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James plays different role under Coach K

SAITAMA, Japan – In his third pro season, Cleveland’s LeBron James became one of the NBA’s prolific scorers, averaging 31.4 points per game and 30.8 in the playoffs.

Then he went to Japan and became … a point guard?

In the FIBA world championships, James has averaged 12.5 points per game. He’s third among the Americans in scoring, behind fellow captains Dwyane Wade (20.0 points) and Carmelo Anthony (19.7).

James isn’t lighting up the scoreboard. But he’s making his teammates better simply by being on the court. As the U.S. prepares to meet Germany in the quarterfinals tonight, James is second on the team in assists, with 3.5 per game. That’s fifth among the tourney’s remaining players.

“I still think that’s the best thing he does – his presence, especially the passing,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He and Wade are incredible passers.”

James had twice as many assists (four) as baskets in the U.S.’ 113-73 rout of Australia in the second round Sunday. He scored five points.

It would be natural for a world-class scorer to fret over his point production. But James said he’s not concerned with his numbers.

“If anybody knows my game, they know I don’t play like that,” James said after a Team USA workout this week. “I play just to help our team win. Whatever our team needs for us to try and win ballgames, that’s what I’m going to do.

“I can go out there and take no shots, but if I can rebound and assist and play defense and help our team win, that’s what I’m going to be,” James said. “I never cared about personal statistics. Never. Never in my life.”

Skeptics said highly paid NBA stars would not put aside their egos to join the sort of team effort needed to succeed in the international game. But that’s what has happened.

First, Wade went to Krzyzewski and volunteered to come off the bench. And now James says he’s content to be a secondary scoring option for Team USA.

All this unselfishness has made the 6-0 Americans appear unbeatable at times.

“They take the shots when they’re open, they don’t force anything and they share the ball well,” Australian guard C.J. Bruton said.

Krzyzewski downplayed James’ scoring stats. “If you put the number of minutes that he’s playing with the number of minutes that he’s played in Cleveland, he’s scoring more per minute than he would,” Krzyzewski said. “If he scores this much in a 48-minute game, he’d be averaging 35 points a game.

“That’s the problem with stats,” Krzyzewski said. “Look at number of minutes, not the end thing, ‘Oh, he’s averaging this amount.’ They’re playing less.”

Stats weren’t on James’ mind when he signed up for a three-year commitment to Team USA, through the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.

“I committed, for one, to have fun,” James said. “It’s been everything I expected and more.”

James played on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team, which earned a disappointing bronze medal in Athens. James averaged 5.4 points per game coming off the bench for Larry Brown. He said he’s having more fun this time.

“It’s a much better experience now than 2004,” James said. “Just the whole atmosphere, guys being around each other, having fun, laughing, joking. I don’t know why it’s that better of an atmosphere, but it is. And when you see it, you’ve got to call it like you see it.”

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