Kenneth Faried wasn't even supposed to be on Team USA's final roster for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain, but he made it anyway.
Now his combination of effort and evolving skill is helping set the tone for a U.S. squad that needs an emotional leader. And what's more, Faried is showing the world he's ready for even bigger things in the 2014-15 NBA season.
Backing up a bit, it's easy to forget how remarkable Faried's presence on the roster truly is. To get to Spain, Faried needed late-stage withdrawals from Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. Then, he also benefited from Kevin Durant's exit and Paul George's injury.
Remember, both of those players figured to eat up minutes as international stretch 4s.
Finally, Paul Millsap's surprising cut removed yet another seemingly better-suited frontcourt option.
None of this is to be read as a slight against Faried. It's just that the World Cup (and most international basketball) doesn't really have much of a place for undersized bigs who can't shoot and don't control the lane on defense. At the very least, it's fair to say the U.S. kept Faried on the roster because nearly a half-dozen better options were removed from the equation.
For most of the selection process, it didn't seem like an energy guy had a role to play.
As it turns out, nothing could have been further from the truth.
Faried's frenzied effort and unmitigated hustle may have saved Team USA in its 98-77 win over Turkey on Sunday. Trailing by five at halftime, the U.S. needed a boost to overcome the quirky hybrid zone defense Turkey was employing. Making matters worse, the open shots the U.S. team was missing were deflating guys like Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Turkey wasn't afraid, and Team USA lacked the attacking mentality that helped it turn Finland's squad into a turnover factory on Saturday.
Thanks to random acts of Manimalism, Faried jolted the U.S. awake. He blocked shots, won battles for loose balls and ran the floor with purpose. Team USA has always been at its best when organized basketball gives way to chaos, and few frontcourt players are better when things get chaotic than Faried.
Soon enough, the deficit disappeared, replaced by a lead that kept growing with every tipped pass on defense and every breakaway lob on offense. Team USA cruised to victory after finding the intensity it had been missing.
Thanks largely to Faried, who finished with a game-high 22 points on 11-of-14 shooting.
And though steals and blocks aren't always great indicators of defensive impact, anyone watching the contest would say Faried's three swipes and two swats had a very real impact on changing the course of the game.
For good measure, he also led all U.S. players with eight rebounds.
It's clear that Faried, once believed to be a player without a clear role on Team USA, is exactly what the roster needs. Ebbs and flows in focus are bound to happen with a squad that enjoys the kind of prohibitive favorite status the Americans have. And players with relentless energy are ideal for providing that extra push when everybody else is ready to coast.
Faried isn't vulnerable to lackadaisical lapses. He only operates at full throttle.
Team USA has seen fit to start him in both contests so far, and there doesn't seem to be any chance of that changing now.
What could change, however, is the Denver Nuggets' fortunes if Faried uses his breakout performance with Team USA to reach a new level in the upcoming NBA season. And just for clarity's sake, the leap forward Faried seems to be making in Spain might have actually started last season in Denver.
Per Grantland's Zach Lowe, Faried was a changed player after the All-Star break:
Only about 15 percent of the possessions Faried used up on offense before the All-Star break came via post-ups, per Synergy Sports. That’s a middling share for a starting NBA big man, amounting to fewer than two field goal attempts per game in Faried’s case. Those numbers have exploded in Denver’s 26 games since the All-Star break. ...
Best of all: Faried is shooting 56 percent on post-ups since the All-Star break. Look at that number again. Among all players who have recorded 75 post-ups this season, or about one per game, just one has shot better that: Shaun Livingston. "Now people are saying, ‘Hey, maybe he can get you 15 or 20 a night,'” Faried says. “And that I can do it without breaking a sweat.”
Realistically, Denver would probably prefer Faried keep sweating. For all his improvements, his effort is still his biggest asset.
Tempering breakout enthusiasm a bit, it's only fair to mention that Faried has never been a good defender. Denver's defensive rating was an atrocious 108.6 with him on the floor last season, far worse than the 101.4 figure it posted without Faried, per NBA.com.
A lack of size and length—not to mention the manic restlessness that routinely leaves him out of position—likely mean Faried will never be a dominant defender. But he brings so many other benefits to the table that the overall package remains clearly positive.
The Nuggets will be exceptionally deep this season, having added Arron Afflalo over the summer to join the hopefully healthy quartet of Danilo Gallinari, JaVale McGee, Nate Robinson and J.J. Hickson. In addition, Denver made two draft-day additions—Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic—who could step in and contribute right away.
With Ty Lawson and (now) Faried ready to take on leadership roles, the Nuggets are quietly a very dangerous team.
If Faried carries his brilliant play from the World Cup to the regular season, he won't be doing anything new. Though it seems like eons ago, Derrick Rose rode a breakout wave in the 2010 FIBA tourney to an MVP season with the Chicago Bulls.
It seems international tournaments have a way of preparing players for bigger things.
Buoyed by the confidence he's building in Spain, Faried could be ready to take the kind of step that drags the Nuggets back into the playoff picture after a year spent in the lottery.
Denver's not supposed to be in the postseason conversation—not in a brutal Western Conference that only seems to get tougher every year. But Faried is using his time with Team USA to prove he doesn't really care where people think he belongs.