When the U.S. men’s national team gathered in Las Vegas in late July to begin the selection process for this month’s FIBA World Cup, it was far from certain Kings center DeMarcus Cousins would make the team.
When Team USA left for Spain a month later, the Kings’ two best players, Cousins and forward Rudy Gay, had made the 12-man roster.
Now Cousins and Gay are traveling throughout Spain, making a noticeable impact on the world’s biggest international basketball stage, an impact that, they both say, will translate to success back home in Sacramento. Team USA plays Mexico today in the first game of the round of 16. The championship game is Sept. 14.
Gay, acquired by the Kings from Toronto in December, said he couldn’t have asked for a better way to jell with his new teammate this offseason than playing together for Team USA.
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“It’s huge for us because we’re practicing and working every day together,” Gay said after Team USA’s win over the Dominican Republic on Wednesday. “And we’re learning with some of the best players in the world.”
Cousins, who is backing up NBA All-Star and 2012 Olympian Anthony Davis, agreed.
“It’s definitely good bonding time for us,” Cousins said Thursday. “And for camaraderie, too, because when you wear USA on your chest, you’re playing for something bigger than yourself.”
While Cousins is one of the Americans’ rising stars in international play, Gay perhaps is the Team USA player closest to being the opposite. After averaging seven points and 2.9 rebounds in 13.4 minutes in the 2010 World Championships, Gay is averaging 4.6 points and 3.6 rebounds in 14 minutes coming off the bench again.
And Gay, who plays small forward for the Kings, has been moved to power forward for Team USA.
“It’s difficult, and it takes time,” Gay said of his limited role on the team and his change in position. “But I’m learning fast and trying to help others.”
After being accustomed to carrying a heavy load for their NBA teams, Gay is one of several players who must adapt to reduced playing time for Team USA. It’s the tradeoff of playing with the world’s best players, said Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, an adjustment that, in the long term, can be beneficial to both a player’s ego and attitude toward the game.
“They have to adapt to doing new things, like sharing time and coming off the bench,” Krzyzewski said. “By doing that, you get a better feel for how a team actually has to act.”
Krzyzewski, Duke’s longtime coach, compared playing time and available shots for his players to a bank account with limited funding.
“You have to watch how you spend your money,” Krzyzewski said. “In other words, you have to clip coupons and look for sales on the international team instead of throwing that part of the newspaper away.”
Besides adjusting to reduced roles, Cousins and Gay said differences in FIBA’s rules for international play has been their principal challenge. Known as one of the NBA’s more physically imposing centers, Cousins said FIBA’s rules against contact have limited his inside presence.
“It has been different. It’s something I’m not really used to,” Cousins said. “I’m busting my butt trying to get into the flow of things and get used to this style of play.”
Gay has had perhaps an even bigger adjustment. He was added to Team USA’s training camp roster Aug. 8 after the Indiana Pacers’ Paul George was injured and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant withdrew. Despite his previous international experience, Gay said the lack of preparation time has made the transition especially challenging.
“I’m learning on the fly,” Gay said. “It’s an adjustment, but it’s still basketball at the end of the day. For me to be effective, I have to keep adjusting.”
With five games in six days, Gay and Cousins had little time for sightseeing during their opening-round trip to Bilbao, Spain. Nevertheless, Gay, a second-time visitor to Spain, said he’s taking time to admire the country’s scenery when the team’s schedule allows it.
“It’s a beautiful country with a lot of history,” he said. “There’s plenty to do and plenty to see. We just haven’t had the time.”
Cousins, on the other hand, has been all business. The center said leadership and a more focused work ethic are among the things he wants to bring back to Sacramento.
“My thing is just taking in as much as I can from this experience and taking it back home,” Cousins said. “I’m being led by some of the best players in the league here, and I want to use everything I learn to make myself better.”