Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Big-time scrimmage performance would help Cousins’ case for making Team USA

Ailene Voisin
Ailene Voisin

Four days into the national team training camp, USA Basketball coaches and officials remain conflicted about DeMarcus Cousins’ potential value on Mike Krzyzewski’s FIBA World Cup squad.

New Orleans center Anthony Davis is a virtual lock for the final 12-man roster that travels to Spain for the tournament beginning Aug. 30. But with the first formal scrimmage scheduled today at 6 p.m. at Thomas & Mack Center, the powers-that-be are still waiting to be “wowed,” as they stated previously, by a group of power forward-center candidates consisting of Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee.

The 19-player roster will be reduced by a few players following the scrimmage, though it appears Cousins, Drummond and Plumlee, the Duke product promoted from the Select Team earlier in the week, will survive initial cuts. Krzyzewki’s uptempo offense, the abundance of scoring guards and wing players, and both the size and caliber of the competition, will factor into the ultimate composition of the team. Host country Spain, for instance, features 7-footers Pau and Marc Gasol.

“Well, we need big guys, and we have to have more than Anthony Davis,” Krzyzewski said after a light Thursday practice, “and all the big guys have shown good stuff. (But) how do they mesh in with the scoring talent on the team? Obviously you have (James) Harden and (Stephen) Curry and (Derrick) Rose and (Kyrie) Irving and these guys. (Kevin) Durant. (Paul) George. We don’t have to make the final 12 decision this week. We need to take a look at the bigs.”

Drummond is a physical presence who defends and runs the floor. Plumlee is long and athletic, and a lively defender, though a nonetheless curious addition to the mix. Cousins is a superb rebounder and uniquely skilled, muscular center, but more accustomed to having the ball and playing at a slower pace; he is being asked to dominate the boards and anchor the defense.

“The style we play lends itself to what Anthony does or even what Plumlee does,” Krzyzewski said, “and a little bit of Drummond because Detroit, of what they do, they put him and (Will) Bynum in the game and all they do is pick and roll. DeMarcus’ game is different, so he has an adjustment to make, and he’s trying to make it.

“But also, we have to look and see if we can help, and bring something more into his game. We all have to adapt. And it’s a different way of playing defense. We have to see these exhibition games to see how that will wash out.”

Jerry Colangelo, the USA Basketball executive director who resurrected the national program after disappointments in the 2002 World Championships and 2004 Athens Olympics, acknowledged that a core group of “seven or eight” has been identified and reiterated the importance of the upcoming scrimmages.

“Tomorrow night (Friday), if somebody just knocks somebody out in terms of performance, that’s big,” Colangelo said. “Not to put pressure on anyone, but it’s one thing to play in practice and another thing to play in games.”

International concerns – NBA coaches and executives for decades have spent summers overseeing the national team programs in other countries, and not always in the safest of conditions. Case in point: Amid the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, former NBA head coach and current analyst Mike Fratello and his staff are remaining with the Ukraine men’s national team for the upcoming World Cup.

The staff includes Brooklyn Nets assistant Joe Wolf, who oversees Ukraine’s basketball development, along with longtime NBA coaches/executives Bob Hill and Jack Nolan.

Wolf, who is attending Team USA practices this week, said he had no reservations about returning to Kiev for a third consecutive year.

“We just stay away from the eastern part of the country,” he said, “and we’re gone a lot during the training. We play three games in Lithuania, have three games in Kiev, play France, Spain. We play this team (USA), too, Sept. 4 in the World Cup in Bilbao.”

In the NBA, it’s all about relationships. Fratello was lured to Kiev three seasons ago by Alexander Volkov, the head of Ukraine’s basketball federation and a rookie forward on Fratello’s 1989 Atlanta Hawks. Currently a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, Volkov entered the league with highly regarded European stars Vlade Divac, Sarunas Marciulionis, Zarko Paspalj and the late Drazen Petrovic.

Location advantage – After three days of intense practices and scrimmages, Thursday’s session was brief and consisted mainly of shooting drills and halfcourt instruction. If you can ignore the triple-digit heat, the setup here is almost ideal for a training camp. The T&M, Cox Pavilion and Mendenhall Center share the premises and are located within yards of each other.

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