While Kobe Bryant rested his ailing knee and finger in L.A., Carmelo Anthony said “I do” to Lala Vazquez in New York, and LeBron James and Dwyane Wade hosted parties down in South Beach to celebrate their union, Kevin Durant worked up a good sweat with the U.S. men’s national team in the sweltering heat of Las Vegas while preparing for the 2010 FIBA World Championship in Turkey.
When the core of the U.S. team that captured the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing all declined to join Team USA this summer, the torch was officially passed to Durant as the leader and the face of the USA Basketball program.
The 21-year-old Oklahoma City Thunder All-Star, who nearly made the U.S. Olympic team two years ago, may not have a whole lot of international experience, but he is confident he can be the “go-to” guy and the No. 1 option on a very young squad that averages around 24 years old.
“I’m just working on my game here and trying to get better this week with these guys and the coaches are going to help me out as well. I also want to be a better leader while I’m here,” the 6-foot-10 forward said on NBATV. Durant is one of 20 NBA players vying for 12 spots on the U.S. team headed by Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
“I’m a natural leader, I think, ever since I was young. I was kinda always one of the main guys,” Durant said. “There’s no different here. I just want to come out and lead by example, be one of the early guys to the bus, in the meetings, be the first guy and the last guy off the floor. Just let them know my input. I’ve been through a lot in this league so I have a little bit of information.”
The three-year pro is the reigning NBA scoring champion and the youngest scoring champ in league history, so he’s a natural fit to be Team USA’s best scoring option. Shooting is such an asset during international competitions because European teams shoot the ball extremely well and defend the paint extremely well, so you have to have some snipers on the roster to pull teams out of their zones.
One of the reasons why the 2004 U.S. Olympic team failed in Greece was because the team lacked pure shooters to support the inside game of Tim Duncan. Allen Iverson, Stephon Marbury and Richard Jefferson all struggled to make 3-point shots during the ’04 Olympics despite the line being closer.
In 2006, a U.S. team coached by Krzyzewski and led on the court by James, Wade, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul finished a disappointing third at the World Championship. Why? Because they couldn’t figure out how to attack Greece’s zone defense. It’s the only blemish on Team USA’s record since Jerry Colangelo took over the program five years ago.
Durant’s game is suited for international competition. He doesn’t need to have the basketball in his hands all the time to be effective. He can spot up and shoot threes, and when you run at him he can put the ball on the deck and score on the move. Durant also has developed a nice rip move where he swings his arms to create contact and forces defenders to commit a foul. But don’t expect international referees to call this every time because European players don’t utilize this move as often as American players.
With Durant as the catalyst, the 2010 U.S. team is armed with one of the best scorers in the world and teams will be reluctant to play zone the whole game. But the young superstar believes his game extends beyond just shooting the basketball.
“I’m gonna try to bring more of a defensive effort than an offensive effort,” he said. “I know they need me to score points, but I’m gonna go out there and play my hardest on the defensive end and try to be a lock-down defender.”
That’s good, Kevin, but I think Team USA needs your scoring more so than your defense.
It would be a complete shocker if Durant doesn’t make the U.S. roster. He’s the next-in-line superstar to handle the enormous burden of leading USA Basketball to a gold medal. The last time the United States took home the gold at the World Championship was in 1994. That ’94 squad, coached by Don Nelson, is probably the second-greatest team in basketball history behind only the 1992 Dream Team.
“It feels good to represent your country,” Durant said. “I just want to play as hard as I can, try to sacrifice and be as much of a team guy as I can.”
Durant said Coach K is already using the ’08 U.S. Olympic Team, with the emphasis on TEAM, as the example on how to win gold.
“They showed us a video of the Olympic team on what they went through. They let us know that it’s all about team. No one guy is higher than the other guy on a totem pole. Everybody is equal,” Durant said. “It’s just basketball. I like to have fun. We have great players here, so we’re gonna take a lot of pressure off of each other.”
Although it’s nice to have 11 other studs on a basketball team, the pressure will be squarely on Durant – the star of stars on this U.S. squad – to deliver USA Basketball a gold medal-winning performance in Turkey.