Celtics could play leading roles in Team USA’s defense of World Cup title

Celtics guard Kemba Walker (left) is a veteran leader for coach Gregg Popovich’s United States basketball team. –MARCIO JOSE SANCHEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The quest for a gold medal begins Sunday in Shanghai for the two-time defending FIBA World Cup champion USA Basketball.

The competition will be fiercer than in years past, given the large contingent of US players opting to withdraw from participation. All-Stars Bradley Beal, Anthony Davis, James Harden, and Damien Lillard highlight the list of those who backed out prior to the start of training camp, but managing director Jerry Colangelo has stressed any perceived decline in talent is not a concern.

“These are not ‘C’ players,’’ Colangelo said on the first day of practice. “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.’’

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Celtics point guard Kemba Walker, the only player on the final 12-man roster to earn All-NBA honors last season, has reiterated he never wavered from his commitment. The 29-year-old expressed excitement about the opportunity to represent the US, which could become the first nation ever to win three straight FIBA World Cup titles.

“It means the world to me,’’ Walker said. “We know a lot of the big-name guys pulled out, but it’s given the younger guys a chance to showcase what they have. We’re all so excited to be here. This is something we all grew up watching and we all grew up wanting to be a part of.’’

Walker will be joined on the court by new Celtic teammates Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum. Harrison Barnes (Sacramento Kings), Joe Harris (Brooklyn Nets), Brook Lopez (Milwaukee Bucks), Khris Middleton (Milwaukee Bucks), Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz), Mason Plumlee (Denver Nuggets), Myles Turner (Indiana Pacers), and Derrick White (San Antonio Spurs) round out the rest of Team USA.

Here’s what to know as games get underway.

Celtics to watch

■ Brown: Leading up to the tournament, Brown has voiced an interest in being more aggressive when attacking the rim. The 22-year-old seems to have made good on his intention, demonstrating an improvement in playing through contact and creating space around the hoop. In Team USA’s exhibition win over Canada on Monday, Brown finished with a team-high 19 points on 8-for-11 shooting in 19 minutes off the bench. Through four exhibition games, his field-goal percentage is an impressive 71.4 and his individual net rating is plus-24.6. Set to hit free agency next summer, Brown is kicking off his contract year with a promising bang.

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■ Smart: Dealing with calf tightness, Smart was sidelined for the majority of training camp practices as well as the first two exhibition games. He returned to action against Australia on Saturday and logged nine minutes in the losing effort. Through two games, Smart’s scoring has been classically underwhelming — two field goals (one of which was a three) and two free throws for seven points — but the 25-year-old has nevertheless displayed the beauty of his game. Against Canada, he dished a nifty no-look bounce pass to Brown and also dove for a steal after helping poke the ball away. As Smart gets more acclimated, the hope is that he can balance distributing and creating his own offense, especially if fellow ball-handlers Walker and/or Mitchell are on the bench.

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“I can go out there and try and score 30, but for me, it’s about doing whatever the team needs,’’ Smart said. “I think that’s a bigger role than being a prominent scorer because not a lot of guys are willing to sacrifice their individual stats for the team.’’

■ Tatum: Tatum was responsible for one of Team USA’s more viral highlights, breaking out a windmill dunk against Canada. His training camp got off to a strong start, as he scored 17 points on 6-for-8 shooting in an intrasquad scrimmage. Out of the four Celtics, however, he seems to be struggling a bit to find his shot in exhibition play. Through four games, Tatum is shooting a team-worst 31.4 percent (11 for 35) from the field and averaging 8.3 points.

■ Walker: One of the de facto captains, Walker has recorded the most playing time out of any player. As a primary ball-handler, he has been central to Team USA’s offense, averaging a team-high 17 points on 46.9 percent shooting. Walker has also reached the free-throw line a team-high 19 times and dished out a team-high 13 assists, while showing off his craftiness and quickness. In addition to putting up notable numbers, Walker said he’s “trying to be as positive as possible.’’

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“I am trying to bring the energy, bring the enthusiasm and excitement,’’ he said. “I am one of the older guys on the team — I am not trying to overdo the leadership thing — but if anyone asks me for some type of advice or voice my opinion, I will.’’

The time with Team USA has also been an opportunity for Walker to become more comfortable with his new Celtics teammates. The shared experiences — meals, team flights and bus rides — can help facilitate a smooth transition once the season starts, he said.

“I’m all about the togetherness,’’ Walker said. “I’ve always felt that your off-the-court relationships translate on the court. I’ve always felt that way; I’ve always been big on that.’’

■ Others: New Celtics center Vincent Poirier is a member of France’s national team, while center Daniel Theis is a member of Germany’s national team. Ex-Celtics center Aron Baynes, who was traded to the Phoenix Suns this offseason, is a part of Australia’s national team.

Team USA’s schedule (All times local)

■ Group stage: Sunday, Sept. 1 vs. Czech Republic (8:30 a.m)

Tuesday, Sept. 3 vs. Turkey (8:30 a.m.)

Thursday, Sept. 5 vs. Japan (8:30 a.m.)

■ Second round: Sept. 6-9

■ Quarterfinals: Sept. 10-11

■ Semifinals: Sept. 13

■ Bronze-medal game: Sept. 14

■ Gold-medal game: Sept. 15

How to watch

All games will be streamed on ESPN+.

The competition

Team USA’s biggest threat is likely Serbia, whom they faced in the gold-medal match of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Not only does Serbia’s roster include center Nikola Jokic — the tournament’s second-best player behind only Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo — it also boasts six players listed as 6-foot-10 or taller. That size could present a problem.

Coach Aleksandar Djordjevic seems to think so, saying in a nationally-televised interview, “If we meet, may God help them.’’

France, with five NBA players; Greece, with Antetokounmpo; and Spain, with its experience, are other potential options to upset the US.