(L-R) Kyle Kuzma, Kemba Walker and head coach Gregg Popovich talk during a practice session at the 2019 USA Basketball Men's National Team World Cup camp on Aug. 5, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
LAS VEGAS - Two words and concepts stood out above all others following the first day of training camp as the U.S. men’s basketball team begins its journey to next month’s FIBA World Cup.
Improvement and cohesiveness.
“We did a little bit of everything (today), and we have a long way to go,” U.S. coach Gregg Popovich said Monday at the Mendenhall Center on the UNLV campus. “It’s only the first day. Our goal is to get better every single day and take advantage of every practice and every minute that we are together. There are so many teams (we will play) that have played together so long, and with us not having played together, we have to take advantage of every practice. It’s just a matter of trying to get better every day, and hopefully that will serve us well. The comment about being a cohesive unit is the most important point. We need them to become a team and know how to react in different situations.”
Up and coming Los Angeles Lakers star Kyle Kuzma echoed the coach’s thoughts.
“I just want to improve,” said Kuzma, 24, who has never played for a USA Basketball team. “I am not one to set super crazy goals. I just like to improve every day and see where I land. As a team, the standard that the USA has put out for the longest time is to win and that’s we want to do.”
This week’s training camp in the hot desert marks the formal beginning of the team’s preparations for the World Cup in China. Team USA will practice four days in Las Vegas and then cap the week off with an intra-squad scrimmage Friday at T-Mobile Arena, also in Las Vegas.
Additional weeks of practice and tune-up games will follow over the next month in Los Angeles and then Australia before the team opens the World Cup against the Czech Republic Sept. 1 in Shanghai. The final 12-player U.S. roster will be announced Aug. 17.
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In addition to seeking its third consecutive World Cup title, Team USA is also competing in China for a berth in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The top two teams from the Americas automatically qualify for the Tokyo Games.
Popovich, who has won five NBA titles as San Antonio Spurs head coach, served as an assistant for Team USA under Mike Krzyzewski. Ever since he was named the heir apparent to Krzyzewski in 2016, Popovich has dwelled on the responsibility of continuing a tradition of excellence. Krzyzewski, who also coaches the Duke men’s basketball team, led the U.S. to three Olympic gold medals, two World Cup championships and a 60-1 overall record upon taking over in 2005.
“It’s been on my mind since I got the job in 2016, and it has been on my mind every day about what I want to do and what needs to be done,” Popovich said. “It’s been like thinking about two teams during that time period, but Coach K did that for 12 years, so I think I can do the same.”
Popovich and his staff of Steve Kerr, Jay Wright and Lloyd Pierce will have to mold their plans with an evolving and internationally inexperienced roster. Multiple players withdrew from Team USA prior to this week, including 2017-18 NBA MVP James Harden.
But there is still a strong contingent of players battling for the final 12 spots. Suiting up on Day 1 of the U.S. World Cup training camp were Bam Adebayo, Harrison Barnes, Jaylen Brown, De’Aaron Fox, Joe Harris, Kyle Kuzma, Brook Lopez, Khris Middleton, Donovan Mitchell, Mason Plumlee, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum, P.J. Tucker, Myles Turner, Kemba Walker and Thaddeus Young.
Kyle Lowry, who is coming off an NBA championship with the Toronto Raptors, is sitting out while recovering from thumb surgery and will be evaluated on Friday. Only Lowry and Barnes have Olympic experience.
Popovich shrugged off questions about the roster shuffling.
“All I care about is who is here, and I have a fine group of guys and we are going to try and get them to form the best possible team they can be,” he said.
According to Walker, the on-the-court chemistry should come with time, but coming together as a team off the floor is also key.
“I think the camaraderie is important,” Walker said. “We all compete against each other every night and we don’t get the opportunity to be around each other much like this. So, when we get a chance like this to gain some camaraderie with the guys, I think that is pretty special.”
To end practice on Monday, a team including Adebayo, Tucker, Mitchell, Brown, Harris, Fox, Lopez and Barnes defeated a team including Young, Tatum, Turner, Walker, Kuzma, Smart and Middleton 30-27. Walker cut the lead to 28-27 with an old fashioned three-point play, but then Mitchell made two free throws to extend the lead. The scrimmage ended when Walker narrowly missed a three-pointer off the back of the rim, which would have tied the game.
Popovich then gathered all players at center court for some final words. Cohesiveness and camaraderie forming by the second.
Brian Hurlburt is a writer from Las Vegas. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.