Before you write off the idea of NBA players in international competition as antiquated, before you focus on the time commitment and downside and injury risk, consider the case of Kevin Durant.
You might not have seen Durant become one of the dominant players of the 2012 playoffs were it not for his experience at the FIBA World Championship in 2010, when he was the leading scorer on the United States' gold-medal squad. The confidence he gained in Turkey made him a better player for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Better performance with the Thunder should make him a bigger threat in the Olympics this summer. It's all cyclical.
That FIBA World Championship triumph was Durant's first successful run through high-pressure games. In his lone season at the University of Texas, he didn't make it out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. And he shot 35 percent during his first foray into the NBA playoffs with the Thunder in 2010. But that summer, the Team USA coaching staff, led by Mike Krzyzewski, decided Durant was going to be its guy.
The coaches still remembered what he did in 2008, when Durant, fresh off his rookie season, fared well in scrimmages against the Olympic team that eventually won the gold medal in Beijing.
"You knew he was going to be a great player," said Nate McMillan, a national team assistant coach. "He didn't shy away from the competition. The guy just loves to play basketball."
But Durant has never been a guy who loves his stats more than anything else. He doesn't feel the need to shoot every time, even when that's his team's best option. When the 2010 national team assembled, Durant looked at veterans such as Chauncey Billups, the 2004 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player, and two-time champion Lamar Odom; plus young talent such as Rudy Gay, Danny Granger and 2009 Rookie of the Year Derrick Rose, and wondered how exactly he would fit in.
"It was tough to really learn how to be myself the first few weeks I was there, first few days, because there were so many great players," Durant said. "You don't want to step on anybody's toes, you don't want to be the guy that comes around and takes a lot of shots, just because. It took me a while just to kind of fit into my role as the leader of that team. You had a lot of All-Stars, guys that won championships, so I had to be myself. Coach K brought me to the side one day and told me, 'Go play your game, how you play in Oklahoma City.' And after that, it was easy for me to kind of adjust, and it helped me out. Just being a leader at a young age, on a team that's playing for your country, that's a big test. And I'm glad I got to do it, and it's helping me out today."
Give Krzyzewski plenty of credit for extracting the best from Durant.
"Coach K did a good job of giving him a vision: 'This is your time. You're a big part of this team,'" McMillan said. "'You're a big factor. We're going to need you to play big on both ends of the floor.'"
Durant said he needed to hear those words. He wouldn't have assumed it otherwise. He wasn't at the stage in his career that he could walk into any gym and assume he was the baddest dude there. Krzyzewski didn't just tell Durant how important he was, he showed him.
Krzyzewski used Durant for 28 minutes a game, the most of any American player. Durant responded with a scoring average of 22.8 points, with 6.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, while making 56 percent of his shots and 45 percent of his 3-pointers. He scored 38 points in the semifinals against Lithuania and finished off the nine-game tournament with 28 points against host Turkey in a raucous environment in the gold-medal matchup.
"He just really carried that team," McMillan said. "He played big, played with a lot of confidence. In situations when the game was on the line and we needed a bucket, as a staff we felt confident because he made you feel confident."
The FIBA World Championships also represented a breakthrough for Durant's Oklahoma City teammate, Russell Westbrook, who often wound up on the floor late in games, then turned in an All-Star season when the NBA cranked up again. Odom also benefited from a summer focused on basketball, winning Sixth Man of the Year the following season.
Durant's payoff came in the 2011 postseason, when he averaged 28.6 points per game. He took it to another level in this year's playoffs, when he hit a game-winning shot against Dallas in the first round, outdueled Kobe Bryant in the second round and topped 30 points in four of his final seven games against San Antonio and Miami.
He has proved he belongs among the elite players in the NBA. The question is what will happen when he plays with them on the 2012 Olympic team that will be a hybrid of the 2010 and 2008 national teams? It's one thing to be the top dog with Gay and Andre Iguodala on the squad; it's another when playing alongside one-name-necessary alpha males such as Kobe and LeBron.
"That's going to be the toughest test," Durant said. "But I'm going to learn along the way. I want to try to soak up as much information from those guys as I can, but at the same time bring that edge that I bring every single day, that leadership, and if I see something, speak up. Be vocal and lead by example. I'm looking forward to that. I've been looking forward to it for four years. Being cut from the '08 team, I used that as motivation to make this team."
Here's more motivation for him: It could be his first and last chance at the Olympics. NBA owners are reluctant to let their expensive assets play in the Olympics for free, while exposing them to potential injuries. The league is exploring the idea of following a soccer model, which would limit Olympic participation to players age 23 and under, and creating a quadrennial World Cup of basketball that would be held in between Olympic cycles. Speaking at the NBA Finals, NBA commissioner David Stern continually used the past tense when talking about the 1992 Dream Team and its descendants while sounding ready to move on to a new system.
"I think we got a lot out of the Olympics," Stern said. "We helped grow the game. The result has been extraordinary. But I think it's appropriate to step back and take stock of where we're going. And I do have a great deal of sympathy for those teams whose players grow up in a way that says, I will play under any circumstance for my country, regardless of the injury to me and the threat to my career, and I understand that. And maybe those players are put under enormous pressure to play for their homeland and perhaps an age limitation would remove some of the pressure from them, while nevertheless giving them an opportunity when they're young to play for their country in the Olympics, to allow them to play for their country in the World Cup like they do in the World Cup of soccer.
"And so, I think there might be a better balance than we currently have. All we knew was the model that we knew, and that's what we've done, but I think it's appropriate to take a look at it and see what the right way is."
Even though Durant played as much basketball as anyone this year, participating in all 66 games of the lockout-shortened regular season and lasting until the end of the NBA Finals, there's no talk of Durant skipping the Olympics to recuperate. Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Dwight Howard and Rose are among those who won't be there because of injuries.
There could have been even more work for USA Basketball last summer if it had to qualify for the Olympics, but winning the FIBA World Championships in 2010 earned the team an automatic Olympic berth and spared the Americans that extra step.
Durant's breakout performance keeps paying dividends.