LAS VEGAS – The last time USA Basketball ventured overseas to compete in the FIBA World Cup, in 2014, Coach Mike Krzyzewski had an embarrassment of riches at his disposal. Virtually the entire roster was composed of former lottery picks, including No. 1 overall selections Kyrie Irving, Anthony Davis and Derrick Rose. Coach K trotted out two future MVPs – Stephen Curry and James Harden – and future all-stars at all five positions. That group thrashed the competition in Spain, going 9-0 and winning by an average of 33 points.
The state of USAB is quite different with the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China approaching: Gregg Popovich has replaced Krzyzewski, and a long list of stars has elected to sit out following a busy summer free agency period and with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon. For the first time in more than a decade, a major international basketball tournament will be held in which the marquee talents – Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Serbia’s Nikola Jokic – are not Americans.
While USAB is working through a coaching change and stuck fielding a B-team, it remains the heavy favorite to win gold. Its chief advantage will be its depth: Popovich’s roster might not include the World Cup’s top individual talents, but he will still have a dozen proven NBA players, including multiple budding stars.
With USAB set to open training camp here on Monday, let’s look at an early 12-man roster projection.
Note: Popovich’s final picks will be made before USAB heads on an overseas tour later this month.
– Point guards: Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, De’Aaron Fox
Walker, who has spent most of his career toiling for the lowly Charlotte Hornets, is quickly shedding his rep as a forgotten man. After a splashy move to the Boston Celtics last month, the 29-year-old all-star pencils in as USAB’s lead scoring playmaker. Throughout the past decade, USAB has utilized high-level shooters at the point guard spot to maximize space in the half court. Walker should naturally carry on that tradition.
Lowry won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but his status is in question due to recent surgery on his thumb. If he withdraws, Popovich could carry both Fox, an electric speed demon who will open camp on USA’s younger “Select team,” and Marcus Smart, a hard-nosed defensive specialist. If Lowry heals, Popovich will face a tougher choice.
– Shooting guards: Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown
USAB Managing Director Jerry Colangelo is hoping for breakthroughs from multiple rising stars, and Mitchell and Brown are both good candidates to deliver. Mitchell has lots of reps serving as a lead offensive option in Utah, including during two playoff runs, while Brown is exactly the type of two-way, multi-positional athlete that has long thrived in USAB’s system.
– Small forwards: Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum
Middleton, long one of the NBA’s most underrated players, is on a stellar run: He made his first all-star team in February, he played in his first conference finals in May, he earned his first max contract in July, and he could claim his first gold medal in September. Best deployed as a secondary scorer, his three-point range and plus defense should earn him plenty of minutes.
Tatum might be the most fascinating player to watch in China. Debates over his style of play on offense have raged in recent months, with critics hoping to see quicker decisions and more aggressive drives to the hoop rather than ball-pounding and contested long twos. Against FIBA competition, he should have the space, the opportunity and the talent to counter the nitpicking.
– Power forwards: P.J. Tucker, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma
The power forward spot might be the toughest to nail down: Kuzma is arguably the biggest name, Barnes has USAB equity because he won gold at the 2016 Olympics, Tucker is a quintessential glue guy, and Thaddeus Young is a savvy, skilled vet who could also log minutes as an undersized center.
USAB has long had an affinity for unselfish vets such as Tayshaun Prince and Andre Iguodala, and Tucker is the obvious candidate to follow in their footsteps this year. The Houston Rockets forward is fully content to forsake his own offense in favor of rebounding, defending multiple positions and playing with constant energy.
Although Barnes continues to work his way through an unspectacular career, it would be surprising if USAB cut him after including him on the Rio roster. His spot-up 3-point shooting and defensive versatility make him a decent fit with the rest of this group on paper.
Kuzma’s ability to create a shot and score in bunches set him apart from USAB’s other frontcourt options.
– Centers: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez
Turner, a high-level shot-blocker with good mobility, has a real chance to enhance his reputation with a strong tournament. The 23-year-old Indiana Pacers center began to gain some attention last year, when he finished fifth in defensive player of the year voting, but he’s just getting started.
The lumbering Lopez will need to prove that he’s a stylistic fit with USAB, which has tended to blitz opponents off the court with pace and pressure. His sheer size and interior defense could be helpful against the likes of Jokic and Rudy Gobert, though, and his shooting would allow USAB to play deadly lineups sporting outside threats at all five positions.
Given its need to defend traditional centers, it’s possible that USAB elects to bring a third center such as Denver’s Mason Plumlee. Remember: international rules only allow for five fouls, rather than the NBA’s limit of six.