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IMG Academy becoming the go-to place for basketball

Zachary Dash
Training at IMG Academy, the Puerto Rican men's national team features Minnesota Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea.

BRADENTON -- IMG Academy is becoming a go-to spot for basketball players looking to sharpen their games, whether it's preparing for the NBA draft or training with their teams for a big international tournament.

This week, the Puerto Rico men's national basketball team is prepping for the FIBA Americas Championship, which begins Aug. 30 in Caracas, Venezuela.

Populated by former and current NBA players and past IMG trainees, Bradenton is considered the perfect training ground.

IMG's new gym, featuring a pair of courts in an expansive area, is a key reason the squad chose the Suncoast.

That and the need to escape the hoopla surrounding the team in its country. Basketball rivals baseball in popularity in Puerto Rico.

"Baseball is No. 1, but I think people are really, really passionate about basketball," 7-foot-tall center Daniel Santiago said. "They're a little more passionate about it than all the other sports."

Santiago said the team has enjoyed success when training away from the island.

When it comes to the FIBA Americas tournament, a qualifier for next year's FIBA World Cup, Puerto Rico has won three times and finished runner-up on four other occasions.

In fact, Puerto Rico was the first team to defeat the United States in the Olympics since the introduction of professional players, when it accomplished the feat in 2004.

That history is nice, but the trick to performing well at the end of August in Venezuela is gaining chemistry over a short period of time at IMG.

"It's always been that way with our national team because we have a league that just ended in the summertime," said Santiago, who is an IMG alum and lives on Lido Key. "So normally we don't have much time."

The team has a new coach in Francisco Olmos, who has implemented a new system. The adjustment, though, isn't difficult to pick up for the caliber of talent on Puerto Rico's team. Forward Renaldo Balkman, who formerly played for the NBA's New York Knicks and Denver Nuggets, said players go through that same thing in pro leagues.

"You basically come from a season with one coach to another coach" with the national team, Balkman said. "So it's nothing new from playing on the national team than playing for somebody else."

Part of that talent is Minnesota Timberwolves guard J.J. Barea, who won an NBA championship with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.

But talent isn't the lone predictor of success. Training at a facility that can provide the necessary preparation for a high-profile tournament -- the FIBA Americas qualifies only four teams into next summer's World Cup -- is a must for the Puerto Rico team.

The hardwood courts and other amenities, including trainers standing by, are at their fingertips, which allows for variety in the practice regimen.

"The basketball courts are like an NBA (court)," Barea said. "So we've got more space ... to shoot. You get a little bit more pumped up to come practice because it's so nice."

So far, Spain (host) and Team USA (2012 Olympic gold medalists) are qualified. Australia and New Zealand are representing the Oceania region next summer. Other associations, including the FIBA Americas, haven't been decided yet.

That will change soon in Venezuela, but for now, the team is beginning its foundation for what it hopes is a return to the championship podium.

Puerto Rico hasn't won the region's title since 1995 and didn't play in the last two Summer Olympics. Yet the mix of veterans like Santiago and youth like Barea has generated excitement around the Caribbean island.

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