Up next for USA Basketball: Waiting, and hoping
LAS VEGAS — And now, they wait.
USA Basketball’s two-day minicamp ended Friday, and what’s next for the national team isn’t exactly clear. If all goes well, they’ll be gathering for a camp around this time next year to begin training for the FIBA World Cup in China.
Thing is, the Americans might not know until February if they’ve qualified.
So while U.S. coach Gregg Popovich of the San Antonio Spurs will keep planning and thinking about what may be ahead, he knows that work comes with no guarantees at this point.
“We’re not going anywhere if we don’t qualify,” Popovich said. “Jeff Van Gundy has been doing a great job in handling that. It’s a big-time job and our focus, once we qualify, is the World Cup in China. We don’t even think about the Olympics. The goal is the world championship in China next summer. So that’s what we’re working toward.”
Van Gundy is coaching the Americans through qualifying for the World Cup. It resumes in September, and the U.S. will keep using G League players — as it has for its first six games of the tournament where it is trying to land a berth in the China field. The Americans are 5-1 so far, though could face serious challenges when the second round begins in Las Vegas in mid-September.
Assuming the U.S. qualifies, Popovich expects to have regular discussions with USA Basketball officials like Jerry Colangelo about who they’d like to consider for the team — as well as NBA players, to gauge their interest.
HOOPS CAPITAL: LeBron James skipped the minicamp, but he didn’t skip Las Vegas.
And without question, Vegas is the July basketball capital of the U.S.
The NBA Summer League took over the city for basically the first half of the month, playing as many as 10 games a day at UNLV — the same site that USA Basketball used for its minicamp.
And this week, the USA minicamp is just one element of what is a massive basketball takeover in Las Vegas. There are no fewer than three major tournaments for up-and-coming high school players going on in Vegas through this weekend, with more than 1,200 teams from all over the country playing at about 60 sites around the city.
One estimate says roughly 6,500 basketball games are getting played in Las Vegas this week — or more than 200,000 minutes worth of action.
James has been at several games over the course of the week, sometimes watching his son’s games, sometimes watching Dwyane Wade’s son playing games (and sitting with his former Heat and Cavaliers teammate as well). Other NBA players who have been spotted at youth games this week include Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
“It’s about supporting the youth,” said Paul, who, like James, was invited to play in the USA camp this week but declined. Instead, he spent some of his week in Vegas coaching.
It’s believed that every Division I men’s school in the country has at least one coach in Las Vegas this week for recruiting purposes. Many schools, including Miami and Nebraska, sent four.
CONLEY PROGRESSING: Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies was limited to 12 games last season because of a heel injury that required surgery. He participated in USA Basketball’s minicamp this week, albeit not in contact portions.
“I wish I could have participated in the contact stuff and I think I could,” Conley said. “But I think we’re being more cautious than anything. I feel really good and should be ready to go by training camp.”
He has been playing in halfcourt sessions as part of his rehab, but has yet to partake in any 5-on-5 action.
Waiting has been frustrating, he said.
“April, May, June, there were times when I was like ‘Man, this is taking forever,’” Conley said. “But right now, I think it’s all starting to come together.”
Conley is going into his 12th NBA season, all with the Grizzlies. He’s averaged 14.3 points and 5.7 assists per game so far in his career.
ASSISTANTS: USA Basketball coach Gregg Popovich had plenty of help in Las Vegas this week.
His assistant coach roster for camp was star-studded: Villanova coach Jay Wright, Gonzaga coach Mark Few, Golden State associate head coach Mike Brown, Miami assistant Dan Craig, Utah assistant Alex Jensen, Boston assistant Jay Larranaga, Dallas assistant Jamahl Mosley, San Antonio assistant Ime Udoka and Portland assistant David Vanterpool.
Popovich said he went through a varied process when it came to picking a camp staff, relying on both his personal knowledge of what some coaches can offer and getting feedback from other coaches in many cases.
“Recommendations, my own knowledge of some of them, and I thought it’d be good for them to get the exposure,” Popovich said. “For them to be around all these players, I think it helps everybody. I think it’s a win-win.”
Craig said when he got the call from Popovich, he was stunned. The call was brief, he said, and came when Craig was driving to work in Miami a few weeks ago.
“I was really just flattered and honored that they would think of me, USA Basketball and coach Popovich,” Craig said.
WIZARD DAD: It’s not often that Washington’s John Wall takes the court without backcourt partner Bradley Beal. And USA Basketball wanted them both together in Las Vegas this week as well.
Beal passed, for good reason. He just became a dad.
“I know he’s excited,” Wall said. “Definitely didn’t want to miss that experience. So we understand why he’s not here. If not for that he definitely would have been here.”
GOING-AWAY GIFTS: Gregg Popovich promised that he would buy some USA Basketball players cars based on their performance at camp.
He fulfilled his end of the bargain — sort of. Popovich showed up Friday with cars for winners of various drills. They were toy miniature cars, but cars nonetheless.
“They all laughed, they all thought it was funny,” Popovich said. “Just screwing with them.”
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During my senior year at Glenwood Springs High School, our much-anticipated basketball season began on the usual mid-November day in 1978. Our season held an abundance of promise, even though we were kicking off the…