MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — USA basketball’s “B Team” has started to join the NBA’s A-list this season.
The less-heralded players who went to Turkey for the world championships last summer and returned home with the country’s first gold medal in that competition since 1994 have asserted themselves this season as a group ready to join LeBron James, Kobe Bryant and the rest of the NBA’s elite.
Derrick Rose is a leading candidate for the MVP award. Kevin Love is having the best rebounding season in the NBA in decades and Russell Westbrook has proven that he’s so much more than fellow B-Teamer Kevin Durant’s sidekick in Oklahoma City.
“It helped me a lot with my confidence, knowing I could compete with some of the best players in the world,” said Rose, who has carried the Chicago Bulls this season. “And at the same time, before I went there I was working out a lot, so when you get there, you try to see who’s been working, especially when you are playing for a spot.”
Durant, the alpha dog for the U.S. team in Turkey, has continued his brilliance this season and is in line for his second straight scoring title, while Rudy Gay and Eric Gordon were both playing better than they ever have before injuries. Tyson Chandler of Dallas has re-established himself as a quality center and Philadelphia’s Andre Iguodala has reinvented his game to help the 76ers get back into the playoff picture.
The competition in practices in Las Vegas leading up to the trip, and then in the games against established international teams like Russia, Lithuania and Turkey, seems to have served as a springboard.
“It helps working with other good players,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “In order to compete at that level and the places they played and the experience they faced, it helps.”
Even veterans like Lamar Odom and Chauncey Billups have shown positive effects from the experience. Billups is shooting a career-high 43 percent on 3-pointers and Odom, perhaps more than ever, has been the versatile glue holding the Lakers together.
“He’s in great shape and just in a great rhythm,” Bryant said of Odom. “He’s worked on his jump shot a lot. He was a good shooter last year, but this year he’s even better.”
Of the 12 players on the roster, Rose, Love and Westbrook have had the biggest breakouts. All three worked out together in California in the offseason in addition to their work with Team USA. The gold medals appear to have emboldened them, as all three are averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, shooting and assists.
Rose has developed a reliable shot to go with his ankle-breaking crossover dribble to put the Bulls right on the heels of Boston and Miami in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
Westbrook has become a stat-stuffing dynamo, averaging 22 points, 8.4 assists and 1.7 steals, while also emerging as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league.
“To have fun and be able to play with that group of guys, it was a great experience for me,” Westbrook said. “Just try to get better and better each and every game and try to go from there.”
Then there is Love, who wasn’t even starting by the end of last season for the worst team in the Western Conference. He showed up to training camp in superb condition and has piled up double-doubles at a historic rate. He has 59 this season, including 50 in a row — one game shy of tying the mark set by Moses Malone in 1978-79.
And these not just any old double-doubles. He has 11 games with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds and is shooting some 42 percent from 3-point range, an incredible combination for a power forward.
“I always knew I belonged,” Love said. “Just being able to make the team felt great. But being able to produce on that team was also something special.”
Iguodala’s scoring numbers are down this season, but he has revamped his game after playing a supporting role on Team USA. He is averaging 6.1 assists and is one of the best defenders in the league at any position.
“I think it sped up the progression by playing with those guys and playing in that setting and learning how to play a role,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of the U.S team’s time together. “When you play with other great players, you’ve got to learn how to play together. The guy they catered to was Durant and everybody else played a role.”
Part of the reason for all the impressive performances can be justified by timing. Rose, Love, Westbrook and Gordon are all entering their third seasons in the league, which is usually when star players start coming into their own.
“Everyone’s talking about those guys playing at a much higher level. Everyone’s thinking it’s because of Team USA,” Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis said. “It has a part in that. But also those players are in the league for three or four years and that’s what it takes for young players to figure out themselves and figure out the league and what they can and can’t do.
“They’re at that age where they’re starting to get things. The future’s bright for all of those guys.”
AP Sports Writer Rick Gano in Chicago contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.