Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Injuries, age give younger NBA players chance on international stage

Inside the gym where Team USA is training for next month’s FIBA World Cup, you can’t take two steps without tripping over one of the most talented players in the world.

Kevin Durant. Stephen Curry. Derrick Rose. Anthony Davis. DeMarcus Cousins. The list of contenders for Mike Krzyzewski’s 2014 squad seems endless, and yet, it’s also about as fluid as the water flow that not so long ago ensured the greening of America’s lawns.

It’s happening organically and, interestingly, is skewing toward younger, healthier, hungrier NBA stars. This has never been more apparent than these past several months, when several stars withdrew from consideration because of injury (Blake Griffin), persistent trade rumors and uncertain contract status (Kevin Love), or a simple desire to rest after a grueling season (Andre Iguodala, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge).

And this is far from a made-in-America phenomenon. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, long a critic of Team USA’s lengthy process, persuaded Dirk Nowitzki to skip his annual contribution to Germany. San Antonio Spurs coach/general manager Gregg Popovich, an influential leader and vocal advocate of the international game, encouraged Tony Parker to reject overtures from France and denied Manu Ginobili permission to compete for Argentina, partly because the veteran guard is recovering from a leg stress fracture, but also because Manu is 37 years old.

Pau (34) and Marc Gasol (29) are the exceptions among aging NBA stars – both will play for Spain – but considering the World Cup is being held in their homeland, their presence is a no-brainer.

Several NBA executives and even some longtime USA Basketball officials predict the trend will continue through the 2014 Olympics and beyond, that as players approach their 30s, the temptation to resist will prevail in the emotional/physical conflict.

“There will always be a mix on our teams,” USA Basketball executive director Jerry Colangelo said thoughtfully after Tuesday’s practice, while mulling the potential shift, “but we are leaning toward younger players.”

Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap are the only invitees aged 29 or older. Durant, who is the class of the camp, is an anomaly; he is only 25, already an elder statesman of the national program, and despite his spindly, almost freakishly thin physique, remains remarkably fresh and resilient. Rose, 25, who missed most of the previous two NBA seasons with knee injuries, is both offering his services and using the camp as a sort of test case/training camp for 2014-15.

Cousins, who turns 24 on Aug. 13, is more typical of the new wave of participants and World Cup/Olympic wannabes: The fifth-year Kings center was still in diapers when members of the original Dream Team passed, dunked and rebounded, and at times, even limped their way to one overwhelming victory after another in 1992.

But the world caught on, and for a while, caught up. American complacency became a cruel and opportunistic teacher. George Karl’s mediocre team (by U.S. standards) faltered miserably in the 2002 World Championships. Larry Brown’s 2004 Olympic squad, hastily revised and reassembled when the majority of stars dropped out because of terrorism fears in Athens, lost the opener and settled for bronze.

While Krzyzewski’s coaching brilliance and Colangelo’s subsequent reorganization of the national program restored America as the dominant global presence, implementing a system that replenishes naturally every year or so, with restored supremacy, complacency once again lurks dangerously.

Superstars appear less excited about participating in the routine routs over Angola, France, Russia, Germany. Serious injuries are afflicting elite NBA players in troubling, inexplicable numbers. Additionally, the shorter contract lengths and enhanced flexibility understandably are giving players pause.

See Love. Why risk injury while awaiting the next move? Why risk injury, period?

“We talked about it,” Curry said, referring to discussions with Warriors management, “but still, this is an opportunity you can’t take for granted. They’re (Warriors) pretty OK with it. ”

Back to the bigs. Back to Cousins. Kings executives are embracing his presence here enthusiastically. The potential benefits to all parties are enormous. For the first time in his NBA career, he is on the same team with players who are his equals or superiors. For the first time in his career, he is being directed by a Hall of Fame coach who pushes an uptempo, unselfish system, and who has the experience and gravitas to dump a player for whatever reasons without fear of repercussion.

So far, Cousins is all checked in. He was less lively than in Monday’s opening practices, he laughed about the brisk pace. “I got my track (shoes) on today,” he said. His challenge these next few days is to capitalize on his youth, generate energy and push through the fatigue, and showcase his abundant talents; the attitude has been fine.

“He’s making the right play for his teammates,” Kings coach Michael Malone said after observing the scrimmages. “On the other end of the floor, he’s being very vocal on defense. Offensively he’s getting out and running the floor. I’m just here to support him. I’m rooting for him. It’s a great opportunity for him.”

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