Less than four years ago, Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee were Duke Blue Devils.
Irving was a freshman sensation, quickly established as the one of the NCAA’s premier point guards before missing most of the 2010-2011 season with a ligament injury in his right toe.
Plumlee was a sophomore, fresh off a national championship the season before, who averaged a respectable 7.2 points and 8.5 rebounds in fluctuating playing time.
Despite the early promise showed by both players, it appeared improbable that the two would later become teammates for USA Basketball’s men’s senior team.
But this summer, a combination that seemed unlikely even as recently as three weeks ago is now a reality. After an impressive NBA Summer League performance earned Plumlee an invitation to Team USA’s training camp in July, the Brooklyn Nets center joined Cleveland Cavaliers star Irving, a runaway favorite to make the team, on the senior squad’s final 12-man roster for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.
And perhaps just as notable as the former Duke teammates’ reunion is the fact that it’s happening under the direction of another familiar face in Durham: Blue Devils and Team USA head coach Mike Kryzyewski.
Earning their stars and stripes
While three consecutive seasons of averaging 18 or more points and five or more assists has made Irving a household name among NBA fans, Plumlee was known mostly as the league’s second-best player with his last name, behind older brother and fellow Duke alumnus Miles.
Irving, now 22, earned a spot in his first NBA All-Star game in February, and was a virtual lock to make the Team USA squad this summer. His chances of making the team were all but guaranteed by early July, when Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook, a member of Team USA’s 2012 Olympic gold-medal squad, announced his withdrawal from the World Cup team.
“I really wanted the chance to play for the gold medal,” Irving said in an interview with The News & Observer in Bilbao, Spain, “to represent my country and have this experience.”
Plumlee, on the other hand, was content just for playing time with the Nets. A rookie during the 2013-2014 season, Plumlee, 6 feet 11 inches and 235 pounds, started 22 games thanks to an early season-ending injury to Nets’ starting center and 2013 All-Star Brook Lopez.
“My biggest thing was to go out there and gain the coaches’ trust,” Plumlee told The N&O. “Just be aggressive and show that I could contribute.”
With averages of just 7.4 points and 4.4 rebounds per game during his rookie year, Plumlee was assigned to Brooklyn’s NBA Summer League team in early July. After posting team-high per-game averages of 18 points, 4.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals in three games, Plumlee earned an invitation to Team USA’s 28-player training camp on July 18.
“Just being invited to that, I told myself, ‘Hey anything can happen,’ ” he said.
After just two days of practice, on July 20, both Irving and Plumlee were selected to the squad’s narrowed 20-man roster. Within a week, NBA All-Stars Kevin Love and Blake Griffin both withdrew from Team USA, leaving the two former Blue Devils among 18 remaining players.
“When they moved me to the 20-man national team, I had my foot in the door. Then, with Love and Griffin out, I knew I had just as good of a chance as anybody,” Plumlee said. “That was when I really felt like I could make it.”
By Aug. 7, with Olympian Kevin Durant’s decision to leave Team USA for the summer, Irving and Plumlee were among 14 remaining roster players. On Aug. 22, just hours after Team USA’s 112-86 victory against Puerto Rico, they each received calls from Kryzyewski telling them to pack their bags for Spain.
“A dream come true,” Irving said of getting Kryzyewski’s call.
“Incredibly exciting,” Plumlee added. “I was confident based on how practices were going, but to have it finalized was a huge relief.”
Through five games in Team USA’s World Cup opening round in Bilbao, Spain, both Irving and Plumlee are again making an impact – this time among the world’s best players. As members of a 12-man American squad featuring five NBA All-Stars, Irving, a starter, is averaging 23 minutes per game, 9.8 points per game on nearly 53 percent shooting and 3.8 assists. Plumlee, the team’s third center behind New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis and Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins, scored 6 points in 12 minutes in last Saturday’s win against Finland.
“On a team full of stars you have to take advantage of every minute, because you don’t know how many you’re going to get,” a sweating Plumlee said leaving the court after Saturday’s win against Finland. “But man, it’s fun. You want to play in every game, and you just have to stay ready.”
Irving, 6 feet 3 inches and 193 pounds, has a different approach. Fighting for playing time with backup point guard Derrick Rose, the Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star believes Kryzyewski is saving his most valuable players for the team’s stronger tournament opponents.
“Whatever Coach K wants and whatever he needs I’m willing to do for him,” said Irving, who played 24 minutes in Team USA’s win over Turkey on Sunday, compared with 20 minutes in the Americans’ blowout of Finland last Saturday and 21 minutes the Americans’ rout of Ukraine on Thursday. “In games against better teams, some starters play more minutes.”
Both Irving and Plumlee cited the change from NBA to FIBA rules of play as the greatest challenge of their first Team USA experience. Among differences in international play include a shorter game, a five personal foul limit instead of six and stricter rules toward both contact and traveling violations.
“The foreign players are smart and they know how to draw fouls,” Plumlee said. “They know how to turn a little body contact into an and-one or just an easy personal foul, so you have to be smarter.”
Rekindling the flame
Irving and Plumlee offered praise for Kryzyewski.
Though Irving expressed regret for his injury-riddled freshman season, the 22-year-old suggested a gold medal could more than make up for lost time, calling the chance to play for Kryzyewski’s Team USA “by far” the best experience of his basketball career.
“Just to play for my coach again and to play for a gold medal, this is our chance to rekindle the flame and go after something bigger than ourselves,” Irving said.
Kryzyewski, taking a rare moment to reflect on his time with Irving in Durham, agreed.
“I’ve coached him more here than I did at Duke,” Kryzyewski said, laughing. “It just makes me wonder if he wasn’t hurt that year what would have happened. It’s something that both he and I felt bad about, but we’re excited to have this opportunity here and now.”
Plumlee, who played four seasons under Kryzyewski at Duke, said chemistry with his former coach has helped him make an easier adjustment to the international game. Though a different experience than playing at Cameron Indoor, Plumlee said his time with Kryzyewski in Spain has, in a way, been Déjà-vu.
“There’s so much similarity and familiarity with knowing what Coach wants and what he’s looking for,” Plumlee said. “Just hearing him in meetings and breaking down film, it’s fun to be a part of again because he’s the best at that. It’s great to be back playing for him and I’m really enjoying it.”