When Mike Krzyzewski began the summer, he was anticipating taking a U.S. team to the FIBA World Cup in Spain that included Kevin Love, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant and Paul George.
But Love withdrew his name from consideration pending an anticipated trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Cleveland Cavaliers (a transaction that eventually happened). Griffin did the same to “focus and dedicate” himself to the new season, although later reports said his decision also was influenced by doctors’ advice to give a fracture in his back more time to heal.
George broke his leg during an intra-squad scrimmage in Las Vegas as the first of four training phases concluded in early August, and Durant withdrew after the Las Vegas camp because he felt he needed to “step back.”
And this was after some of the biggest stars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony had decided they weren’t going to compete at the World Cup.
If there has been a deleterious effect, it hasn’t been noticeable so far. Team USA won all three of its stateside exhibitions against fellow World Cup qualifiers Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico by a combined 96 points while averaging 104 points a game — which are eight minutes shorter than an NBA game. On Tuesday, Team USA routed Slovenia, 101-71 in an exhibition in Gran Canaria, Spain.
Colangelo and “Coach K” have used their pool system over the past six years to win three straight major championships (2008 and 2012 Olympic Games as well as the 2010 World Cup, then known as the world championship) and feel it will work to their advantage in Spain.
Anthony Davis and James Harden, who played the fewest minutes of all of the 12 men on the Team USA roster at the London Games, are poised to have the biggest roles in the World Cup.
“Coaching the U.S. team, first of all, has been more of an honor than I anticipated, and it’s more challenging than I ever thought it would be when I first took over,” Krzyzewski said. “You just have to keep adapting to change.”
Krzyzewski repeatedly has spoken of a “core” group of eight or nine players that will carry the load with another three-to-four who will get fewer minutes.
Expect these guys to be among the core:
Anthony Davis, 21, forward-center, 6-foot-10, 220 pounds, New Orleans Pelicans
Considered one of the best five players in the NBA by Krzyzewski, and the best big guy by assistant coach Jim Boeheim, Davis started all three stateside exhibitions, averaging the third-most points on the team (15.3) and third-most rebounds (5.8). A two-year NBA vet, he had the fewest minutes of any player on the 2012 U.S. Olympic championship team, but has been identified by Krzyzewski as one of the leaders of Team USA for the World Cup. The leader in blocks per game (2.8) last season in the NBA, he had 10 in three exhibition games with Team USA.
Kenneth Faried, 25, forward, 6-foot-8, 228 pounds, Denver Nuggets
Although relatively small for a power forward, Team USA is projecting using Faried to guard the opposition’s No. 4. He led Team USA in rebounding through the U.S. exhibitions, offensively and defensively. Quick in transition, Faried has averaged more than 10 points in all three of his NBA seasons and had 27 points in his games against Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, shooting 80 percent from the field.
James Harden, 24, guard-forward, 6-foot-5, 220 pounds, Houston Rockets
Harden, who averaged 5.5 points in a little over nine minutes during the London 2012 Olympic Games, appears to be the guy who will be the scoring leader in Spain. He led Team USA in the U.S. exhibitions with 43 points (14.3 ppg), including sinking 19 of 20 free throws. But he also had eight steals (best), 12 assists (second-best) and 10 rebounds (third-best).
Stephen Curry, 26, guard, 6-foot-3, 185 pounds, Golden State Warriors
The second-best three-point shooter for Team USA so far (7-12), Curry is a five-year NBA veteran who has averaged more than 20 points, including a career-high 24 points last season. With his shooting ability, the USA Basketball coaching staff sees Curry as able to contribute on the playmaking side by forcing defenses to overplay him and thus opening other opportunities. He had the third most assists in the three stateside exhibitions (eight) behind Kyrie Irving (15) and Harden (12).
Kyrie Irving, 22, guard, 6-foot-3, 191 pounds, Cleveland Cavaliers
The NBA’s Rookie of the Year in 2012 and All-Star Game MVP last season, Irving started two of the three U.S. exhibition games and tied for the fourth-most game minutes during the three (57) as Derrick Rose was bothered by knee soreness. Irving, who played for one season for Krzyzewski at Duke before turning pro, averaged nearly 10 points in the U.S. exhibitions and led the team with 15 assists.
Klay Thompson, 24, guard, 6-foot-7, 205 pounds, Golden State Warriors
Thompson didn’t start any of the U.S. exhibitions but had the second-most minutes of anybody (66) and averaged 11 points off the bench. He likely will be the first or second off the bench along with Rudy Gay, because of his three-point shooting, and is obviously familiar with Golden State backcourt partner Curry.
Brian Trusdell is a writer from New Jersey. He has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.