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The state of the program is quite different with the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China approaching: Gregg Popovich has replaced Krzyzewski, and many stars have elected to sit out following a busy summer free agency period and with the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the horizon. For the first time in more than a decade, a major international basketball tournament will be held in which the marquee talents — Greece’s Giannis Antetokounmpo and Serbia’s Nikola Jokic — are not American.
While USA Basketball is working through a coaching change and stuck fielding a B team, it remains the heavy favorite to win gold. Its chief advantage will be its depth: Popovich’s roster might not include the World Cup’s top individual talents, but he will still have a dozen proven NBA players, including multiple budding stars.
With USAB set to open training camp here Monday, let’s look at an early 12-man roster projection.
Note: Popovich’s final picks will be made before USA Basketball heads on an overseas tour later this month.
Point guards: Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, De’Aaron Fox
Walker, who has spent most of his career toiling for the lowly Charlotte Hornets, is quickly shedding his reputation as a forgotten man. After a splashy move to the Boston Celtics last month, the 29-year-old all-star pencils in as the Americans’ lead scoring playmaker. Throughout the past decade, USA Basketball has utilized high-level shooters at the point guard spot to maximize space in the half court. Walker should naturally carry on that tradition.
Lowry won gold at the 2016 Rio Olympics, but his status is in question after recent surgery on his thumb. If Lowry withdraws, Popovich could carry both Fox, an electric speed demon, and Marcus Smart, a hard-nosed defensive specialist. If Lowry heals, Popovich will face a tougher choice.
Shooting guards: Donovan Mitchell, Jaylen Brown
USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo is hoping for breakthroughs from multiple rising stars, and Mitchell and Brown are good candidates to deliver. Mitchell has lots of reps serving as a lead offensive option in Utah, including during two playoff runs, while Brown is exactly the type of two-way, multi-positional athlete who has long thrived in USA Basketball’s system.
Small forwards: Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum
Middleton, long one of the NBA’s most underrated players, is on a stellar run: He made his first all-star team in February, he played in his first conference finals in May, he earned his first max contract in July, and he could claim his first gold medal in September. Best deployed as a secondary scorer, his three-point range and plus defense should earn him plenty of minutes.
Tatum might be the most fascinating player to watch in China. Debates over his style on offense have raged in recent months, with critics hoping to see quicker decisions and more aggressive drives to the hoop rather than ball-pounding and contested long twos. Against FIBA competition, he should have the space, the opportunity and the talent to counter the nitpicking.
Power forwards: P.J. Tucker, Harrison Barnes, Kyle Kuzma
The power forward spot might be the toughest to nail down: Kuzma is arguably the biggest name, Barnes has USA Basketball equity because he won gold at the 2016 Olympics, Tucker is a quintessential glue guy, and Thaddeus Young is a savvy, skilled vet who could also log minutes as an undersized center.
USA Basketball has long had an affinity for unselfish vets such as Tayshaun Prince and Andre Iguodala, and Tucker is the obvious candidate to follow in their footsteps this year. The Houston Rockets forward is fully content to forsake his own offense in favor of rebounding, defending multiple positions and playing with constant energy.
Although Barnes continues to work his way through an unspectacular career, it would be surprising if USA Basketball cut him after including him on the Rio roster. On paper, his spot-up three-point shooting and defensive versatility make him a decent fit with the rest of this group.
Kuzma’s ability to create a shot and score in bunches set him apart from USA Basketball’s other frontcourt options.
Centers: Myles Turner, Brook Lopez
Turner, a high-level shot-blocker with good mobility, has a real chance to enhance his reputation with a strong tournament. The 23-year-old Indiana Pacers center began to gain some attention last season, when he finished fifth in defensive player of the year voting, but he’s just getting started.
The lumbering Lopez will need to prove he’s a stylistic fit with USA Basketball, which has tended to run opponents off the court with pace and pressure. His sheer size and interior defense could be helpful against the likes of Jokic and Rudy Gobert, though, and his shooting would allow USA Basketball to play deadly lineups sporting outside threats at all five positions.
Given its need to defend traditional centers, it’s possible that USA Basketball elects to bring a third center, such as Denver’s Mason Plumlee. Remember: International rules only allow for five fouls, rather than the NBA’s limit of six.