Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving, who is still recovering from knee surgery, was limited at the Team USA minicamp in Las Vegas last weekend. He did not take part in full practices, but each morning he had a court reserved just for his private workouts.
During the national team practices, Irving helped however he could, whether offering advice to younger players in the program or lofting entry passes in competitive post-practice one-on-one battles organized by Kevin Durant.
“If Kyrie was finished with all of his rehab he would have been on the court competing, but I always love seeing him in those settings interacting with the other players and seeing how much respect he commands from them,” said Celtics assistant coach Jay Larranaga, who helped coach at the minicamp. “He’s special. He just is. It’s very clear what a charismatic personality he has that people just want to be around, and felt fortunate that we have him on our team.”
Larranaga said he and Irving spoke several times during the minicamp about what will be the most highly anticipated Celtics season since Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen were on the team.
“We’re both just anxious for the season to get started,” Larranaga said Thursday in a phone interview from Italy. “I think he’s doing great. You read his body language, and I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but he seems really excited for the direction we’re going, and I think he’s very excited to lead us as well.”
Larranaga also caught up with former Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas at the minicamp. The past year has been a whirlwind for the two-time All-Star, of course, as he works his way back from the 2017 hip injury that derailed his career. In July, Thomas signed a one-year deal with the Nuggets for the veteran’s minimum.
“Isaiah is the best,” Larranaga said. “I told him a bunch of different times in Vegas how much I’ll always owe to him. He’s doing great. He wasn’t able to do any of the live stuff, but he was like the best shooter in every shooting drill. He just made shot after shot, and he feels good. He’s motivated to reestablish himself as one of the best point guards in the league.
“I think he’s healthy. I think he’s in the same situation he’s been in about 100 times in his career where he’s got to just re-prove himself.”
Celtics forward Gordon Hayward is also among the 35 players in the national team pool, but he missed minicamp to continue his recovery from the gruesome ankle injury he suffered last October.
“It sounded like the rehab was going so well that he didn’t want to interrupt it,” Larranaga said. “But being there in Vegas, it was very obvious that Gordon could be an important part of USA Basketball moving forward.”
Larranaga said that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has replaced Mike Krzyzewski as head coach of Team USA, asked him specifically about Hayward and his recovery.
Popovich also told the assistants attending the camp to bring one drill from their respective teams to use in Las Vegas. Larranaga’s suggestion, it turned out, was ultimately — and playfully — tucked away for future use by the Spurs.
“I got on the board when we were at the coaches meetings and said ‘Hey, this is a drill we do that we like,’ ” Larranaga said. “And Pop said, ‘OK we probably won’t do that for practice, but we’re definitely stealing that. So tell Brad [Stevens], thanks.”
Larranaga said that was just one example of the way Stevens, Danny Ainge and the Celtics are now regarded around the league. Larranaga was in the lobby of the Four Seasons on the first day of camp when he saw Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook walking his 1-year-old son in a stroller.
“I go over and introduce myself, and there’s an immediate level of respect because of the success that Brad and Danny have led us to,” Larranaga said. “And talking to coaches throughout the camp, Brad’s name comes up and the immediate reaction is always ‘He’s unbelievable. He’s an amazing coach. He’s an amazing person.’”
Other coaches were quite intrigued by the Celtics, often asking Larranaga about specific games or plays from recent seasons. And since Boston’s coaches led the Eastern Conference All-Star team two years ago and have helped guide the Celtics to the conference finals in consecutive years, they have developed an appreciation from the game’s elite players, too.
“It’s nice to see the respect Kyrie commands in the league and it’s also nice to see the respect Brad and just our whole organization command,” Larranaga said. “I never feel like I belong in the NBA. I feel like I’m living a dream. But the more success we’ve had as an organization is the reason I’m given these opportunities to do these things.”
Larranaga said it was beneficial and impressive to see how some of the world’s best players approached the minicamp with such professionalism and competitiveness. On his first morning there he went to the hotel gym at 8 a.m., and LeBron James, Kevin Love and Harrison Barnes were already there working out.
Popovich made Durant, perhaps the top star to take part in the entire camp, a point man for the week. He reached out to him ahead of time and asked what he was hoping to get out of the week, and Durant told him that they wanted to actually play real basketball.
Then on the first day of live practice, Larranaga said, Popovich was walking around the court making sure everyone was ready for real basketball. He did not want to risk any injuries, and when he realized a lot of players had not even taped their ankles, he figured the real basketball might have to wait.
“Then Westbrook goes, ‘Pop, we don’t have to tape,’ ” Larranaga recalled with a chuckle. “These are real hoopers out here. We’re real hoopers. We don’t need to tape.’ And then on the very first possession of pickup, Westbrook drives to the basket and Kevin Durant blocks the shot and says, ‘Get that shot out of here.’ It was awesome to see how much those guys love to play.
You’re just reminded that they’re the best players for a reason. The natural talent is part of it, but a bigger part is just how much they care about basketball and how hard they work. They are serious professionals.”