SAN ANTONIO — Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn't hesitate when asked what stood out most about coaching Chicago Bulls guard Zach LaVine at last summer's Tokyo Olympics.
"He was a helluva lot of fun," Popovich said Friday night.
LaVine has talked glowingly about his experience with USA Basketball. His respect for Popovich runs deep. The feeling is mutual.
"He was so important to what we did just because of his special skills. He and Devin Booker were kind of similar in that regard. They really gave us pace," Popovich said. "The speed with which he plays, the athleticism he uses, I would be in awe from time to time with some of the things he would do on the court. That speed, that pace that he gave us allowed a lot of things to happen."
Earlier this season, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who served as an assistant coach for Popovich and USA Basketball, emphasized LaVIne's role acceptance as critical for the squad full of alpha stars. Popovich agreed.
"The thing I remember most about him, and I can almost quote him, is he would say, 'Pop, just tell me what you want me to do and I'll go do it.' He must've told me that 10 times while we were there. And he would follow through on it," Popovich said. "I'd say, 'We gotta have you play 'D.' We gotta have you use athleticism to make some stops. At the other end they can't stop you if you're active and aggressive.' And he did those things.
"He was really one of the favorites of a lot of people — not just coaches but other players who hadn't played with him. We were just stunned by some of the things he could do with the basketball and his speed. He always had a smile on his face. He was always ready to go. I enjoyed him very much. He was wonderful."
LaVine consistently picked up ballhandlers full-court and embraced a defensive mindset that has carried over into this season.
"He was able to use that athleticism to get up into people who weren't used to that kind of pressure," Popovich said. "And he could give it. And he did."
And he and Popovich and the rest of USA Basketball have a gold medal to prove it.