Early Impressions From the First Two Games
Carmelo Anthony Gets Better Every Year
Anthony was the leading scorer for the U.S. team that finished third in the world championships last season, but even with the addition of two-time NBA scoring champ Kobe Bryant on this squad, he seems poised to do it once again. Anthony has been Team USA's best low post option in the first two games. He has been more effective in the block than Dwight Howard and Amare Stoudemire and hasn't made Coach Mike Krzyzewski pay for playing him at power forward.
The scary part about him, is that he has been just as effective from three-point range. His only flaw was in the first game against Venezuela, when he attempted to go one-on-one when he's surrounded by playmakers in Jason Kidd and LeBron James, who can make the game so much easier for him. He seemed to come back into the fold against the Virgin Islands.
You always hear stories about how the great players always add new wrinkles to their games each season. Anthony hasn't earned the right to be called "great" yet, but he can score on bigger opponents, muscle smaller ones and step out and hit mid-range jumpers. Going into fifth season - can you believe it's been that long? - Anthony has certainly improved on the offensive end. (You have to wonder when that will finally translate into him getting Denver out of the first round. He's another first round loss from being Kevin Garnett or Tracy McGrady).
I ran into former Denver Nuggets General Manager Kiki Vandeweghe yesterday and he shared an interesting story with me about Anthony. Vandeweghe said that during his second season in Denver, Anthony had begun to get down on himself, lost some confidence in his game, and called to express his frustrations before a long East Coast road trip.
Vandeweghe told Anthony that when he was in Dallas, he would work out late at night with Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki and that if Anthony was willing, he'd do the same with him. Anthony took Vandeweghe up on the training and immediately impressed him with his hard work and tireless commitment. Vandeweghe said the most impressive part about Anthony was, "he's just so strong."
After a while, Vandeweghe said he had to stop playing Anthony one-on-one because his body couldn't take the pounding. "I told him, 'I'll shoot with you, but that's about it,' " Vandeweghe said with a laugh.
Kobe Bryant Will Not Let His Team Lose
I've always heard stories about Bryant's work ethic and his desire not only be regarded as the best player in the game, but one of the greatest ever. Coaches here have been raving about his commitment to working out, no matter the time of day, but I heard a story yesterday about how he has prepares for his opponents.
Henry Abbot from True Hoop mentioned that Bryant was carrying around a DVD of Maryland point guard Greivis Vasquez the day before the U.S. played Venezuela, but I heard that he already has a DVD of Leandro Barbosa - and the U.S. won't play Brazil until Sunday. The U.S. video crew provides footage for all of the players, but Bryant apparently is the only one who actually requests film several days in advance.
I talked to my best friend last night and he made a good point. Playing for USA Baskeball probably means much more to Bryant because it is his only chance to win something meaningful again. The Los Angeles Lakers have no chance of winning another championship any time soon. So, if he can lead this team to victory in Las Vegas and then win gold medal - the only thing missing from his resume - in Beijing next summer, he can be seen as a hero again in the eyes of the public.
I'm Not Sure if Las Vegas Needs An NBA Team Yet
I know people have been jumping on this place after the All-Star game and the Tim Donaghy scandal certainly didn't do Las Vegas' showgirl-parading mayor Oscar Goodman's dreams of an NBA franchise much good. But the attendance at this event has been embarrassing to this point.
I don't necessarily expect huge crowds for a 12:30 p.m. game between Uruguay and Panama, but an announced crowd of 5,554 fans watched the U.S. beat the Virgin Islands by 64 points on Thursday. That is almost 1,000 fans fewer than the number of people who watched the U.S. whup Venezuela by 43 on Wednesday.
After that game, several players commented on the sparse crowds. Anthony said, "I thought it was going to be more packed. I thought it was going to be a sellout crowd, but I'm pretty sure they'll get that throughout the tournament."
Sellout crowds are expected for the final two games of the preliminary round on Saturday and Sunday against Canada and Brazil, respectively. But I have some concerns about how this place will support a team. If all-stars like Bryant, Anthony, LeBron James, Jason Kidd, Amare Stoudemire, Michael Redd, Dwight Howard and Chauncey Billups can't attract fans, what happens when the Charlotte Bobcats come to town?
Harrahs announced this week that it will build a 20,000-seat arena in hopes of attracting an NBA team, or possibly an NHL team, but this town is really whiffing at an opportunity to show the world that this is a viable market. Last month's intrasquad game drew just 15,132 fans. This tournament might've been better in a place like Kentucky, Indiana or North Carolina - any area where the people truly care about basketball.
The United States Shouldn't Get Too Overconfident
Beating down Venezuela and the Virgin Islands like they're the Baltimore Orioles, means nothing right now. And even if the U.S. goes untested every game here, this team has to remember that the competition will get steeper next summer in Beijing. Argentina will bring its best team. If Brazil is able to qualify, it might be able to add Anderson Varejao and Rafael Araujo for more depth.
But you have to assume that Spain, Greece, France and Lithuania will be in China as well. It would be a shame if 2003 repeats itself. Back then, a stacked team won the FIBA Americas Championship then all but two players bailed in 2004. This team has to realize the job isn't done. If the Americans can win this tournament, this is merely the first step.
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