Sunday, July 14, 2024

Devin Booker back for gold after thriving as glue guy in Tokyo

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LAS VEGAS — Of all the Team USA members to be geeking out about their star-studded roster for the Paris Olympics, the one who best portrayed how surreal it was over the weekend was … LeBron James.

“I see a clip of us walking into the building, like yesterday I think we all walked into the building and I’m like, ‘Damn, that’s just crazy. Somebody put together the greatest AAU team of all time. Like, super cool.’ That was dope,” he said Sunday.

The Dream Team of the 1992 Olympic Games is held with legendary acclaim as the greatest basketball team ever assembled. It is deserved. But if there was ever another roster to get within range of the talent, it’s the 2024 iteration of Team USA.

Anthony Edwards grabbed headlines on Sunday when he proclaimed, “I’m still the No. 1 option. Y’all might look at it differently, but I don’t look at it no differently.”

He ended an answer on a follow-up with a smile saying, “They gotta fit in to play around me. That’s how I feel.”

Edwards, as always, is being honest. That mentality he isn’t afraid to share with us is going to help him become an all-time great. To be clear, he spoke later in the day and said, “We got LeBron, KD and Steph, so. I don’t feel like nobody can beat those three by themselves on the court. You mix in two of us regular guys, we’ll be alright.’”

The beauty of Team USA is it challenges the best in the world in a one-of-a-kind way. No one gets to come to the Olympics and directly translate their NBA role. Everyone has to adapt, everyone has to change and everyone has to sacrifice.

Devin Booker seamlessly handled that transition in 2021, and it’s why he will be looked upon by the coaching staff as a trusted player over the course of the tournament.

Head coach Steve Kerr was an assistant in Tokyo and saw Booker make that shift in stride.

“Book was great in Tokyo,” Kerr said Monday. “He’s the perfect example of a guy who in an NBA game is going to get 20 shots every night. In FIBA, in ’21, he was more of a defender (and) ball-mover but did a great job and was one of our key players. So that’s why he’s back here. We knew how much we needed him.

“I’m so impressed with Book’s ability to understand that, recognize the role change, but still hit the big shot and be looking forward to a big moment. Book’s a perfect FIBA guy.”

That process of taking on lesser roles is the only thing that prevents the United States from winning every competition it is in. The overwhelming majority of star players do come in accepting that. But executing it on the floor is a whole different story.

There is normally just one American per tournament that can continue being “The Guy,” and even then, it’s not the same. This group will be one of the rare exceptions where that name does not exist because there is too much top-tier talent. Even the four leaders of the team will be in simplified positions.

James will be the playmaking engine running the offense. Kevin Durant will be the automatic 1-on-1 bucket thriving in scoring pockets. Stephen Curry will be the ball screen maestro putting pressure on defenses via his shooting. And even with all that, a fair bit of the offense will probably be centered around Joel Embiid, the most unstoppable interior force since Shaquille O’Neal.

That leaves little to no room for names like Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Jayson Tatum and Edwards to do what they do. We usually don’t know how that’s going to go. It just comes down to seeing it in realtime across pool play of the tournament, picking out who separates themselves in that dynamic.

This is what Booker achieved in Tokyo. He was more or less a glue guy. Booker was applying fullcourt pressure defensively, battling for post position, scrapping for loose balls and pushing the tempo offensively while connecting possessions away from the ball. If there was an All-Defense team for the tournament, he would have made it.

The defining performance for him came in the quarterfinals against Spain. While he shot just 4-of-13, Booker was a game-high +22 with nine points, nine rebounds, five assists, three steals and zero turnovers.

It was almost as if Booker and former teammate Mikal Bridges had some banter pregame over FaceTime, with Bridges challenging Booker to play like him.

“I like diving into that role,” Booker said Sunday. “I was not always a star of the team. I was sixth man in college, so I’ve always approached the game with whatever I have to do to get on the court and be effective. Just understanding that the talent is around and how the game is different over there. Having that experience last Olympics, I think has put me in the right mindset from Day 1 now.”

The man who has been referred to as “Headband Book” and several other monikers online earned the “Olympic Book” nickname with this new look at his game. He is a fan of it.

“Yeah, it’s Gold Medal Book!” Booker said. “A lot of people have one but not many have two, so it’s an honor.”

Mind you, Booker won that first gold medal less than three weeks after his playoff run concluded in which he set the record for most points in a debut postseason and averaged 28.2 points per game on 45.5% shooting in the NBA Finals. If anyone would have had a good excuse for stumbling a bit with the role change, it was him. And he still managed to figure it out.

Booker and Jrue Holiday immediately provided a jolt on defense while others on the roster didn’t successfully complete the transition. Within a week of the two arriving in Tokyo after the NBA Finals, head coach Gregg Popovich moved both into the starting lineup. Holiday admitted on Saturday he wasn’t even expecting that type of role to emerge and was just happy to have the honor.

Bam Adebayo was one of the few who proved to be adaptable in 2021, too, and Tyrese Haliburton perfected his role for the USA’s last World Cup squad as the change-of-pace facilitator off the bench.

“When you put it in perspective, for me, it’s how do I become a chameleon and really blend,” Adebayo said. “It’s not about points, it’s not about rebounds — it’s about impacting winning.”

Haliburton wants to encompass the style of play that best suits Team USA.

“I just think for us, understanding that we’re going to score,” Haliburton said. “USA Basketball is going to find a way to score. We got a lot of good players. For me, last year, I was coming off the bench so just trying to bring speed and pace into the game. I think that’s when we were at our best offensively. That’s something that coaches have already started talking about from Day 1, just understanding that we want to get up and down and run.”

This group can win the tournament because it is led by experience. Durant and James are entering their fourth Olympics. But it’s not just those two. Adebayo, Booker, Holiday and Tatum have won Olympic gold before and know what it takes.

“If we win gold, nobody’s gonna remember stats, nobody’s gonna remember minutes — all they gonna see when you’re said and done is ‘Olympic gold medalist,’” Adebayo said.

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