It’s not been a great summer for USA Basketball, as the vast majority of the players the organization has invited to be part of its training camp roster ahead of the upcoming FIBA World Cup in China have said no.
Most every top level star has declined, with Khris Middleton, Kyle Lowry, and Kemba Walker as the lone All-Stars from a year ago to say yes. More recently, we saw withdrawals from Montrezl Harrell and Andre Drummond, furthering the thin nature of the roster. It’s clear that most veteran players around the NBA don’t see the FIBA World Cup as an important enough competition in terms of what it means to their legacy to risk possible injury or fatigue heading into the NBA season, especially with how wide open the league appears.
The good news for USA Basketball is that no national team has a deeper player pool from which to choose, and as such, it can still draw starting-caliber NBA players and rising stars to fill out the roster. There are, essentially, three schools of thought with how Team USA should proceed with building the World Cup roster. The first, and the one they seem set on doing, is to bring in solid veterans to build the roster around a small core of young rising stars.
As of now, the roster features Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Myles Turner, Jaylen Brown, Kyle Kuzma, Bam Adebayo, and Julius Randle as the top players under 25, with a somewhat surprising group of veterans, like Marcus Smart, Mason Plumlee, P.J. Tucker, and Thaddeus Young, filling in the rest of the spots. There’s something to be said for rewarding quality veterans with a chance to represent their country in a big international competition, and, as such, nothing wrong with the roster construction.
The second way to build out the roster would make the quest for a gold medal more difficult, but would also be way more fun. Keep that young core in place, but rather than filling the roster with tons of vets around them, double down on sending young guys that will be Team USA’s future. The Select Team, which practices and scrimmages against the main roster during training camp in Las Vegas, is filled with exciting young players, many of whom are likely to make it onto the main roster at some point. Trae Young, De’Aaron Fox, Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr., John Collins, Jarrett Allen, Mikal Bridges, and others could be added to the main squad and given an even greater experience than that of training camp.
The goal of the Select squad is to give the young players a taste of what it’s like to be on the main roster by letting them see it up close and personal in camp, preparing for a potential call up down the line. However, in a year where the best players are saying no, there’s an easy opening for USA Basketball to use the World Cup (now and into the future) as the developing ground for their young stars. Sending a team with the young core already on the roster and the top players from the Select Team would be a wildly entertaining group and would immediately begin building some chemistry with the young stars of the league who are likely to take over USA hoops in the relatively near future.
This isn’t a revolutionary idea — in men’s soccer, for example, one major tournament is viewed as the pinnacle of the sport (the World Cup), while another requires you to bring a team of U-23 players and up to three players who are above that age group (the Olympics). USA Basketball could use this to do the same, just with the events flipped, and it would be a wildly entertaining team to watch, even if the result wasn’t necessarily a guaranteed gold.
I mentioned a third option, which is to send the team that qualified for the World Cup to the World Cup and let them finish what they started. That group, filled with non-NBA guys, getting to reap the rewards of their hard work would also be pretty cool, even if this would be the most difficult path for the United States to medal this summer.
Whatever the case, it’s time for USA Basketball to reassess the goals for the World Cup in terms of roster-building, and recognize a trend that’s only going to build. Take the young guys and let them loose on a competition to gain experience while simultaneously being the favorites to win the whole thing.