In 2010, no Team USA player better leveraged his FIBA World Cup experience to bigger ends than the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose, who—at a precocious 22—would go on to capture the NBA’s MVP award the following season.
Ironically, it’s the former's curse that might end up proving the latter’s biggest blessing.
Rose’s plight is, by now, the stuff of sad legend: a pair of knee injuries in as many years, recoveries covered and scrutinized to within an inch of absurdity, and enough forward-looking questions to fill the minutes at a U.N. General Assembly.
Finally, after yet another season of sidelines and street clothes, Rose re-emerged at Team USA training camp looking every bit the wizard we all remembered.
At the head of the hype line was none other than Team USA head coach Mike Krzyzewski, who—despite the diplomatic, tryout nature of the training camp—wasted little time in heaping praise on Chicago’s favorite basketball son to ESPNChicago.com’s Nick Friedell on August 5:
It takes an exceptional person, which is why we're talking about Derrick. I think he's exceptional in every way. He went right at it. The first defensive exchange in the camp, he was all over the ball handler, moving his feet, attacking him. There was a buzz right away because it was basically his saying, 'Look, I'm not just back. I'm back at a level that's elite.'
Unfortunately, such sterling remarks have subsided somewhat during the subsequent few weeks, replaced by limited action, spotty play and lingering doubts as to Rose’s readiness heading into next week’s FIBA knockout round. This after Krzyzewski elected to keep the three-time All-Star in lieu of both John Wall and Damian Lillard.
Enter Irving, whom Krzyzewski tapped as the team’s starter ahead of its final exhibition match against Serbia on August 26, per ESPN’s Marc Stein.
It’s a decision that’s proved, thus far anyway, to be the right one:
There are, of course, some critical caveats at play, not the least of which is Team USA’s 35.7 average point disparity over its first three tilts against Finland, Turkey and New Zealand.
It’s also worth noting that none of Krzyzewski’s 12 eligible players have logged fewer than eight minutes per game, with eight having tallied averages of 20 minutes or more—a natural byproduct of logging a full five games in six days.
Suffice it to say, Rose will have plenty of miles on his treads at tournament’s end. Just don’t expect the minutes management to be quite so equitable when group play ends and the real game—in a nutshell, meeting and beating host Spain in the finals—begins.
For better or worse, it looks as though this will increasingly become Irving’s team to orchestrate. And while Rose is sure to have motivational fuel of his own once training camps begin at the end of September, the FIBA experience could be an even bigger boon for Cleveland’s fourth-year floor general.
But unlike Rose, who leveraged his 2010 run to an explosive individual performance during the subsequent NBA season, Irving’s role with the Cavaliers figures to change drastically, which is bound to happen with LeBron James and Kevin Love on board.
Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes highlighted precisely this point in a column penned during the salad days of Team USA training camp:
Last season, Irving possessed the rock for an average of 6.2 minutes per game, according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com, far more than anyone else on the Cavs. That's not to say Irving was a dribble-pounder to the level of someone like John Wall or Isaiah Thomas, but it's safe to say he's used to playing on the ball.
Irving must use his time with Team USA to show he can be effective without the rock. That'll start with knocking down spot-up shots, which he figures to see plenty of as World Cup defenders scramble to account for the other threats in Team USA's lineup.
Here’s what we know: Barring the unforeseen, Irving’s raw production is likely to take a bit of the hit. His efficiency, however, is poised for a Himalayan spike—the almost inevitable byproduct of teaming with a pair of players who finished a respective second and third in overall efficiency a season ago.
As Hughes aptly notes, Irving’s FIBA experience isn’t merely about learning to share the ball; it’s about playing through a pressure apart from anything the former No. 1 overall pick has experienced in the NBA.
Rose has had his international glory, casting his lot with basketball’s best and coming out on top. Stung as he’ll doubtless be at having the reins placed in someone else’s hands, Rose of all people understands the bigger picture at play: getting back healthy enough to propel his team toward its first title in nearly two decades.
For Rose, FIBA is more of a physical and emotional test. For Irving, it’s an experiential one. That the two hope to hoist the same hunk of bullion from the centermost podium may suggest a path in common. Until, that is, tournament’s end finds them already preparing for the next great challenge: outdueling one another on what very much remains the game’s biggest stage.
In the end, both Irving and Rose face the daunting challenge of recalibrating their very approach to basketball—Irving by becoming more of a distributor and Rose by learning to lean more on skills and savvy and less on unfettered athletic force.
There isn’t a single NBA player who doesn’t want to see Rose back in full basketball bloom. Just don’t blame Irving for wishing the recovery be fuller than it is fast.