By Arnie Leshin
A replacement? Well, on Sunday night, Keldon Johnson looked like one of the boys in the lineup for the United States National Basketball Team that flew today to Japan for the Tokyo Summer Olympics.
A member of a select few that trained with the Gregg Popovich-coached team, it was on Friday that Johnson and JaVale McGee learned they were replacing Olympic Team players, Kevin Love with a right calf injury he hasn’t yet recovered from, and Bradley Beal, who was concerned about health and safety protocol after he tested positive.
Both are National Basketball Association players, and so are Johnson, a guard who plays under head coach Popovich with the San Antonio Spurs, and center McGee, who currently plays for the Denver Nuggets.
McGee, who didn’t play in the final exhibition game against Spain and wasn’t able to fly out with the team today, is 7-foot, 270 pounds, and adds more size to the red, white and blue.
But Johnson did play in the 83-76 triumph over Spain, the 2nd-ranked team in the world behind the USA, and he looked quite comfortable after being inserted for almost the entire second quarter. He scored 15 points, all in that span, brought down five rebounds, and handed out three assists. He was almost perfect from the field, making 7-of-9 shots to go with a free throw on a 3-point play.
Afterwards, he was all smiles when interviewed.
“I’m happy I did well, but not that much surprised,” said the 6-foot-5, 21-year-old Johnson who played his college ball at Kentucky. “I had been training with these guys and was in tip-top shape. It’s a dream come true to be able to play in these summer Olympics and be a US player.”
Johnson scored on a steal and layup when he first entered the game, then took a pass from Kevin Durant to slam in a dunk, followed by back-to-back baseline jumpers, and he just did his part as his new teammates applauded him after a time out.
This was the fourth and last exhibition game for the Americans after the second meeting with Australia was cancelled because of coronavirus pandemic issues. The USA came in and came out with losses to Nigeria and Australia before rolling past Argentina.
Its best game came versus Spain, the defending world champion that relies on NBA point guard Ricky Rubio and the Gasol brothers, forwards Marc and Pau, and has tons of experience and toughness. It led early, although both teams shot poorly, with Spain missing its first six attempts, but tying the score, 52-52, at halftime on a buzzer beater by Rubio.
Rubio, in fact, had the game-high 23 points, but amazingly came away with only one assist. Willy Hernangomez added 11 points and Marc Gasol 10. Usman Garuba was tough underneath in bringing down a game-high eight rebounds.
For the USA, which took the lead for good early in the fourth quarter, it came on outside shooting from 6-2 guard Damian Lillard (6-for-14), the steady and smart play of the 6-10 center Kevin Durant, who played 30:33 and tallied 14 points, while Lillard tossed in the team-high 19 points in 32:06 playing time, and versatile 6-5 forward Zach LaVine contributed 13 points.
The lead became 74-60 midway through the final quarter when Popovich made sure to insert his bench players, with everyone in the lineup scoring at least one point, and the 6-8 forward Bam Adebayo came away with the team-high seven boards.
The closest that Spain came down the stretch was at 79-73, but once the Americans began running the floor and using their depth, it became an impressive success. Australia is ranked third on the planet behind the USA and Spain, and France is also up there among the best.
The red, white and blue begins the Games against a good France team on Friday. Three of the USA players are out of Kentucky, two from UCLA, and one each from Duke, Michigan State, Nevada, Syracuse, Texas, Texas A & M, and Weber.
As far as the NBA goes, there’s also Jayson Tatum from the Boston Celtics, Durant from the Brooklyn Nets, Draymond Green and LaVine from the Golden State Warriors, Jerami Grant from the Detroit Pistons, Adebayo from the Miami Heat, and Lillard from the Portland Trailblazers.
But can’t forget 6-7 Khris Middleton and 6-3 Jrue Holiday of the Milwaukee Bucks and 6-5 Devin Booker of the Phoenix Suns. They have other business to attend to when their teams play game 6 of the NBA finals Tuesday night in brew city and Milwaukee with a 3-2 lead. If a game 7 is needed, it will be in Phoenix Thursday night.
No doubt, Popovich might be hoping the Bucks can wrap it up Tuesday and not one day before his team’s opening game. Booker also played for Kentucky, Middleton for Texas A & M, and Holiday for UCLA, while McGee played for Nevada.
As for Johnson, he is the sixth player 21 years or younger to be on a US Olympic roster since NBA players were allowed to play in 1992, joining Anthony Davis,19, (2012), LeBron James,19, (2004), Carmelo Anthony, 20, (2004), Emeka Okafor, 21, (2004), and Amare Stoudamire, 21, (2004).
“I can hardly wait,” said Popovich, “to have the entire team together, but as it looks now, we might not have a practice until the morning of the first game. But I have a feeling we’re going to be quite good.”
UNITED STATES NATIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM:
No. 7 Kevin Durant — 6-10, 225, forward
No. 10 Jayson Tatum — 6-8, 205, forward
No. 14 Draymond Green — 6-6, 235, forward
No. 5 Zach LaVine — 6-5, 208, guard
No. 6 Damian Lillard — 6-2, 185, guard
No. 13 Bam Adebayo — 6-9, 255, forward-center
No. 9 Jerami Grant — 6-8, 210, forward
No. 4 Keldon Johnson — 6-5, 220, guard
No. 11 JaVale McGee — 7-0, 270, center
No. 8 Khris Middleton — 6-7, 217, forward
No. 12 Jrue Holiday — 6-3, 229. guard
No. 15 Devin Booker — 6-5. 206, guard