This USA Basketball Team Will Be Awesome, Actually

Many American stars aren't playing in this year's FIBA World Cup. Here's why that doesn't matter.

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A World Cup for basketball—what a novel idea. And something that you would think Americans, fans of both the FIFA World Cup and basketball, would love. But since NBA players were first allowed to participate in 1994, the FIBA World Cup hasn’t really caught fire in the United States. And if you were to ask the casual basketball fan why not, they would likely tell you it’s because the U.S. team is too stacked or that they don’t want to watch international teams with no-name players.

I have good news for those casual fans: The 2019 USA FIBA roster only has two all-stars (assuming neither Kemba Walker nor Khris Middleton drops out before the final cut) and the two best players, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic hail from Greece and Serbia, respectively.

In years past, Team USA has been spoiled with talent, frequently playing four players together who earned their spots by scoring 25 points per game at volume but lack other critical, team-optimizing skills. At its best, Team USA had a run-and-gun style offense that struggles in the half-court, and at its worst, stumbled through games with a collection of inefficient shooters that take quick shots and are unable to get critical stops.

During past FIBA tournaments, it even felt natural to have resentment toward Team USA. So much talent on paper, but a team that found itself frequently tied or losing to teams with three or fewer NBA players. But this year’s crew of previously looked-over number twos or threes, or even fourth, fifth and sixth options is much more likable. The roster is composed of a balance of all-around scorers complemented with lengthy shooters, and scrappy defenders whose invitations only came after the first batch of players rejected theirs. It’s an anomaly among past Team USA rosters, but the 2019 team could be described as having a chip on their shoulder.

Instead of forcing Russell Westbrook to be the third option like in 2010— something completely unnatural to him—the third options on the 2019 team will feel more comfortable in that role. Jaylen Brown, Kyle Kuzma, Joe Harris, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes and Marcus Smart all have recent NBA experience in crowded lineups. Their shot selection must be discerning and they have to add value in other ways besides scoring. In fact, the only two players on the roster that are go-to scoring options for their NBA teams are Donovan Mitchell and Walker.

Which, by the way, is likely exactly how coach Gregg Popovich wants it to be. Throw a couple commanding alpha scorers like James Harden on the roster and the offense will veer away from a flowing pass-and-cut style toward a Mike D’Antoni isolation offense. The lack of ego in addition to youth will allow for Popovich to steer the ship, something we haven’t seen at the FIBA level.

Still though, there are opportunities for some of the younger players to break out. 

It can be tricky to compare NBA players as opponents because their respective team dynamic provides so many variables. But the easiest way to determine the best player in a group is to put them all on the same team.

In 2010, a 21-year-old Kevin Durant was the team’s leading scorer through five preliminary games, then averaged 33.3 PPG in the final three games on 59 percent shooting including seven threes in the gold medal game. Durant was named NBA MVP four years later and refers to the 2010 FIBA World Cup as a defining moment. Derrick Rose went from first-time all-star in 2010 to MVP in 2011 after playing in the same FIBA tournament in-between seasons.

This year’s team has five players under 25: Jaylen Brown, Kyle Kuzma, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Myles Turner—any of them could take advantage of the tournament and his new role in comparison to their day job to jumpstart their upcoming season.

And these young players—particularly Mitchell and Tatum—will optimistically be in the same position as the current ring of NBA elite that passed on the Team USA offer: LeBron James, Steph Curry, Durant, Kyrie Irving, Harden, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Paul George. All of those players have teamed up with one another in the NBA after first kindling a relationship on Team USA.

But previously, teaming up with another all-star was both much more taboo for players and also not mainstream enough to be covered by the media. James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had secret hotel meetings to make plans in Miami, and Curry and Durant, Durant and Irving and George and Leonard all flew under the radar. As Mitchell and Tatum develop chemistry on the court, the question, "Could you ever see yourself teaming up with the other?" is inevitable.

And with the updated landscape of the NBA, a new dynasty is sure to emerge. The core of which might form this summer in China.

Related: Summering in San Clemente with the NBA's Next Superstar

Related: Richard Jefferson Knows His Audience

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