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Devin Booker continues to look the part for Team USA vs. Canada

LAS VEGAS — Phoenix Suns guard Devin Booker started for Team USA in its 86-72 exhibition win vs. Canada in Las Vegas on Wednesday, continuing to prove why he will be a valuable asset in the Paris Olympics.

Booker contributed nine points, two rebounds and two assists in 20 minutes. He consistently impacted the game on both ends of the floor, doing a nice job filling in gaps around all his superstar teammates. This was what separated him from most in Tokyo when he won his first Olympic gold medal and his quest for a second is aided by players like him accepting a lesser role.

Games like Wednesday are ones Booker did not get the chance to participate in for his first go when he went directly from the NBA Finals to Japan as the tournament was already underway. These fixtures give him crucial on-court time to develop his feel with not only the team but individual players as well.

“Just build chemistry,” Booker said of what he wants from these games before the real deal. “I think experience is the best teacher so getting out there with each other and figuring out, trying differnt lineups — just see how things work.”

Booker’s teammate Kevin Durant was out due to a calf injury that is not expected to sideline him for the entirety of the exhibition tour that rolls through nearly all of July.

Durant’s role is set. He will start and be the go-to option of the offense as the best to ever do it for the men’s side. Booker’s is not totally clear, although he has shown himself to be a trustworthy Olympic veteran who can adapt both to the role change and style of play.

Durant will start alongside LeBron James, Joel Embiid, Stephen Curry and a fifth name. The expectation for many is for that to be Anthony Edwards, a high-octane defender and capable shooter outside of the whole young superstar skill set thing. But if we’re diagnosing the balance of the roster and where Edwards’ best talents can be utilized, having him serve as the Carmelo Anthony or Dwyane Wade of this group makes the most sense as a supremely talented scorer and top-tier athlete bringing that juice off the bench.

Edwards was great in that spot on Wednesday, scoring 13 points and providing a jolt in his first shift after a flat beginning for the starters.

Booker’s ability to mold into the type of player suited for playing off that quartet is a known commodity, so him starting would be the right call. A sign of that aforementioned trust was in the last minute of the first half. Head coach Steve Kerr had been going with full line changes the whole way until he wanted to get one big off the floor for more spacing, and the perimeter player he called upon to fill that spot was Booker.

Kerr did say earlier in camp that he will mix and match lineups, so don’t pen in Booker as a starter just yet. But if Booker isn’t starting, he’s likely the first guard used as a reserve.

Tyrese Haliburton and Jrue Holiday will both be used by Kerr too but for specific, change-of-pace reasons. Holiday’s point-of-attack defense can be utilized against certain guard matchups while Haliburton will do what he did last summer and get these guys out on the break to run.

Derrick White, the replacement for Kawhi Leonard that was announced on Wednesday, probably won’t see much of the floor. That leaves Jayson Tatum as the first (and only) wing option followed by the pair of bigs, Bam Adebayo and Anthony Davis. Expect to see Kerr play two bigs at times, something more common in FIBA.

(As a brief aside, it’s surprising Mikal Bridges didn’t get the call instead of White to give the Americans another wing. Bridges played very well for Team USA last summer too.)

Holiday and Adebayo might not be tabbed for key roles by some but those who were up in the wee hours of the night over the summer of 2021 saw them join Booker as the only reliable supplementary pieces to help out the heroics of Durant.

This was showcased prominently in the second quarter when Holiday was absolutely everywhere, blocking two jumpers. Booker scored five straight points via a middy attacking a closeout and a transition 3, a sequence to put the Americans in the lead. Booker also had two really nice passes, an extra feed to an open Curry in the corner and a lob to Davis, both of which were not converted on.

Haliburton had a nice night as well, amounting to two points, four rebounds, six assists, four steals and a block. Holiday wound up with 11 points, five rebounds, four assists and two blocks.

A whim of a guess would be that outside the Big 4, we’ll see a lot of Booker, Edwards and Holiday. This team is built to play big and perhaps it will but the versatility Durant and James provide as large wings, plus the lack of depth at that position, points toward more three-guard looks. Holiday was the fifth starter on Wednesday.

Durant did not play due to calf soreness that he said popped up about a week-and-a-half before the team arrived in Las Vegas. He was out of practice all week. ESPN’s Marc J. Spears reported Team USA is confident Durant will be ready to go by the start of Olympic play on July 28.

The Americans have two exhibitions in Abu Dhabi on July 15 and 17 before one last pair on July 20 and 22 in London. Getting Durant back on the floor for one of those would be nice, as pool play in Paris kicks off with Nikola Jokic’s Serbia. Jokic is joined as the headliners of the squad by Bogdan Bogdanovic, Nikola Jovic and Vasilije Micic. They are no slouches.

As expected, Wednesday’s contest showed some adjusting that will take place for a new group.

Team USA began with eight turnovers and missed its first six shots. Big man Joel Embiid will be relied on as one of the primary offensive options and he’s got some new flow to get used to. Even at this level, he’s still commanding double-teams, and the only way to do that against this team is leaving an All-Star open. He missed a few opportunities to find the right pass and also couldn’t locate the physicality, racking up four quick fouls in 12 minutes. And, uh, he is not going to get away with his foul baiting in FIBA.

Edwards and Tatum were terrific as scorers off the bench but also ran into some stagnant 1-on-1 play at times. Tatum is someone in particular who struggled with the role adjustment in 2021 but he should be much, much better this time around. The passing skill on this team is off the charts for all 12 of these guys, so just like at any level of the game, Team USA will be at its best if the ball is whizzing around. Once the Americans were able to activate that by getting out in transition, Canada was hopeless.

Davis had a very good night with 10 points, 11 rebounds, two assists, two steals and four blocks. He achieved a personal favorite, which was understanding the FIBA rebounding rules right away by tapping an opposing shot off the rim and then tipping in a teammate’s shot that was still above the cylinder. It was one game and not even a real one but keep an eye on how he and Embiid adapt. If the gap continues to look as big as it did on Wednesday, Davis might wind up getting more minutes later on in the tournament.

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