Summer has a way of bringing people together. If 2018 was a Summer Olympics year, it would bring the superstars of the NBA Playoffs — Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, Chris Paul, etc. — together playing for one team next month: USA.
In honor incoming Illinois freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu representing the United States this summer on the Under-18 team, we reflect on the most recent Illini to play for the senior USA team: Deron Williams and his role in helping the United States take home the Gold Medal in 2008.
Ten years ago, the then-Utah Jazz point guard was one of three players at his position to be named to the USA roster heading into the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The other two were Chris Paul (part of the same draft class as Williams) and Jason Kidd. Kobe Bryant was team captain. Duke Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski was the head coach along with his assistant coaches Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Nate McMillan (Portland Trail Blazers) and Mike D’Antoni (New York Knicks).
The Redeem Team and Jerry Colangelo
The 2008 USA Olympic team was nicknamed the ‘Redeem Team’ after the debacle in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece. In Athens, the Americans won the Bronze Medal and went 5-3 overall. which included losses to Puerto Rico, Lithuania and Argentina. There were only three holdovers from the 2004 team on the 2008 team: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. Argentina took home the Gold Medal and Italy the Silver in 2004.
Looking back, the 2004 team in Athens was flawed. It’s not an excuse — on paper that team should have had no problems beating the teams they lost to, and the talent disparity should have been enough to overcome adversity. The 2004 team lacked pure shooters. Richard Jefferson, Shawn Marion and Lamar Odom were small forwards on that team — none of them were good shooters capable of knocking down open shots from the perimeter. None of them were good enough to get shots on their own in isolation play either, rendering those players useless on the offensive end.
In the international game, having players with defined roles is critical. That matters more than having pure talent. In 2005, shortly after the 2004 Bronze Medal shame, NBA executive, University of Illinois alum and Chicago-area native Jerry Colangelo was hired to take control over Team USA and its internal operations. The first order of business was naming Duke’s Coach K the new head coach, replacing the outgoing Larry Brown.
Since Jerry Colangelo took over, the United States is 88-1 overall and have won Gold Medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics.
Deron Williams’ Role
Deron Williams averaged six points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.8 assists as a reserve for the 2008 Olympic team. His best game that year was the final game in Group B play, when the United States torched Germany 106-57. Deron contributed nine points, five assists and four rebounds to go along with two steals.
Williams’ role first and foremost was on the defensive end. He was asked to think and concentrate on defense — making sure the opponent’s point guard was incapable of getting into a rhythm. With Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James shouldering the scoring load for Team USA, Deron Williams was able to ease into the game off the bench as a tenacious defender and a player who could knock down the open shot.
Chris Paul was the regular starting point guard for this team. Jason Kidd was by far the elder statesman on this team and his role was more background/leadership/personality based. Williams was the reserve point guard for Coach K in 2008 and did his job well enough to more than secure his spot in the following Olympics in 2012 in London.
We’ll keep this short. Deron Williams numbers in the 2012 London Olympics saw a significant increase compared to 2008: Williams averaged 9.0 ppg, 1.5 rbp, and 4.6 apg. Again, Chris Paul was the starting point guard and this time Russell Westbrook replaced Jason Kidd as the third and final point guard on the roster.
Two Deron Williams games that stood out in 2012 were against Nigeria in Group A play (USA 156-Nigeria 73) and Australia (USA 119-Australia 86) in the Quarter-Finals. Williams had a double-double in the Nigeria game: 13 points and 11 assists in just 18 minutes. Against Australia, Williams scored a personal Team USA career-high: 18 points, making three 3-pointers and going a perfect 7 for 7 from the free throw line.
Those who don’t learn from history are condemned to repeat it...
Men’s Basketball at the 2004 Olympics was alarming and shocking, but in many ways it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It forced the United States basketball program and its fans to look at and respect just how much better teams like Spain, Argentina and Lithuania have improved since the Michael Jordan-led Dream Team days in 1992.
Yes, the United States is the best basketball country in the world, but those other teams are catching up and improving, and the U.S has to take that seriously and approach its program with with focus and seriousness — not arrogance and brashness.
Illini Deron Williams was one piece, one role player who helped Americans recognize and respect the international game more. Illini Jerry Colangelo transformed the program into a well thought out, step-by-step process which included not necessarily finding the best players, but the right players who got along and got the job done often thousands of miles away from home.
For this thing to work, individual stars must be willing to sacrifice some of their ego and harness some of their skills as part of the greater plan. Fighting Illini Basketball has its hands in this new age of Team USA Hoops.
Be proud. Stay humble.