Las Vegas • The Jazz’s Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors are two of the best basketball players in the world, part of an elite group of professionals who have beaten astronomical odds to make it to the NBA and get selected to play on the team that is helping prepare Team USA for the London Olympics.
Yet even they have been a little awestruck by everything here.
While Hayward acknowledged that it’s hard to concentrate on answering questions while superstar Blake Griffin is over there putting on a spectacular post-practice dunking demonstration, Favors said he has had his eyes opened in just a few days of practice against the Olympians at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center.
“We’re basically like a junior-varsity team, compared to them,” he said. “It’s all about the reality check. You think you’re good, until you go up against them. Then you’re like, ‘Man, I got stuff I need to work on.’”
And that’s a former No. 3 draft pick talking.
But that’s the whole point.
Players on USA Basketball’s so-called “Select Team” are part of a pool of prospects for future Olympics.
So while guys like LeBron James and Kobe Bryant and Kevin Durant are busy preparing to chase gold in London, Hayward and Favors and the other 11 players on the Select Team are working to improve and hoping they can be part of the national team for the 2014 World Championships in Spain, the 2016 Rio Olympics in Brazil, and perhaps beyond.
“I hope so,” Favors said. “That’s what everybody is working for, as a basketball player. Everyone hopes for the Olympics. I hope so.”
The Jazz have had their share of Olympians in the past — most notably, of course, John Stockton and Karl Malone, who won gold as part of the original “Dream Team” at the 1992 Barcelona Games and again at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
But guards Deron Williams and Carlos Arroyo both played at the Olympics as members of the Jazz, as well, along with forwards Carlos Boozer, Andrei Kirilenko and Jose Ortiz (who was Jazz property but had not yet joined the team).
In fact, at least one Jazz player has played in every Olympics since 1988, a streak that will end in London.
Yet the idea that Hayward and Favors might be Olympians-in-waiting bodes especially well for the Jazz’s future.
The two former top-10 draft picks combined to average 20.6 points and 10 rebounds last season, and are part of the core group of players that management hopes can ignite a successful new era.
It’s not impossible to imagine that Favors could find a regular spot in the starting lineup alongside Hayward next season, especially if starting power forward Paul Millsap and his expiring contract are traded rather than extended.
“They said the same thing last year,” Favors said. “I’ll come in just ready to play.”
Neither Favors or Hayward has been asked yet to make a multi-year commitment to USA Basketball, the way many of the current stars did when Jerry Colangelo and Mike Krzyzewski revamped the national team program and laid the foundation for renewed international success after the disappointing bronze-medal finish in Athens.
And Colangelo said it’s unclear if the federation will operate exactly the same way, once Krzyzewski retires after London, for a number of reasons.
Regardless, both Favors and Hayward are hoping that a good showing over the next few weeks will keep them on the radar.
“You want to come out and put yourself in the program and work hard and eventually one day, with hard work, you might have a chance to play on the Olympic team,” Hayward said.
Hayward said the opening days of training camp have been somewhat “helter-skelter,” because “we haven’t played together at all and we don’t really know exactly what each other does best.”
Favors added that there has been little consistency to their workouts, which so far have included practicing in a basement gym until the senior team needs them, and calls them upstairs to scrimmage.
Both Hayward and Favors have played multiple positions and guarded a wide variety of Olympians, reflective of how Krzyzewski is trying to build a versatile team. But that’s fine by them, with Favors saying it’s a “confidence-builder” to be here — “it’s a surprise, and an honor,” he said — and Hayward saying it helps “improve all parts of your game.”
“Playing against the best competition in the world, it’s only going to make you better,” he added. “You’re not going to be playing against anybody better, anywhere else, and there’s nothing like experience.”