|Anthony Davis dunks over Nene Hilario of Brazil during an exhibition game at the United Center on Aug. 16, 2014 in Chicago.|
CHICAGO -- Leadership and star power.
Those are the qualities the U.S. men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is looking for in the wake of Kevin Durant, Kevin Love and Blake Griffin withdrawing from the roster, Paul George being forced out with a nasty leg injury and LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony electing not to sign up for the team.
So as the team prepares to cut the roster back to 12 from 16 players for the upcoming FIBA World Cup, which begins Aug. 30 in Bilbao, Spain, the coaches are faced with questions.
Who will lead? Who will score? And how will this team overcome arguably five of the best players in the world not participating in the World Cup? The team has two more exhibition games this week and four more cuts to figure out everything. Team USA faces the Dominican Republic Aug. 20 and Puerto Rico Aug. 22 in New York’s Madison Square Garden before heading to Spain.
Team USA’s 95-78 exhibition win against Brazil Saturday night might have provided the framework for some answers.
In front of a hometown crowd at the United Center, the powers that be in the U.S. program pushed Derrick Rose front and center. The 2010-11 NBA MVP, Chicago Bulls point guard and Chicago native gladly accepted the role. The player introductions prior to the game were done in numerical order for both teams, with the exception of Rose, who was introduced last despite wearing No. 6. The adoring Chicago fans gave him the loudest ovation.
A member of each team took a microphone and addressed the crowd before the game’s opening tip. Rose was Team USA’s representative.
After the game, Rose was the sole player from the U.S. squad to have his own news conference, while all other members of the team were available in the media mixed zone.
It was apparent which player was the focus.
The major question with Rose is his health. He has played only 49 regular-season NBA games in the three seasons since winning his MVP award due to, mainly, two major knee injuries. Is he approaching that same level of play he had in 2010-11 NBA season as the World Cup (formerly known as the world championship) draws near?
“I felt good,” Rose said after the game, in which he scored seven points, four rebounds and two assists in 24 minutes. “I was of course winded when you reach four or five minutes (of playing time), but I’ve been playing through it every day. Going to practice, playing hard, doing little things like conditioning my legs on my bike at home. I’m just trying to do anything to get better as an athlete.”
While Rose showed some rust in clanging a breakaway dunk off the back iron, he did flash some of his vintage form. In the third quarter, he shook a Brazil defender at the 3-point arc and then finished at the rim with an acrobatic scoop layup. The Chicago crowd erupted. It was something they have not seen from the star in a long, long time.
“He’s shaking some rust off, but his explosiveness is back,” Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls’ coach who is an assistant coach for Team USA. “He’s playing well on both sides of the ball. I think he is in a really good place. I think he has prepared himself extremely well.
“It’s unfortunate what he has gone through, but that adversity, I think, has made him a lot stronger. I like where he is mentally and physically right now.”
Krzyzewski said he wished he had the opportunity to coach Rose in Chicago every day as Thibodeau does.
“Derrick’s been magnificent since we started training camp,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s never has held back. He’s one of the greatest guys in the world.”
On Saturday, Rose looked like the team leader, and if his game rounds back into form he could help fill the offensive hole left by Durant’s recent departure from the team. Rose is also an internationally-known superstar and arguably the most recognizable name remaining on a still very talented U.S. roster.
Rose might be joined in that superstar category very soon. While Rose was the focus going into the game, another kid from Chicago’s South Side, Anthony Davis, was all the talk afterward.
Davis has international experience playing for the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic Team in 2012. But the 6-foot-10 forward had yet to make his NBA debut at the time, and he played sparingly in London, scoring a total of 26 points in the seven-game Olympic tournament.
Now, two years later, Davis, still just 21, has blossomed and appears ready to show the world how much of a force he can be on the court. Even if some might not realize it yet. During his postgame news conference, Krzyzewski was asked about Davis being in the starting lineup and exceeding expectations.
“I would have been an idiot if I didn’t put him in the starting lineup,” Krzyzewski joked. “He’s one of the best players in the NBA. Anthony Davis is terrific. Anthony is one of the emerging stars. We hope that what happened to a lot of those guys in 2010 will happen to him in this competition and just launch what should be a storied career for him.”
At the 2010 FIBA World Championship, with all of the 2008 Olympians sitting out, the American squad featured a who’s who of up-and-coming talent — Durant, Love, Rose, Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook — and that team claimed the United States’ first world title since 1994.
Davis showed his ability to dominate against Brazil. He scored a game-high 20 points and blocked five shots. He really took over in the second half, where he did not miss a field goal or free throw and blocked three shots.
“I’m just trying to go out there and play,” Davis said. “I’m very comfortable and confident. I’m going out there and going to play to the best of my ability.”
Early in the game, Davis missed a few jump shots and said Kyrie Irving jokingly asked him if he was going to stop shooting. Davis responded with a “no” — something you look for a star to do.
“Everybody has to step up, and that’s what we did,” Davis said. “I think all the players on this team stepped up. I think all the guys did a great job of leading this team.”
Krzyzewski certainly is impressed by both the returning star, Rose, and the budding star, Davis.
“You talk about these two Chicago guys — (Davis) and Derrick — the best guys,” Krzyzewski said. “Easy to coach. Team guys. Dreams to coach. Both those guys are dreams to coach.”
While the questions still swirl around this team as to whether it has the right components to continue the international dominance it has established, it appears one leader is well on his way back to peak form, and a superstar is about to be born.John Juettner is a sportswriter and author from the Chicago area. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.