Team USA: Lillard on belonging and playing with the stars
As you well know by now, Damian Lillard is in Las Vegas trying to get into the mix for one of USA Basketball's coveted roster spots for the World Cup and eventually the Olympics. By all accounts, he's playing well, too. But is he playing well enough to earn one of the 12 spots on the roster?
It's going to be extremely difficult in the near term. Point guard is probably the most talented and deep positions in this country right now. Let's take a look at the players who may be in line ahead of Lillard:
First, there are the returnees at point guard -- Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Deron Williams -- from the 2012 Olympic team who don't have to show up for this camp. You must add one more player -- Derrick Rose -- to this list, too. Rose was a key player on the 2010 World Championship team who had to sit out the Olympics due to injury. Of these players, Paul, Westbrook and Rose will have a roster spot locked up if they wish to play in either World Cup in 2014 or the Olympics in 2016. So far, none has announced his plans. It's possible a player such as Paul or Rose would elect to skip the World Cup but come back two years later for one more shot at the Olympic gold. Williams, whose star has fallen in the past season or two, is a candidate to be bypassed by one of the up-and-coming players next summer.
And who are those rising stars, aside from Lillard?
The most obvious is Kyrie Irving. He seems to be the No. 1 new candidate at point guard, with an extra season head start on Lillard in the NBA. He's a scorer and a point guard, a trait he shares with Lillard. But the USA mini-camp this week is loaded with other young point guards, including John Wall, Jrue Holiday, Ty Lawson and Mike Conley.
Lillard's ability to play off the ball will help him a lot in eventually making this team. Coach Mike Krzyzewski loves points who can spot up and make shots off others' penetrations. But this time around, it's going to be an uphill battle for the Blazers' young star. The good thing, though, is USA Basketball seems to love getting these players in its pipeline and eventually rewarding them with a spot. At some point, perhaps very soon, Paul is going to be done with international play. After another Olympics, Westbrook will tire of the grind. Williams may already have played in his last international event. And injuries can always open up spots previously expected to be filled by veterans.
I don't think there's any doubt, though, if Lillard stays healthy, his time will come. But it just may not be this time.