Saturday, July 13, 2024

Select team straw poll: LeBron voted Team USA’s best in camp

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LAS VEGAS — Seventeen-year-old Duke phenom Cooper Flagg might have been the surprise star of Team USA training camp, but the real plot twist was that an NBA legend more than twice his age, 39-year-old LeBron James, was the best.

James, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer who is months away from the start of his 22nd season, was voted the top national team player in camp in a straw poll of Olympic camp participants conducted by The Athletic.

“That’s what I told my brother after the first day, I was like dude’s 40 and he’s the best player on the court,” said Amen Thompson, a forward for the Houston Rockets and a voter in the poll, due to his participation in camp as a select team member.

The U.S. roster is full of future Hall of Famers and is often compared to the storied 1992 Dream Team, but James won the poll with a plurality of votes cast with five.

Stephen Curry, Anthony Edwards and Jrue Holiday each received two votes. Joel Embiid, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Bam Adebayo each received one vote.

In a different question for the same poll, Flagg — who is two years younger than LeBron’s son and new Los Angeles Lakers teammate, Bronny — was easily the top vote-getter among select team members with nine votes.

“If I had to choose one person (on the select team), it was definitely Cooper,” said Rockets forward Jabari Smith Jr., another select team member.

The Athletic has conducted this informal poll to gauge the top U.S. player in camp for the last two summers. For reference, Jaren Jackson Jr. won last year’s poll as the top player in camp for the Americans in preparation for the World Cup.

This year’s poll was a little different: The participants this time were most of the players and coaches from the select team — a collection of younger NBA players, G Leaguers and Flagg, brought to Las Vegas for three days of scrimmages against the Olympic team.

Last summer, the 12 Americans on the World Cup team voted. Access to Team USA’s players is not the same this time due to the expanded media interest with the massive star power on the roster. The camp concluded Monday, and only three national team members were available for interviews. Thus, national team members were not included in this year’s poll.

Instead, we asked their opponent.

As previously mentioned, this was a straw poll, so players were permitted to vote for multiple teammates if they chose.

“I feel like LeBron’s focus, Steph’s focus, people who have been doing this for so long and still keep that focus, still keep that hunger — that’s what impressed me the most,” Smith said.

Jamahl Mosley, coach of the select team and Orlando Magic, said James exemplified the immense leadership and poise he saw from Team USA throughout camp.

“You feel and see his presence on the court,” Mosley said. “You see exactly what he’s doing, the way he’s communicating, the way he’s talking, getting guys in position. There’s a level of focus on the seriousness of understanding the moment that he just continues to show.”

So, perhaps James shouldn’t come off the bench for this team?

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Kevin Durant did not participate in camp due to a calf strain. Jayson Tatum didn’t arrive until Monday morning. Durant’s absence made room for Edwards, who was on the floor in Monday’s scrimmage against the select team with James, Embiid, Curry and Tatum.

“I thought Ant played tremendous on-ball defense,” said Jaime Jaquez Jr. of the Miami Heat. “Steph the way he was running around shooting 3s. Bam I thought was doing his thing.”

Jim Boylen, an assistant coach for both the select team and the Indiana Pacers, raved about Embiid.

“I thought he was so poised, so skilled,” Boylen said. “He plays around the basket. He made a 3. He can pass the ball. He makes good decisions.”

Trey Murphy, a forward for the New Orleans Pelicans, named Davis: “AD’s size definitely affected us a lot.”

Jalen Duren, the Detroit Pistons center and select team member, highlighted Holiday: “Jrue had a big impact. He’s all over the place.”

On the select team, Brandon Miller of the Charlotte Hornets received two votes and Golden State’s Brandin Podziemski picked up one vote.

“I would say the first day (of scrimmages) I think it was me, I think the second day it was Coop,” Podziemski said.

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While James is the most accomplished player on the Team USA roster, he has marveled at the star power surrounding him this week while carrying an air of humility throughout the stretch.

On Sunday, while speaking to a small group of reporters inside the Bellagio, he reflected on the specific notion that he was joining forces with three all-time greats with whom he has shared the NBA Finals stage: Curry, Durant and Leonard.

“It’s surreal,” James said. “Anytime I see a clip, (when) I go on social media and see a clip of us walking into the building — like yesterday, I think we all walked into the building (together) and I was like, ‘Damn, that s—‘s crazy.’

“(It’s like) somebody put the greatest AAU team of all time (together). It’s super cool. That was dope. And then being on the floor with those guys just got me even more respect for them.”

And it inspired James to play at an elite level, too, with the young guys noticing.

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(Photo: Mercedes Oliver / NBAE via Getty Images)

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