The Olympics are a special occasion for NBA players rife with different opportunities.
The opportunity to represent your country and compete for a gold medal. The opportunity to create lasting bonds with fellow teammates and memories that will last a lifetime. And who knows? Maybe those moments can serve as the seeds that bloom into the next NBA superteam.
But one of the more unique aspects of the Olympic experience is what it does for a player’s individual game.
Team USA has always been a collection of some of the game’s premier players. Being in such proximity with that many great players for weeks, it’d be hard not to pick up a thing or two and take it into the coming season and beyond, especially for some of the younger players interacting with seasoned vets.
Consider the 2008 Redeem Team. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Carmelo Anthony were stars in their own right leading up to the Beijing Olympics. But Kobe Bryant, as the three-time champion and second-oldest member of the team, was the undeniable leader whose Mamba Mentality set a tone his teammates followed.
“(Wade) met me in the gym at five, and then LeBron started showing up at five, and then they all started showing up at five,” Bryant told Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Abrams in 2018. “And then next thing you know, most of the guys were in the gym at five getting some work in,”
Those members of the Banana Boat crew and others like Chris Paul, Dwight Howard, and Chris Bosh all knew what it took to reach a certain level of greatness. They were all perennial All-Stars at that point. Heck, it was why they were selected for Team USA, to begin with.
But it was only after getting an up-close and personal look at Bryant’s maniacal work ethic when they truly began to understand the work that was required for them to reach the peak of their powers.
The results might not offer a perfect correlation, but there’s a noticeable thread between the Olympic experience and the season many of those guys went on to have in 2008-09.
LeBron won his first MVP. Wade led the league in scoring with a career-high 30.2 points per game. Melo advanced to the conference finals for the only time in his career. Dwight won the first of three Defensive Player of the Year awards and made the Finals.
“He came in the first day and worked twice as hard as everybody else,” Jim Boeheim, an assistant on that 2008 team, said of Bryant during the Olympics to Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com. “He taught all the young players, LeBron and Carmelo and all those guys: ‘This is what you gotta do. You gotta go after this.”
So, what does this have to do with Jayson Tatum?
Well, Tatum has certainly come into his own as an All-Star in each of the last two seasons, but nobody would think the 23-year-old doesn’t have what to still improve upon. Like LeBron and Wade and others before him, he has the chance to study one of the greatest players of all time in Kevin Durant.
The two already have a relationship that’s grown in recent months following Boston’s first-round playoff loss to Brooklyn. Tatum averaged over 30 a night in that five-game series without much help around him, and KD took notice.
“Guarding him the whole playoffs — he’s shifty with it,” Durant said of Tatum. “He’s a tough, tough cover.”
Studying Durant’s game via film and picking up a few pointers after a matchup is one thing. Watching how he practices and learning his daily habits is an invaluable experience you can only get as teammates.
Tatum now has the chance to truly understand what makes Durant so unstoppable and adopt that into his own development. For someone already so talented at such a young age, that’s a scary thought, but the insight doesn’t have to stop there.
Think of the defensive knowledge Tatum could learn picking the brain of Draymond Green, a three-time champion and one of the best defenders of his generation. Or Damian Lillard, whose reputable leadership skills through the highs and lows of leading a franchise is something Tatum will likely experience himself.
Going down the roster, there’s something to learn from everyone, whether it’s a specific offensive move, a nutrition tip, or advice on how to get the most out of every practice.
The circumstances of the Olympics don’t happen anywhere else. At no other point in the year do we see this much talent around each other for this long, with the stakes as high as they are.
That might not help Tatum earn an MVP award in 2022, but it offers a golden opportunity for him to take another step in his progress as one of the bright young stars of the NBA.