What Do NBA Players Learn While Playing for Team USA?

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What Do NBA Players Learn While Playing for Team USA?
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

CHICAGO — DeMarcus Cousins went down with a knee injury on the first day of Team USA’s stint in Chicago. But there was no way he was going to leave the team—there’s far too much value in the experience.

Megastars like Kevin Durant and LeBron James may not need to be here anymore. They’ve already learned enough by winning the gold medal at the Olympics and leading their teams into fights for NBA titles year after year. But for the overwhelming majority of players, being around this much professionalism is a golden opportunity.

That’s why Cousins says a day later that there was “never a doubt” about whether he’d continue with the team after his knee injury was diagnosed as merely day-to-day. “You learn a lot [here],” he told reporters. “One of the main things is how to be a professional. You got guys like Kyle Korver, who’s not the most elite player in the game, but he’s the perfect example of how you want to be as a teammate and how you want to approach the game every day.”

Korver’s former coach with the Chicago Bulls, Tom Thibodeau, is also doling out new knowledge at the camp. A team employee tells me that head coach Mike Krzyzewski and fellow assistants Monty Williams and Jim Boeheim stand aside in silence at practice while Thibodeau provides defensive instructions, intensely and thoroughly.

And after holding the Dominican Republic to 62 points Wednesday night, it’s clear that the coach’s lecture was not for naught. The Americans’ defensive principles are airtight.

The experience can also be humbling for many. Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry is used to being the nucleus of his offense in the NBA, but his job with Team USA is to be more of a floor-spacer, opening up the court with the looming threat of his devastating three-point accuracy. 

Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Should the Warriors’ biggest offseason acquisition, Shaun Livingston, prove himself an able offense-runner, Curry’s time spent off the ball in the FIBA tournament will be invaluable.

It wouldn’t be the first time international playing experience over the summer paid dividends in the following season. “For us to go with Derrick [Rose] in 2010, I think it was a springboard to his MVP season. Guys get a lot of confidence here,” Thibodeau told reporters.

The most obvious beneficiary of that trampoline to greatness, this time around, is Anthony Davis. The young New Orleans Pelicans big man has been absolutely dominant, already sparking talk as to how soon he’ll compete for NBA MVP at the ripe age of 21.

Whether it’s due to expanded or contracted responsibilities, everyone learns more about his game when playing for Team USA. “Having a different role with this team and doing different things, it develops your entire game,” Curry told reporters. “And you’re focused with what you’re doing on the court. It also helps with leadership because you have to take on different roles to set up your teammates. ... We all have to sacrifice a little bit and something different because there’s so much talent here.”

Most of Team USA's roster is used to being the first or second options on their NBA team. Carrying their rosters through the season teaches them to be stars, but here they learn to be teammates. By stepping into reduced roles, they're given the perspective of their NBA teammates and understand their team structures all the better.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

And pushing so many world-beaters into peripheral jobs can result in some spectacular pyrotechnics. It can be hard to explain just how good Team USA looks when it finds the same page and gets out in transition.

Like a pressure cooker, jammed past critical mass with balling ability, Team USA’s exorbitant wealth of talent produces even greater possibilities yet. When the players take the floor together and destroy—as they did against both the D.R. and Brazil—they seem to be playing a whole new brand of basketball entirely, leveraging their extreme athleticism and selflessness into an open-gym show of fast-break brilliance.

In the case of the NBA’s recently lost dynasty, the Miami Heat, the lesson learned in the 2008 Beijing Olympics was how to play a different kind of basketball entirely. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh carried their experiences there into a hard-pressing style that took the league by storm for four seasons.

The evolution of Team USA’s new generation could be seen as soon as the 2014-15 NBA season. Whether it’s Davis launching into the LeBron-Durant category, James Harden becoming a serviceable defender or Derrick Rose playing with a cooler-headed pace, we can be sure big changes will emerge from Team USA’s 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup run.

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