Team USA has been the single most dominant team in all of basketball over the last decade.
In 2008, the “Redeem Team” won Olympic gold. They dominated the FIBA World Championship during 2010. 2012’s team was arguably more talented than the original 1992 Dream Team. By 2014, they claimed back-to-back FIBA World Championship victories. They capped it off with another Olympic gold medal in 2016, their third consecutive.
The 2016 Rio Olympics marked the end of Mike Krzyzewski’s time as head coach. Replacing him is San Antonio Spurs head coach, Gregg Popovich—who has coached at the FIBA / Olympic level previously.
With the FIBA World Championship being rebranded as the FIBA World Cup, and moved from 2018 to 2019, the two-year format of international competition for Team USA was thrown off.
A World Cup schedule that finishes just two weeks before NBA training camp now combines with an offseason that redistributed talent evenly across the NBA. Thus, the big names withdrew from playing this summer. The rest of the world won’t feel bad for us—the United States is still the only team that has a roster full of NBA players—and the expectation stateside remains to win the whole thing.
Team USA is holding a minicamp this week featuring 29 players who are competing to be named to the 12-man squad for the inaugural FIBA World Cup that begins August 31st.
Over time, the Americans have learned (the hard way) that putting together a roster for international competition is more than having the 12 most talented guys. The teams that have done well are structured more like an actual roster with players having defined roles.
So let’s build the best roster that this crop can compile as they hope to stay on top of the rest of the basketball world. Spots will be broken down into guards, wings and bigs, with value placed on versatility, shooting and defense. Names are listed alphabetically, but starters will be listed in oversized text.
De’Aaron Fox received the rare promotion form Select Team to the main roster before training camp. With Damian Lillard, C.J. McCollum, Eric Gordon and James Harden pulling out—and Kyle Lowry recovering from hand surgery—the guards stable was thinning out quickly.
Fox not only provides additional depth but also a player with different skills than the other guards.
Playing in transition is a key component of his game. He is explosive in the open court and is faster when dribbling than some players are running without the ball. In Sacramento, letting Fox loose was critical to the Kings having their best season since 2005-06. This kid looks to be a future star.
Despite a skinny frame, the 6’3” two-year veteran would also be one of the bigger guards on the roster. Spain and Serbia are the main threats to the U.S.—and also the only two teams that have faced off against Team USA in the championship games. Their point guards are both 6’4” or taller.
Fox showed off a much smoother jump shot in his second season. With defenders needing to account for his speed, he could realistically get an open look at will.
Donovan Mitchell is another young player on the rise, and we have seen Team USA catapult talents like him to the next level. Though the third-year guard isn’t as proven as past upstarts, this year’s team needs him just the same.
A true combo guard, he can also make an impact with and without the ball in his hands. Teaming Mitchell with Kemba Walker gives Popovich a versatile backcourt with both players capable of operating from either guard spot.
Outside shooting has been a slight struggle as he’s been inconsistent from NBA range in his two seasons. Yet, with the FIBA three-point line being closer, it could be a chance for Mitchell to emerge as a bigger threat from deep. He is not afraid to attack the rim, and his athleticism makes it so that he either finishes in the paint or draws fouls. Efficient offense will be key for this team, and his attacking style of play can provide that.
All of the five previous USA teams had a designated defensive stopper. Sometimes it was all-stars like Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade or Russell Westbrook. Other times, it was a glue guy like Andre Iguodala. No one better fits that role than Marcus Smart.
A nuisance on defense since he first entered the NBA, this role is not all that different than what the Boston Celtics asks of him. His improvement as a perimeter shooter is a bonus, but he will be much more valuable when Team USA faces off against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece), Evan Fournier (France), Bojan Bogdanovic (Serbia), Alexy Shved (Russia) and other high-scoring perimeter threats.
International basketball tends to be more physical than what players are used to in the NBA. If there’s anyone who would welcome the additional bumps and bruises, it’s Smart. Given the slight underdog status that this group has developed, Smart embodies everything that Popovich wants this team to embrace.
Kemba Walker is one of four Celtics to make this prospective roster, and this point guard will also get his first taste of Team USA action if chosen. His ability to make plays off the dribble or off the ball make him a threat to score whenever he is on the floor, though his main threat is from being the primary initiator off drives, pick-and-pops, pick-and-rolls and just about any play you can draw up.
Although defenses are different in FIBA play, opponents won’t usually have a guard that can stick with Walker one-on-one. Breaking down defenses is a strength that will serve this team over the course of the tournament. His talent will be needed, as he will be the lone member of a 2018-19 All-NBA roster to participate with Team USA this summer.
Jaylen Brown is the player from Boston that I could see not making the team. He isn’t a necessity as much as he’s a luxury. Not everyone is going to get consistent playing time in these settings, and he would round out the end of the bench.
He can do a little bit of everything on the court, bringing athleticism and effort defensively. His talent and skills would be nice to have in a pinch, but given the other players on this roster, he doesn’t have a stand out trait. However, Brown has played a variety of roles in his three seasons with the Celtics, so he should be able to fill any supposed holes this team might have.
The wings should be the deepest position on this roster, and that is why Brown makes my hypothetical cut. “Smallball” might not have taken over the international game just yet, but the Americans don’t follow trends in basketball, they set them. Brown can conceivably fill (and defend) positions 2-5 in this tournament, and that counts for a lot.
Joe Harris was a late addition to this minicamp and was originally believed to be a member of the Select Team. That didn’t last long. By the time Harris arrived in Las Vegas, he was clearly going to have a bigger role with this group.
He led the NBA last year in three-point shooting percentage at 47.4 percent—the next closest player was Danny Green at 45.5. Harris knew where his bread was buttered too as he shot more three-pointers than twos for the Brooklyn Nets last year.
One of the main defensive tactics international teams use against the Americans is zone. With the U.S. having so much speed and athleticism, the hope is to keep them out of the paint and force them to settle for perimeter shots instead. Having the NBA’s best shooter to thwart that philosophy is a nice ace in the hole.
Kyle Kuzma is the NBA version of an inkblot test. What you see in him can say a lot about how you evaluate basketball players. Hordes of opinions have surrounded his first two seasons, but he’s shown that he is valuable in the right situations. It might not seem like it, but this Team USA roster is one of those situations.
Kuzma has played the four since college, and while he isn’t necessarily the bruiser that he’ll be matched against in the World Cup, his ability to space the floor and create mismatches on the perimeter should be something the Americans utilize.
“Olympic Melo” was born because Carmelo Anthony had a field day in international play when slotted as the power forward. Like Anthony, Kuzma has a solid outside shot and is too fast for traditional bigs while also being too strong for smaller defenders.
Is Kuzma one of the five best players in training camp? No, but when trying to field a complete team there aren’t many other players who bring the package he does. (Thaddeus Young is the only player on the main roster that has a similar game.) Going younger overall isn’t a bad idea. Kuzma and his peers are the next bunch to lead USA Basketball, so putting them on the World Cup roster lets them get their feet wet early.
Khris Middleton is coming off a career year with the Milwaukee Bucks. He was named to his first All-Star team and was rewarded this offseason with a five-year max contract. Needless to say, the forward is heading into Team USA on a high. While he wasn’t the Bucks’ star, he was a perfect number wingman for reigning MVP Antetokounmpo.
More will be needed from Middleton in this setting, but his baseline abilities as a shooter, passer and defender elevate his status. Playing alongside guards who are capable of creating their own shot will be a major plus, as he is very dangerous in catch-and-shoot scenarios when he spots up away from the ball.
Defensively is where he could pay the biggest dividends, however. Having Smart defend one through four is huge, but Middleton is a taller and longer option to throw at opposing players. The more bodies you can rotate at a great player the better. Middleton is easily the best defender among the projected starters, so he’ll need to set the tone on that end early.
Jayson Tatum could end up being the best player on this roster when all is said and done. As a rookie, he came in and made an immediate impact. The confidence of a veteran and a well-rounded game allowed him to go toe-to-toe with LeBron James in Game 7 of the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals. He possesses all of the abilities to one day be a superstar.
His progression during his second season took a hit as he attempted to overcorrect his weaknesses, and he ended up performing less efficiently on the offensive end. With the amount of wings on this roster, he’s the one that will have the clearest role: score the ball.
Much like Wade in 2008, Tatum will need to be a spark for this team off the bench. If he buys in, then the World Cup could serve as a classic launching point to a breakthrough third year.
This team will be structured very similarly to the Celtics team Tatum helped lead to the conference finals: There’s no clear-cut star above him on the pecking order. A repeat performance of his rookie season is all this team will need to emerge victorious at the end of the tournament.
When video came out of the first scrimmage between Team USA and the Select Team, PJ Tucker was one of the starters for coach Popovich. While he has the strength and game to run with the starters, I feel that his best fit in this group is as more of a utility player—not exactly a break-in-case-of-emergency option but someone who can be inserted if there’s foul trouble or to force an opponent to play smaller.
Tucker plays predominantly power forward for the Houston Rockets. In rare cases, Mike D’ Antoni opts to use him at the center spot. With the build of a fire hydrant and the tenacity of a bulldog, Tucker is one player that opponents hate playing against and teammates love having. Most, if not all, of the teams the Americans will face have a player just like Tucker, so fight fire with fire.
His ability to stretch the floor (particularly from the corners) is also a very useful skill. Add in his defensive and rebounding abilities, and it’s hard to find a reason why he would be left off the final roster.
The transformation of Brook Lopez has been unbelievable. Formerly a back-to-the-basket big who didn’t stray too far away from the paint, he is now a knockdown three-point shooter coming off a season in which he set the record for three-pointers attempted by a player seven feet or taller.
His role wouldn’t really change much for Team USA. They would still rely on Lopez to stretch the floor on offense and protect the rim on defense. The bonus would be that many teams don’t have a center who can step away from the rim and defend. Against zones, Lopez could spot up from the perimeter or wreak havoc from the high post.
In the past, it was the opposing teams that had the shooting big men, now team USA could enter the World Cup with the best one in basketball.
Like a lot of the other names on this list, Myles Turner is an up-and-coming talent searching for his break. The depleted roster is an opportunity for him to make a name for himself on a big stage.
He brings the template of what everyone is searching for in the modern big man: He can protect the rim and also defend the perimeter on switches. He has the ability to shoot three-pointers and is also a lob threat out of the pick-and-roll. If the team is going light on big, then Turner especially becomes a must-have.
Having just two true centers isn’t a risk that Team USA has liked to take very often. Potential foul trouble could end up being the Achilles heel, especially as FIBA referees are a little quicker with their whistles compared to their NBA counterparts. But that’s where Tucker, Kuzma and even Brown provide some changeup insurance.
In Turner and Lopez, the Americans will have two solid options at all times but also a pairing that could potentially play together as well when asked to.