Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Kings’ Rudy Gay embraces challenge for coveted Olympic berth

Rudy Gay, shooting at the Team USA minicamp, has played in two world championships.
Rudy Gay, shooting at the Team USA minicamp, has played in two world championships. The Associated Press

Rudy Gay can count just as well as the 33 other NBA players at this week’s mandatory Team USA minicamp at UNLV with the hope of earning credits toward a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team.

If he looks to his left, he sees LeBron James hoisting three-pointers. If he glances to his right, he notices DeMarcus Cousins sinking free throws. If he wants to be truly daring and expand his horizons – in other words, by checking out the action near the other three baskets – he will recognize Klay Thomspon, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard ... and on and on it goes.

“We’ve never assembled this much talent,” USA Basketball executive director Jerry Colangelo said Wednesday after the team’s final practice. “In terms of numbers, nothing close to this.”

When NBA players became eligible for international competition, the 1992 Dream Team was assembled before Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and friends stepped onto a practice court. Invitations were delivered and immediately accepted.

Yet as the national program has evolved under Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski, the allure of playing in the Olympics attracts so many elite players that tryouts and minicamps have become the norm, with this week’s session breaking attendance records.

The sight of James, in a group with Gay and Cousins, working on his post moves, practicing free throws, occasionally joking around, represented a sentiment shared by the three dozen or so other stars who crowded the gym. With two exceptions (Damian Lillard and Derrick Rose), everyone invited wanted in.

Which means that while Cousins has an excellent chance of making the 2016 squad because of his talent and the dearth of centers, Gay is in the scrum of his life. The competition among guards and forwards is so ferocious, the talent pool so deep, the United States could send three teams to Rio de Janeiro and easily come home with three medals.

Gay said he’s simply rolling the dice and embracing the challenge.

“I played for Coach K in the 2010 and 2014 world championship,” Gay said. “I would love to do it again and get a chance to play in the Olympics. Rio obviously is Rio. I’ve never been there before, but what better reason than to play for your country in the Olympics?”

It’s not as if the affable veteran hasn’t experienced rejection. He was among the final cuts for the 2012 London Games, yet he did not hesitate when Colangelo offered him a spot on last summer’s World Cup squad after Durant withdrew midway into training camp and Paul George suffered a gruesome leg fracture in the intrasquad scrimmage.

Gay and Cousins overcame their own injuries last summer. Cousins, the backup to Anthony Davis, banged knees with a teammate and missed a few days of practice. Gay caught an elbow in the semifinal game against Lithuania, was treated for a fractured jaw and broken tooth and eventually needed a root canal.

But Gay played in Team USA’s victory over Serbia for the gold medal.

“If Rudy doesn’t make this Olympic team, he can borrow my dual citizenship and play for my native country,” Kings vice president and former Serbian Olympic Committee president Vlade Divac wisecracked during Wednesday’s practice. “But in my opinion, he should make this team. He has so much talent, and he can play three positions. Sometimes I think Rudy doesn’t even know how talented he is.”

Divac, who attended the session with Kings principal owner Vivek Ranadive, still has that politician’s touch. He cornered Krzyzewski, the longtime Duke coach, and campaigned for his Kings. Then he whipped out his cellphone and had a picture taken of the three men. With a mischievous grin, he joked he was sending the photo to Kings coach George Karl, a rabid North Carolina alum who missed the Team USA practices because he was undergoing his annual cancer checkup.

Gay and Cousins met with their bosses earlier in the day and, according to Ranadive, heard nothing but encouragement – nothing close to reservations expressed by several NBA owners who discourage their players from participating in international tournaments for fear of injury.

“I’m an immigrant to this country, so to me it’s an honor to have both of our players win the World Cup last summer,” Ranadive said. “They came back even better. And look, you play the game, and you can get injured, but you can also get injured not playing.”

Gay agreed. Most of his offseason training is designed to keep him healthy, and playing for Krzyzewski even in a loosely structured environment enables him to gain experience at multiple positions – a particular plus given Karl’s innovative offenses and the dramatic retooling of the Kings’ roster.

Graceful, skilled and athletic at 6-foot-8 and 230 pounds, with long arms that enable him to shoot over defenders in the post, Gay envisions a Kings team that has the size, quickness and versatility to dictate in the open court or the interior.

“George allows me to be a basketball player,” Gay said, “and I like the moves a lot. It was a mess last year, but I think they’ve done a good job trying to switch it up. I think Kosta Koufos is going to be a big help. I’ve always been a Marco Belinelli fan. Everybody knows my relationship with (Rajon) Rondo. Bringing Omri (Casspi) back was big for us, too. Energy, get out there, run through a wall. I’m excited to get to camp to see how it all works.”

With the minicamp ending with Thursday’s intrasquad scrimmage – a glorified All-Star Game of low-impact activity, minimal contact and virtually no defense – Gay will resume training in Florida and then hope for the best: a return to the playoffs followed by a trip to South America.

“Rudy has a lot of equity in our program,” Colangelo said. “He has made a contribution and he has shown his commitment. All these things will sort themselves out.”

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