Team USA eating well off Paul's dishes
Iverson and Marbury brought NBA star power to the point-guard position at the 2004 Olympics -- and left with a bronze medal. Their skills weren't a good fit in the international game.
So when USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and coach Mike Krzyzewski put together their team, they wanted to find a true point guard. The U.S. needed someone to feed LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.
"The point guard, the way we are going to be structured, needs to be someone who can distribute the ball, among other things," Colangelo said last spring.
Paul has done exactly that in his senior U.S. team debut in the worlds. His steady, unselfish play is a big reason the Americans swept through Group D. The U.S. opens medal play Sunday against Australia, which finished fourth in Group C.
With 34 assists, Paul is tied for the tournament lead with Argentina's Pepe Sanchez, the former Temple player. Paul also has only six turnovers in a team-high 123 minutes.
"He's been playing great," U.S. center Dwight Howard said.
It's been an adjustment for Paul. As the NBA's rookie of the year with New Orleans/Oklahoma City last season, Paul's talents were never in doubt. His lack of international experience raised questions about whether the 21-year-old guard was ready for the world stage.
"When Mr. Colangelo called and asked me, I didn't even have to think about it, to tell you the truth," Paul said. "I knew right away that I wanted to play. It was my first year in the NBA, and there's no greater honor than to represent your country."
Five games into the tournament, Paul hasn't looked like a newcomer. Although he is relatively small at 6 foot, he hasn't been intimidated by the hand-to-hand combat that passes for defense in the international game.
"He's a good player, and he's been very quick to pick up on the different rules," said forward Shane Battier, an international veteran. "I think he's one of the quickest learners in how much more physical you can be, especially at the defensive end. That's probably the biggest adjustment a point guard has to learn playing internationally. Chris has picked that up, and he's doing a great job right now for our team."
Paul has also adjusted to the demands of running an offense that features some of the world's best scorers. He averaged 16.1 points for the Hornets this year but doesn't need to put up those kinds of points on this team. He's averaging 9.0 points for the U.S.
"It's totally different," Paul said. "In international ball, you really control the game. The point guard, there's a lot of pressure being put on you so you really have to take care of the ball well, and just making sure everyone's in the right spots. With the court being a little bit smaller, you have to be a lot more efficient.
"I think the thing that helps this team the most is the fact that no one cares who scores," Paul added. "'D' Wade, LeBron, Carmelo, any one of those guys could lead us in scoring on any given night, and that's why this team is so potent."
Paul has spent most of his time setting up teammates, but he also has been an efficient shooter. He's 14-for-24 from the floor (58 percent) and has hit 4-of-9 three-point shots.
Paul will face tougher matchups in the medal round than he did in Sapporo, where the U.S. went 5-0 and trailed only once after halftime, against Italy. If the U.S. reaches the final, he could go up against Argentina's Sanchez, who is 5 inches taller, or Spain's Jose Calderon, who plays for the Toronto Raptors.
Paul isn't worried about facing more experienced players. After one week in this world championship, he doesn't feel like a rookie.
"I just try to be crafty and keep guys off balance," Paul said. "It's evident that not always is the fastest player the best player. You just have to know where you want to go and be there at the right time."
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- adidas Men's Los Angeles Clippers Chris Paul #3 Red Gametime T-Shirt