Young U.S. hoops stars learning international game early

Friday, July 21st 2006, 10:37 pm
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ Dwight Howard and Greg Oden aren't old enough to gamble, so this Vegas trip is all about business.

The two most talented American centers under 21 are in camp with the U.S. national team, soaking up instruction and atmosphere as the club prepares for its trip to Asia for next month's world championships.

They've endured their share of ribbing about being the camp's youngest players, and they've logged plenty of video-game time in their rooms while their teammates check out the neon lights. But Howard and Oden are likely to be fixtures of the U.S. team for years to come, and the club's top brass wants the international game to be second nature.

``This is really giving me the will to want to be a better player,'' the 20-year-old Howard said after Friday's workout. ``I'm still working on a list of things I have to do to be among the top players (in the world), and you can learn so many things here to help that.''

Oden, the 18-year-old future Ohio State center, won't be on this summer's team while he nurses a surgically repaired right wrist. But Howard is expected to have a role _ and the precocious Orlando center is living up to his reputation for maturity and preparation.

Howard stayed on the court while his teammates relaxed following practice, taking dozens more shots and working on his footwork with assistant coach Johnny Dawkins. Brian Hill, Howard's coach in Orlando, also stopped by for a lengthy chat at the same time U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski was praising his center to a group of reporters.

``He's very much developing,'' Krzyzewski said. ``He's already an outstanding player, so this type of experience just enhances his career. He's like a sponge. He wants to learn everything.''

Howard is getting his first taste of international play, with its wider keys, slicker basketballs and more liberal goaltending rules. It's unfamiliar, but fun.

``There's a lot of different stuff that you can do,'' Howard said. ``I went up and took the ball off the rim a couple of times, but it didn't feel right. Once we get a little further along in it, that won't be as weird.''

U.S. managing director Jerry Colangelo deliberately chose a younger roster for the world championships in Japan. Just three players in the 25-man pool are in their 30's, and the core could include several players under 25: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Amare Stoudemire and Howard.

Eventually, it will include Oden, the consensus high school player of the year. He probably would have replaced Andrea Bargnani as the top pick in last month's draft if the NBA hadn't raised its age requirement.

``Whether it be in the 2008 Olympics or the 2010 world championships, I would think Greg Oden is going to be somebody that's here,'' Krzyzewski said. ``And who knows? Dwight might be the next great center. He's a kid that didn't go to college. What we're doing here helps him and helps (American) basketball.''

Oden's wrist injury might keep him sidelined until January, but he is pleased simply to be absorbing film study and instruction from Krzyzewski's staff before heading to Columbus for what's expected to be one season.

``I felt I was going to go to college anyway,'' said Oden, who wasn't expected to attend the entire training camp. ``I didn't feel like I was ready yet. ... I've learned a lot of stuff in just these two days. It's been a great experience.''

But the Americans' fate in Japan won't hinge on their big men in the middle. Krzyzewski and assistant coach Mike D'Antoni are installing a version of the Phoenix Suns' offense reliant on speed, perimeter shooting and little low-post play _ a typical pitfall for previous U.S. teams, which couldn't adjust to the 3-point-dominated international game.

Paul, last season's NBA rookie of the year with New Orleans, also is getting his biggest taste of the international game at 22. And Paul might be even more important than the young big men: Krzyzewski spoke glowingly of Paul's pure point-guard play Friday, perhaps indicating a large role in Asia.

``We brought a lot of young guys for a reason,'' Colangelo said. ``This is going to be their team for a number of years. We want them to take it.''