(L-R) USA Basketball and Boston Celtics teammates Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker pose together at the 2019 USA Basketball Men's National Team World Cup minicamp on Aug. 6, 2019 in Las Vegas.
LAS VEGAS -- To the outside world, it may appear that the U.S. men’s basketball team heads into the upcoming FIBA World Cup vulnerable because the roster will include limited international experience and only a handful of NBA All-Stars in a group highlighted by players such as Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton.
On paper, those facts may be true, but Team USA still goes into China ranked No. 1 in the world and as the prohibitive favorite to win the World Cup for the third straight time. The lack of some of the NBA’s top talent only means there is a “golden” opportunity for the talented, younger group.
“Everyone wants to make the team and everyone has a chance,” said Jayson Tatum, a 21-year-old small forward who plays for the Boston Celtics. “There is not a lot of, per se, superstars, but we have a lot of talented guys trying to prove themselves.”
Following a blue-white scrimmage at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Aug. 9, the list of potential players has been downsized to 15. The final 12 will be determined Saturday, following an exhibition the night before against Spain, the world’s second-ranked team, in Anaheim, California.
Tatum joins Walker, 29; Marcus Smart, 25; and Jaylen Brown, 22, as four players from the Celtics still with an opportunity to make the final team.
The other finalists include 2016 Olympic gold medalist Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings); De’Aaron Fox (Sacramento Kings); Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets); Kyle Kuzma (Los Angeles Lakers); Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks); Middleton (Bucks); Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz); Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets); P.J. Tucker (Houston Rockets); Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers); and Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs).
The final 15 includes players who moved from the USA Select Team that was impressive in Las Vegas and coached by Jeff Van Gundy. Fox, 21, moved from the Select Team prior to day one, and tallied 12 points in the scrimmage for the blue team, which won 97-78. Walker (blue) led all scorers with 17, and Tatum (blue) added 14.
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Even prior to the addition of the younger select players, the U.S. team was without a lot of proven international players. Barnes is the lone holdover from the 2016 Olympic team after Kyle Lowry withdrew due to injury, and Plumlee is the only player remaining from the 2014 World Cup team.
Entering the World Cup without much Olympic or international experience isn’t a new situation for the U.S. men’s program. The 2014 team included only two players with Olympic experience (James Harden and Anthony Davis), and the 2010 team had zero players who had played in the Olympics. Both teams were successful in earning the gold medal — and went on to produce several players who would become NBA and Olympic superstars.
Team USA managing director Jerry Colangelo isn’t buying into the outside noise that his team is ripe for an upset.
“I’ve said that we’re going to be fine, and by that what I really meant is that we’re blessed with a lot of depth in USA Basketball,” Colangelo said during the Las Vegas training camp. “All of the players here want to be here, there’s no question about it. And that’s a big part of the battle itself."
“And so, when you look at the enthusiasm, the youth, the athleticism and versatility, that’ll really work well for us because our depth will be a factor. These are not ‘C’ players. You’ve heard a lot of criticism about who isn’t here, and I keep repeating that it’s about who is here. There’s some really good talent and it’s going to be difficult getting to a 12-man roster when you really think about it. So, every day is important to these players.”
Colangelo also reminisced about how the current situation resembles teams in prior years.
“If you look at the history of USA Basketball, in ’08 we had 12 players when we won the gold medal in China and in ’10 we had 12 different players, and four of those young players — (Kevin) Durant, (Derrick) Rose, (Russell) Westbrook and (Stephen) Curry — all went on to be MVPs, but they were 21-, 22-year-old guys at the time,” said Colangelo. “So, some of the young players here are in that same boat. They have the opportunity to showcase … Donovan Mitchell, Kuzma, Fox, whoever they may be, it’s kind of exciting.”
The 32-team 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup competition will be held Aug. 31 through Sept. 15 in China. The U.S., two-time defending World Cup champion and FIBA’s No. 1-ranked team, was drawn into Group E and will play its first-round games in Shanghai. The U.S. will play Czech Republic on Sept. 1, Turkey on Sept. 3 and Japan on Sept. 5.
Should the favorites advance, the U.S. could face a potential showdown with Group F winner Greece, which is led by reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, in the semifinals on Sept. 13.
Kuzma, 24, said the relative uncertainty of the final roster and depth of talent has made training camp challenging.
“It’s going to be competitive regardless; we’re a competitive group,” Kuzma said. “We have a lot of great players, a lot of young players that really want it and get after it. So, it’s super competitive for sure.”
Brian Hurlburt is a writer from Las Vegas. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.