LAS VEGAS — On the second day of Team USA’s training camp, the 12-man roster headed to the FIBA World Cup later this month scrimmaged against the select team — a group of young players, plus a couple of veterans, brought in to help the senior group prepare for the competition.
Led by Detroit Pistons guard Cade Cunningham, it was the select team that won both scrimmages that were open to the media Friday afternoon, and looked impressive in doing so.
Team USA coach Steve Kerr called the scrimmages a “time-honored tradition in USA Basketball,” mentioning the infamous scrimmage in 1992, when Grant Hill and Bobby Hurley led the select team to a victory over the Dream Team. He also recalled how the select team “came in and kicked our butts” before the World Cup in 2019.
“That’s the whole point,” Kerr said. “You want to get great talent to come in and challenge you every which way. And that’s what the Select Team did today. It’s good stuff.”
The select team’s impressive performance Friday was largely driven by the play of Cunningham, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NBA draft, who was back out on the court in a competitive setting for the first time since Nov. 9. Cunningham played only 12 games last season before undergoing surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left leg.
On Friday, Cunningham didn’t look like he’d missed a day on the court. Playing a role like the one Luka Doncic will for Slovenia, Cunningham did an admirable job looking like the Mavericks star beyond being roughly the same size. Kerr said worked on the role with select team coach Jamahl Mosley in order to help the national team prepare for a potential matchup against Doncic in the World Cup.
Mostly, though, Cunningham said he was simply happy to be pain free and back on the court again.
“I feel great,” he said. “I’m happy to be here. Just to be in an environment like this, playing at a high level … the offseason, you could be anywhere playing. So it’s a lot of fun trying to take most of it.”
At 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds with the ability to handle the ball, Cunningham presents a unique combination of size, strength and skill for smaller guards to deal with, and he put it all to use in the scrimmages. His strength was especially evident – as was the fact that Cunningham had noticeably added some muscle to his frame.
He said that while it was true he’d gained muscle mass, he was actually still at the 220-pound weight he prefers to play at, and said that his leg wasn’t bothering him.
“I feel healthy again,” Cunningham said. “My leg isn’t a problem for me right now. So I think that’s the biggest difference, just that I can just play freely and not think about my body too much.”
Cunningham gave Team USA fits throughout both scrimmages open to the media Friday. he found fellow Piston Jalen Duren for a couple of beautiful passes in the lane and generally got to wherever he wanted on the court.
“Cade looked great,” Kerr said. “The injury is clearly behind him. It’s just great to see him healthy, and he’s a guy who can really control a game from that point guard spot with his size and physicality, and it’s good to see him looking so healthy.”
Cunningham’s fully healthy return to the court next season would be another boost to a Pistons franchise that hired former Phoenix Suns coach Monty Williams earlier this offseason. The team also grabbed Ausar Thompson with the fifth overall pick in June’s NBA draft before trading up to get guard Marcus Sasser with the 25th overall selection.
All of that had Cunningham excited to get back to Detroit to begin training camp later this year.
“Super excited,” he said. “I think Coach Williams coming in, I feel like that’s the best-case scenario for us, and we got it done. And then the young guys that we got coming in are really gonna help us.
“I’m excited about them. They’re great players on the court and also really good people and people that I’m excited to work with. So it should be a fun year.”
Kerr’s lineup and rotation decisions in the scrimmages didn’t offer much insight into future decisions. The rosters consistently changed throughout, and the team employed several different looks. Kerr joked that there were up to 10 possible starting lineups discussed beforehand, again saying it’s going to take some time to settle out how the roles will be defined on this team.