MACAU — LeBron James was already one of the NBA's best players by the time he slipped on USA jerseys in 2004 and '06.
Problem was, the United States had enough good players. What the Americans really needed was someone to be a strong leader, but King James wasn't quite ready yet.
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Now, one of the biggest reasons the United States is the favorite for the gold medal is because James has realized that this team doesn't just need him to be the player he is for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It needs him to be comfortable with taking over a game or taking control of a timeout.
”I feel like I have to raise my leadership level to a new height when I get with these guys. It's just how I am as a person and as a player,“ James said Wednesday before practice.
”I'm a born leader, so I do whatever it takes for our team to understand what it means to win.“
It wasn't always that way, though. The player who once would have allowed veterans such as Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant to be the team leaders now shares that role with them.
”There's a lot of respect for LeBron,“ Coach Mike Krzyzewski said. ”I think LeBron these last two years, as good as he was, he's really grown to be a very complete basketball player.“
After the disappointment of the 2004 Olympics, when he played little on the team that won the bronze medal, James could have let the experience sour him on international play.
Instead, he quickly committed to join the team again when Jerry Colangelo began assembling the program in late 2005, then became one of the loudest American voices telling everyone that kind of flop won't happen again this time.
Then, last summer, he spent all off-season working to correct one of the few weaknesses in his game: an inconsistent jumper that the San Antonio Spurs forced him to take — and too often miss — during their sweep of the Cavaliers in the NBA finals.
”You don't always have to speak as a leader,“ Kidd said. ”You can show by example, and I think he's doing both by putting the work, extra shooting and then also, when it's needed, he speaks up.“
James strode onto the court for practice Wednesday sporting the baseball cap of his favorite team, the New York Yankees, only this one had a red brim. It wasn't long ago that he didn't look nearly as comfortable wearing red, white and blue.
James averaged 13.9 points two years ago in the world championships, but the team's most talented player was too content to be a third option. He never led the Americans in scoring in any of their nine games, scoring some six points per game fewer than Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade.
”Offensively, he really wasn't as comfortable,“ assistant coach Jim Boeheim said. ”There were a couple of games I don't think he got many shots up at all during that whole thing, where Carmelo was more of a go-to guy, Dwyane Wade was more of a go-to guy. LeBron was not a guy who was anywhere near understanding the game and where he gets the ball and how he plays today.“
He figured it out in a hurry. James averaged 18.1 points and made 76 percent of his shots from the field on the U.S. team that went 10-0 in the Olympic qualifier. And he proved that his jumper is no longer a weakness, hitting 62 percent of his three-point attempts.
What's more, he joined Bryant in showing a commitment to becoming a defensive stopper, something he can't demonstrate in the NBA because the Cavaliers need him to focus on his offense.
”I don't think he was anywhere near the player in "06,“ Boeheim said. ”He didn't take charge, he wasn't a defensive leader. I don't think he had realized defense, he's always been an offensive player. Now he's really a key defensive guy on our team. That's a major, major change from what he was two years ago on the defensive end.“
Carlos Boozer has been watching James even longer, since they played together in 2004. And he knows the difference in his teammate now is a reason the Americans shouldn't expect the same disappointment.
”He's just grown a lot. He's just matured just like anybody else,“ Boozer said.