The competition is going to be fierce for spots on next year’s USA Basketball squad that will compete in the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain. So Kyrie Irving decided he had better get a head start at making a positive impression.
The Cleveland Cavaliers point guard had a strong week at Team USA’s Las Vegas minicamp and saved his best for last, scoring 23 points and dishing out seven assists in 28 minutes for the White team in its 128-106 victory over the Blue on Thursday night in front of an announced 9,513 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
With Chris Paul watching from the front row and Derrick Rose probably watching on television Thursday, Irving made a strong case for earning a spot next summer alongside Paul, who has indicated he’d like to play next year, and Rose, who missed all of last season rehabilitating his knee and, if healthy, figures to be in the mix.
“I was trying to separate myself from this group and show I can lead,” Irving said. “We’re all competing out here trying to make a positive impression.”
Irving played for Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski at Duke in 2010-11 but suffered an injury to his right big toe and appeared in just 11 games before turning pro in 2011. Chances are good he’ll wind up playing more than 11 games for Coach K this time around.
“Kyrie is one of the special players in the NBA,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s developed so much the last couple of years. It does feel good to be at a press conference with Kyrie. I may get a little emotional.”
For Irving, this year’s minicamp was an opportunity to display how much he has grown as a player. He participated in last summer’s pre-Olympic training camp as a member of the Select team that scrimmaged daily against the Olympic squad.
“It definitely helped me this year,” said Irving, who was 6 of 8 from the floor, 2 of 2 on 3-point tries and 9 of 10 on free throws Thursday. “It was a great experience playing against LeBron (James), Kobe (Bryant) and those guys. They roughed me up some, but I learned a lot from those guys. I knew what to expect this time around.”
What few expected Thursday was to see Senior Airman Nathaniel Mills fly through the air and throw down a double-clutch tomahawk dunk. Mills, who is stationed at Nellis Air Force Base and was one of four airmen and women honored during a timeout in the third quarter in USA Basketball’s annual salute to the military, became a social media sensation after throwing down his dunk while dressed in combat boots and fatigues.
“That was the best play of the night,” said Krzyzewski, who probably had Duke assistant Steve Wojciechowski checking to see if Mills, who is from Douglasville, Ga., has any college eligibility.
Irving saw Mills practice the dunk prior to the game and then saw the replay coming out of the timeout.
“That was pretty amazing what he did,” Irving said.
Said Mills of his exploit, which blew up on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube: “You should see me without fatigues and boots.”
Mills’ dunk probably won’t earn him an invitation to next summer’s training camp. USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo said a new pool of 25 to 28 players will be formed beginning in mid-January, and it will be a mix of players from this year’s minicamp, along with any Olympic veterans willing to commit to one more go-round as well as players who were unable to attend this year’s minicamp.
“It’s always a fluid situation,” Colangelo said. “But there’s a lot of players who want to be involved, and that’s a good thing.”
Count Irving among those who want to play in Spain next summer and in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“It’s always in the back of your mind,” he said. “But you have to block it out and focus on the present.
“I came here (to Las Vegas) to try and have a good week and play well, and I think I was able to accomplish that.”
■\u2007NOTES — Anthony Davis led the Blue squad with 22 points. ... The White held a 59-39 edge in rebounds and forced 18 turnovers. ... Milwaukee’s Larry Sanders sat out with a sprained left ankle after being injured Tuesday, as did Washington’s Bradley Beal, who was held out all week as he rehabilitates a right fibula injury. ... All 24 players who participated scored.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.