LAS VEGAS -- I am in Las Vegas this week to cover Team USA's first exhibition game Friday night versus Canada (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the USA Basketball State Farm Challenge. And, while I am here, I will get a chance to see some of the country's best high school talent and the various tournaments being run simultaneously by Nike, Reebok and adidas.
It will be interesting to see the impact that guys like Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and the rest of the Olympic team will have on grassroots basketball in America. They are making it cool again to represent the United States and in a first-class way. They understand what is at stake in terms of restoring the respect for the way we play the game, and they have embraced the pressure that will be with them right up to the gold-medal game in Beijing.
The next generation gets it, as well. Guys like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Dwight Howard, Kevin Martin, Kevin Durant, Greg Oden and others will likely get serious consideration to represent the U.S. in 2012 in London, and they all fit the mold of what Team USA is trying to become again.
How much of this attitude filters down to the high school level remains to be seen. It's been my experience that these young players have no idea how good the rest of the basketball world has gotten, especially in their age group. And they don't have an appreciation that this has happened with good, old-fashioned fundamentals like shooting and passing.
I wish every one of the approximately 10,000 high school kids who are playing in Las Vegas this week could watch Team USA practice so they could appreciate how serious the pros are about preparing for this Olympic Games. The young kids would be stunned.
Here are some of my random thoughts concerning the Olympics:
• I think Team USA will win the gold medal in a very close game with Spain. Remember, these teams will meet in Group B play before the medal round, so Spain's coach, Aito Garcia Reneses, will not show all of his cards in the first matchup. He is one of the best tacticians in the world and will have something sneaky up his sleeve for Team USA when they meet a second time.
Spain will have a number of players with NBA experience, including the Lakers' Pau Gasol and one of the NBA's underrated point guards, Jose Calderon of the Toronto Raptors. Spain is the reigning FIBA world champion after crushing Greece without the injured Gasol in the title game in 2006.
Greece, which stunned Team USA in the semifinals of the 2006 World Championships, once again has no recognizable names to the American basketball fan. It is, however, the most fun team to watch in the world right now because it moves the ball better than anyone this side of the 1969-70 New York Knicks. I believe that Greece will edge out Argentina for the bronze.
With Manu Ginobili and Fabricio Oberto banged up and coming off long NBA seasons, Pepe Sanchez retired from the national team and Walter Hermann passing on the Olympics, Argentina is dangerous but on the downside of a great, almost decade-long run.
• How times have changed. Russia's coach, David Blatt, is an American from Boston who played his college basketball for Pete Carril at Princeton from 1977 to '81. After finishing his playing career in Israel, he embarked on a European coaching journey from Israel to Italy to Turkey and, now, to Russia.
Last September, he led the Russian national team to an unexpected win over Spain in the European Championships in Madrid. It's one of the reasons he is an "outside the box" choice to be the first international coach to become a head coach in the NBA someday.
• At some point in this Olympics, handling a zone defense will be critical. I am not worried about Team USA's outside shooting. It made 47 percent of its 3s in the Tournament of the Americas last summer. The international 3-pointer is like a chip shot for guys like Kobe, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Redd.
I am more concerned about the team seeing some junk defense like a "triangle and two" or an unconventional zone like the 1-3-1. If you are playing Team USA, you have to slow the game down and create some indecision. These guys are fastball hitters, but they have to be prepared for the "changeup" defenses that come their way.
Jason Kidd is 38-0 in major international competition for Team USA. However, he averaged one shot a game in the Tournament of the Americas last summer. As great as he is in transition, in a half-court type of game and against zone defenses, someone is going to dare him to shoot.
• For those who think that Team USA won't check its ego at the door, I believe that is a dead issue. While I wasn't initially sure about a college coach being able to create a selfless, egoless group, I think Mike Krzyzewski will ultimately prove to be the best coach for this team. His ability to manage great talent is, to me, his greatest strength, and he has gotten "total buy-in" from a team of stars.
Bryant, the best player in the world, is the team's best perimeter defender. James, who can make a reasonable argument for being the best player in the world, is Krzyzewski's best playmaker. Dwyane Wade, the 2006 NBA Finals MVP, is the team's sixth man, and Anthony is its best international player and may be the best FIBA player in the world right now, at least on the offensive end.
There is nobody in the tournament with the ability to score more ways than Anthony can. When you want to construct the typical Euro power forward who can score inside and out, you start with Melo.
The rest of the players on this squad will take their cue from they have seen from the team's stars and fall right into line.
• I have no problem with Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski going with a smaller, more versatile lineup, unlike those who wanted to see an extra big man added to the roster. While Howard, Chris Bosh and Carlos Boozer are the only NBA-style big men on the team, keep in mind that international basketball is played from the outside in and not inside out like the NBA game. There is a premium put on being able to defend the perimeter and the 3-point line first and the paint second. That's counterintuitive for American players who have to constantly guard the dribble-drive to the rim and the physical low-post players in the NBA game.
The trapezoid lane in international basketball tends to stunt the development of low-post players but creates mobile big guys like Dirk Nowitzki, who can stretch a defense with his outside shooting. In fact, in this Olympic tournament, Yao Ming, may be the rare low-post scorer who can hurt Team USA. That's assuming China's guards can withstand the pressure defense that comes their way.
As Krzyzewski has gotten more accustomed to the physical international style, he's recognized that an extra big man like Brad Miller in 2006 or Tyson Chandler last summer is not as valuable as the perimeter player who can guard three positions. And, remember that James, at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, is almost the same size as Karl Malone was when he played in the Olympics in 1992 and 1996. James, Anthony and Tayshaun Prince (at times) will see time at the power forward position in this tournament.
Ironically, because the international game is more physical than the NBA game, it's actually more important that the USA roster is filled with guards and wings who can handle the hand-checking that is no longer allowed in the NBA. That's why Williams may turn out to be a very important factor in the gold-medal run. He's certainly strong enough to handle and dish out physical play.
• While few people I talk to think that this Olympic team can compare with the 1992 Dream Team, I wonder how it would size up against the original Dream Team, the 1960 Olympic team. That team had, until Michael Jordan came along, maybe the two greatest guards in NBA history: Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Jerry Lucas, another Hall of Famer, was the anchor up front. And, they were college players at that time.
• How about my projected 2012 Olympic team that will compete in London:
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavs
Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
Brandon Roy, Portland Trail Blazers
Chris Paul, New Orleans Hornets
Kevin Martin, Sacramento Kings
Deron Williams, Utah Jazz
Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City
Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Dwight Howard, Orlando Magic
Greg Oden, Portland Trail Blazers
Al Jefferson, Minnesota Timberwolves
• I don't expect that Coach K will return in 2012, but I do hope that Colangelo stays on through one more run. The organization and culture of professionalism he have created for USA Basketball need to be fostered if we are to remain serious about staying at the top of the basketball world. The world will get better, and we must make these events like the FIBA World Championship and the Olympics a priority for our best players. That's my hope, anyway.