LAS VEGAS (AP) – Kyle Lowry had the ball in the right corner. He was well-defended and not able to shoot or drive, so he fired a crosscourt diagonal pass to DeMar DeRozan.
For years, that was a fine idea.
This time, it became a turnover. They were on different teams during this particular scrimmage, which seems fitting.
USA Basketball’s first minicamp of this Olympic cycle started Thursday in Las Vegas, with DeRozan and Lowry — longtime teammates in Toronto — both wearing the same uniform again. DeRozan is now with the San Antonio Spurs and set to be coached by Gregg Popovich, who just happened to be running his first national team practice Thursday.
DeRozan has made no secret: He wasn’t happy getting traded out of Toronto. But if there’s a consolation prize to be had, it’s that he now gets Popovich.
“It means everything,” DeRozan said. “I could have ended up in the middle of nowhere with Joe Blow. I ended up in a great place that wanted me that strives for greatness. You can’t ask for nothing better than that.”
DeRozan was sent to the Spurs on July 18, along with center Jakob Poeltl and a protected 2019 first round pick, for Kawhi Leonard and wing Danny Green. Leonard was one of the 35 players invited to attend this minicamp; he was one of roughly a dozen who didn’t show, a list that also includes LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Popovich didn’t seem bothered that there were no-shows.
“People have lives,” Popovich said. “We had a good number of people here and the people who were invited that aren’t here have reasons, whether it’s injury or personal things going on in their lives. And we understand that.”
This two-day camp that ends Friday is little more than a get-to-know-you-better event for the players and Popovich. There are no games to play, and technically there aren’t even future tournaments to prepare for — under the new qualifying rules, the U.S. isn’t yet assured of having a spot in either the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China or the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
The task of making sure the Americans get to China next year has fallen to G League players, who are being coached by Jeff Van Gundy and went 5-1 in the first round of qualifying. The second round of qualifying starts in September.
Popovich is taking over the national team reins from Mike Krzyzewski, the Duke coach who led the U.S. to Olympic gold in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Krzyzewski was in the gym to watch Thursday.
“He’s been great,” Popovich said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t bug him to death, ask him millions of questions and try to learn from him.”
DeRozan got some 1-on-1 interaction with his new coach toward the end of practice. Popovich chatted with him for a couple of minutes, and then Houston guard Eric Gordon joined in and the three of them went over some post strategy for guards.
It was consistent with the theme of the day for Popovich, who bounced around conversations all day long — harassing Russell Westbrook during a free throw, chatting with James Harden after one drill, then moving on for a word with Kevin Durant and finally heading over to where Kevin Love was sitting and feigning exasperation as they spoke.
“All these guys have a different story, right? Just like all of you,” Popovich said. “We all have families or kids or situations in life. It’s fun to find out who they really are over and above basketball players. It helps me coach them. It makes them feel a bigger part of the program. And they know we’re genuinely interested in them off the court.”
But as far as whether Popovich got a little something extra out of working with DeRozan, that was kept secret. Popovich wanted to keep his answers specific to USA Basketball, not the Spurs.
“That was a good try,” Popovich said to one reporter who asked about coaching DeRozan.
DeRozan spoke plenty, though. There are many tough parts to him leaving Toronto, and not having Lowry at his side anymore will be one of the very hardest for him to deal with. They were inseparable at times together Thursday, even wrapping up their end-of-practice shooting at the same time before retiring to a row of chairs to get icepacks strapped to their legs.
Lowry declined to talk Thursday, saying he would address reporters on Friday. DeRozan said some of his new teammates have reached out, and expects to talk to more Spurs in the coming weeks.
“I’m easy, man. I’m not difficult at all,” DeRozan said. “When it comes to basketball, if it’s about winning, we’re already on the same page and everything else will be easy. It’s nothing complicated. I’ve been in the league. I’ve established myself, who I am. Everything else is simple.”
He seems like a perfect fit for the Spurs, or at least The Spurs Way. DeRozan is an outstanding player who has tended to let his game do the talking — an approach that Popovich and San Antonio standouts like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, even Leonard, seem to prefer as well.
“You make me sound like I fit perfectly,” DeRozan said. “Without a doubt.”
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