At USA Basketball camp, teenage prodigy

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LAS VEGAS — Before Cooper Flagg emerged as the world’s leading teenage basketball prodigy, he spent childhood winters in Maine ice fishing with his father and two brothers.

Amid the scorching summer heat of Southern Nevada, the 17-year-old Flagg authored an impressive stretch of all-around play in a scrimmage against USA Basketball’s national team on Monday that is bound to be mythologized like a fishing tale as his promising career unfolds.

Media members weren’t allowed to watch the entire scrimmage between the national team that’s headed to the Paris Olympics, led by LeBron James and Stephen Curry, and the USA select team, which was composed primarily of young NBA players and Flagg, who will be a freshman at Duke this fall. Official stats weren’t kept for the traditional varsity vs. junior varsity affair, according to a USA Basketball official. And Steve Kerr, coach of the national team, declined to comment about Flagg’s sterling show, citing NBA rules that prohibit public statements about players who aren’t yet draft eligible.

As soon as the gym doors opened to reporters, though, Flagg drew chuckles and gasps by taking over the scrimmage with an 11-point flurry to lead a select team comeback. The 39-year-old James, who knows a hoops prodigy when he sees one, sought out Flagg for a congratulatory pat on the butt after the national team barely held on for a 74-73 victory.

Flagg, a 6-foot-8 forward who became the first college player to earn a select team invite in more than a decade, showed why he is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2025 NBA draft. The polished wing started his scoring burst with a three-pointer from the left corner over Los Angeles Lakers center Anthony Davis and a post-up turnaround over Boston Celtics guard Jrue Holiday.

Then, with momentum building, the baby-faced Flagg brought the ball up the court, worked his way into an isolation against Davis and drilled a side-step three-pointer over arguably the NBA’s best defensive player. After the national team committed a turnover trying to find Davis in transition, Flagg took control of the ball and quickly pushed the ball ahead to Sacramento Kings forward Keegan Murray, who missed a three-pointer from the left angle. Flagg sprinted the length of the court during the shot, jumped to grab the offensive rebound with both hands in traffic and finished a midair putback while being fouled by Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo.

The sequence — the shot, the pass, the rebound and the finish — instantly went viral across social media, garnering millions of views within an hour. All told, Flagg had scored six points in less than 20 seconds to set up a tense endgame. Davis prevented an embarrassing loss for the overwhelming gold medal favorites by blocking a potential game-winning jumper by Golden State Warriors guard Brandin Podziemski at the buzzer.

Flagg’s game-changing performance was made even more remarkable by the fact that he is five years younger than Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards, who is the national team’s youngest player. When Flagg was born Dec. 21, 2006, James was in his fourth NBA season and about to make his third all-star appearance.

“I was just competing and trying as hard as I can,” Flagg said. “Giving it 100 percent. I’m confident in my ability and skill. I’m confident in who I am and what I can do. It’s a surreal feeling being able to share the court [with the national team]. I’m blessed to have this opportunity to be here. I had no worries. I didn’t put any pressure on myself. I’m here for a reason. I know that. ”

Flagg’s appeal as a prospect owes to his excellent motor, strong athletic tools and innate basketball intelligence, plus the do-everything game he displayed Monday in front of a few hundred onlookers. He is an effective ballhandler, a willing outside shooter, a physical rebounder, an above-the-rim finisher and a multi-positional defender who can handle assignments in the paint or on the perimeter — all rolled into one package.

If Flagg blossoms into a player capable of taking the reins of USA Basketball, his fearless showing at the University of Nevada Las Vegas will be remembered as the moment he first proved he could hold his own against the best in the world.

“The select team was great,” Kerr said, smiling as he artfully dodged commenting directly about Flagg. “They challenged us. They were physical. They ran a lot of stuff the European teams will run. It couldn’t have worked out any better.”

The one person who didn’t appear to be caught up in the excitement was Flagg, who chatted with a pair of fellow Duke Blue Devils — Celtics forward Jayson Tatum and USA Basketball managing director Grant Hill — before nonchalantly recounting the afternoon’s events. Though Flagg grew up as a Celtics fan and fashioned his offensive approach by studying Tatum, he said he felt comfortable playing against a USA Basketball team composed of 12 all-stars and nearly as many future Hall of Famers.

“[There was some awe] at first, walking into the gym seeing all those players, but not once we started playing,” he said. “Once the ball goes up, I’m just a competitor. It’s a little bit of an adjustment being on the court with them, but at the same time I’m just playing basketball and trying to win. [The national team players] have all been pretty welcoming. They’re just telling me to keep working and stay grounded.”

Flagg, who reclassified to be a high school senior last fall and then led Montverde Academy (Fla.) to an undefeated season and a national title, said he was “striving for” a spot on USA Basketball’s roster for the 2027 FIBA World Cup in Qatar. By that point, he would be 20 years old and probably have completed a one-and-done freshman campaign at Duke and two NBA seasons.

In the meantime, Flagg expects the national team to secure its fifth consecutive gold medal in Paris next month.

“They can be any team they want to be,” he said. “They have no weaknesses, no holes. They can play any type of way and dominate. It’s going to be a dominant team that asserts their will on everybody they see.”

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