Team USA will officially begin its quest for a third consecutive FIBA Basketball World Cup gold medal when its tournament kicks off on Sept. 1 in China. Before they can do that, however, head coach Gregg Popovich will have to trim his 13-man roster to 12.
This leads to one gigantic question: Who will the final cut be?
Given the makeup of the roster and the level of competition that the rest of the world will throw at the favorites to win the whole thing, we can probably assume a few players are near-locks to make the team: All-Stars Kemba Walker and Khris Middleton, and rising stars like Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Myles Turner, and Donovan Mitchell. Assuming this, seven players are left: Joe Harris, Brook Lopez, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma, Mason Plumlee, Marcus Smart, and Derrick White.
Of that group, Harris and Lopez seem like the safest bets to make the roster because of the shooting they bring to the team. Last season, Harris shot a league-high 47.4 percent from behind the arc on 5.1 attempts per game, while Lopez shot 36.5 percent from 3-point territory on 6.3 attempts per game, the second-most attempts by a center last season. The players that are considered locks in this example can score at will, but none of them are the three-point threats Harris and Lopez are at their respective positions, which is amplified with the shorter three-point line in international play. Lopez will be especially valuable to Team USA in a tournament with few bigs that can space the floor the way he can and even fewer that can defend out on the perimeter.
Then next safe best would be Harrison Barnes, who won a gold medal with Team USA at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. While he’ll be playing under a different head coach, his experience on the international stage should be enough for him to make the roster.
Along with his invaluable international experience, Barnes can switch between the 3 and 4 spots more seamlessly than the other forwards in the pool, like Kuzma and Tatum. In situations where Popovich goes small, Barnes will be helpful, especially if he can knock down the three-pointer with the same accuracy he did last season (39.5 percent on 5.7 attempts per game).
Speaking of Kuzma, the Lakers forward has shot the ball well (6-for-8 from behind the arc) in his first three games with Team USA and has shown signs of life on the defensive end. Add that to his effort on the defensive glass and he makes as strong of a case as anyone to make the final roster. Plus, Team USA isn’t particular deep at the forward spot, so Kuzma could make the roster out of necessity.
With Walker as the only projected player at the position, one of the final two spots should go to a point guard, but there is no clear-cut favorite. When healthy, Smart, who has experience initiating the offense for the Celtics, is one of the most valuable defensive guards in the NBA, but he’s yet to suit up for Team USA because of a calf injury. If he can stay healthy, though, his ability on that end of the floor could hide the defensive limitations possessed by Walker and Harris.
White is also a stellar defensive guard, but he’s hard a time making his mark on the team in the limited minutes he’s seen playing under Popovich, his head coach with the Spurs. While White may be a better fit because of his shooting and experience playing under Popovich, the steady hand of Smart is a safer choice.
That, of course, means the final roster would go to Mason Plumlee, who has been the quintessential “glue guy” for teams since entering the league in 2013 and has carried that same energy to Team USA. He’s also arguably the best defensive center they have to throw at Nikola Jokic, his Denver Nuggets teammate, plus he has some international experience, suiting up for the United States during the 2014 World Cup.
With Plumlee locked into the final spot, here’s what the depth chart looks like:
Guards: Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown, Joe Harris, Marcus Smart
Forwards: Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma
Centers: Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, Mason Plumlee
Is that enough for them to cruise to another gold medal? Maybe not, because there are still question to be answered, like how effectively the team can check opponents like Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo, or what happens if Walker gets in foul trouble and Smart isn’t 100 percent. But all things considered, this is the group that gives them the best chance to win their third consecutive World Cup.