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November 24, 2017

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Olympics or not, Team USA on mission starting this week in Las Vegas

Veterans, youngsters alike hoping to set country up with free pass into 2012 Olympics field


Justin M. Bowen

Denver Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups works out with Team USA on Tuesday, July 22, 2010, at Cox Pavilion.

Click to enlarge photo

Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose works out with Team USA on Tuesday, July 22, 2010, at Cox Pavilion.

No, it's not the Olympics.

Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski, however, is referencing history this week to make the 20 players attempting to make the cut for next month's FIBA World Championships in Turkey realize the significance of the situation.

"There's not a guy playing in the NBA who's won a World Championship (with the USA) — the last time we won was in 1994," the Duke coach said before Monday's practice at Cox Pavilion. (Shaquille O'Neal played on that team but currently is not signed with an NBA team for the 2010-11 season) "Also, if you win, that gives you a bye into the Olympics. But the big thing is to win a World Championship. There's 24 teams that compete for this. There's only 12 that compete in the Olympics.

"The world thinks this is pretty good, and we're part of the world. We should look at it like they're looking at it. That's what we've learned over the last four years."

The list of 22 players on the original list headed to Las Vegas for training camp was cut down to 20 before it even began, as New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire (contract issues) and Phoenix Suns center Robin Lopez (back injury) were last-second scratches. The camp closes with a Blue and White scrimmage which is open to the public at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Even before those scratches, though, the race for roster spots on the Turkey-bound team was wide open.

Every member of the 2008 USA squad, which won gold at the Beijing Olympics, declined invites to play in this summer's World Championships, leaving the door open for several of the game's top young talents to not only make this team, but also to make a case for the 2012 Olympics squad.

Among those names vying for a trip overseas are Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose, Oklahoma City Thunder super-scorer Kevin Durant and Memphis Grizzlies combo guard O.J. Mayo.

Despite their youth, they grasp the importance of this summer's experience.

"Coming here, it means it's our chance to make a name for ourselves and get this team back to where it was in, what, '94?" Rose said. "It means a lot knowing that we can be that group. Just being here is an honor."

Added Krzyzewski: "It is more wide open, which is good. I think that's why I'm even more impressed why we have this many guys. No one is coming here with an 'I have the team' card already. It shows they want to be here, they want to be a part of USA Basketball. So these five days are extremely important for us to evaluate. I mean, you have ideas. Durant will probably make it. Somehow, I think he'll make it. For the most part, you don't know how it fits. What we need to do is figure out a core 8 or 9, then who complements them with style."

Either way, for Krzyzewski and USA Basketball Chairman Jerry Colangelo, this is another chance to evaluate up close the future of USA hoops, as all but two are older than 27.

The elder statesman of the group, however, is Denver Nuggets guard Chauncey Billups, who had to back out of the 2008 Olympics late because of a family situation at home.

"I thought the last time would be my last opportunity," Billups said. "That's why it hurt me so bad to duck out of it, but family is always first. As soon as they gave me this opportunity, I said I'm all in."

Billups said that, just as is the case during the NBA season, he can feel the respect he commands from the younger players in the camp.

Mentoring them is one thing, but he might be hungrier than anyone for a spot on the roster.

That kind of drive from a guy who has an NBA Finals MVP honor on his résumé is just another sign that the USA is not taking anything lightly.

"I consider myself to be a winner," Billups said. "And this is one of the last things I have on a long list that I've conquered. I'm looking forward to that."

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