to me, as good as when we had him in the world championship in '10, when he was at full strength coming [into] an MVP year," Boeheim told ESPN Chicago's Nick Friedell. "He looks very, very good."
The talk is good. The video has been even better. Now it's time for that to translate to a real game, or as real a game as exists in the middle of August.
The basketball world keeps hearing that the real Rose is back. The next step is to see him.
Must Prove: He Can Score Inside the Arc
In order for Klay Thompson to snag a roster spot, he may not ever need to venture inside the three-point line.
A 41.0 percent shooter from distance over the course of his career, the 6'7" swingman will be used primarily as a floor-spacer and perimeter stopper. Despite his three-point proficiency, this depleted roster will need more of the latter than the former from him.
He's good enough right now to lay claim to the final starting gig up for grabs.
"He's a nice fit offensively because he adds elite shooting to a group of excellent shot creators and he's arguably the best defensive wing left in camp," wrote SB Nation's Jason Patt.
Still, if Thompson really wants to raise his profile this summer, he'll need to become more of an offensive threat from other areas on the floor. He shot just 37.6 percent from 16 feet out to the three-point arc, via Basketball-Reference.com, and finished only 46.3 percent of his drives—54th out of the 99 players with at least 200 drives last season, via NBA.com's StatVU player tracking data.
His three-point shot will help this offense, but if he can add different layers to his game, he'll take this attack to a different level.
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