ANAHEIM, Calif. — Gregg Popovich called it the “right thing” to do, traveling the remaining 14 players on the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team’s roster to Australia for the next phase of the team’s global exhibition tour leading up to the 2019 FIBA World Cup in China.
- (Update: De'Aaron Fox withdrew Saturday morning, leaving 13 finalists bound for Australia)
It’s also the prudent move for Popovich, the new coach of the team in his first competition at the helm of the program, who also happens to be working with a relatively inexperienced group that is tasked with upholding the gold medal standard of the program without its biggest superstars participating.
It’s reasonable to assume that Popovich and his coaching staff and the USA Basketball brass need every minute they can muster to separate the final two members of the group from the back to carve out the most cohesive group they can for the competition.
Because, as USA Basketball Managing Director Jerry Colangelo said earlier in the week as the team worked through its second straight week of training camp in Los Angeles, “there isn’t much difference between a lot of guys.”
Colangelo wasn’t taking a dig at the assembled talent. He was giving an accurate description of a bunch that lacks the overall superstar power that previous World Cup and Olympic teams possessed, but is still tasked with bringing home gold or else.
So instead of two players being cut from the roster after Friday night’s 90-81 exhibition win over Spain, Popovich said the entire group will move onto the games Down Under next week, which gives the new staff a little extra time to evaluate and the players more time to make their own cases for inclusion.
“It was a good chance to jump in the fray and see what this is all about for us,” Popovich said. “It was like a baptism for us with a new group, players, coaches and all that stuff, a real experience.”
Judging by the energy exhibited Friday night, it’s obvious this is an experience none of the players still working want to miss out on.
“It’s going to be tough,” Donovan Mitchell said after leading the U.S. with 13 points in the win. “We have guys who have become very close in these two weeks [of training camp] and that’s a testament to Coach Pop and Mr. Colangelo for picking guys who were really willing to do this for one another and then on top of that, being ready and willing to compete.”
Khris Middleton is glad to see the entire group heading to the next phase.
“It just means guys are doing their jobs and we’re making it as tough as it can be,” he said. “And it’s been that way all camp, guys are doing whatever it takes and giving their bodies. And that’s a huge thing for everybody.”
It’s also a healthy “problem” the competition would love to have.
Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo acknowledged after Friday night’s game that this U.S. team remains the standard bearer for the rest of the world and is the measuring stick, physically, athletically and otherwise, for the entire field in China.
“Of course, they are the best team in the competition and the best team in the world,” Scariolo said, “but I think we competed. We did a pretty good job. And we have some things to build off of.”
Popovich is looking for some of the same things but doesn’t have the years of data and previous results of his group working together at his disposal, not when the roster changes shape as much as the U.S. Team’s has this summer.
The defections from big-name players started rolling in early and has continued right through the two weeks of camp. Toss in injuries, like the ankle issues that forced P.J. Tucker, the oldest and most experienced player in camp, to be ruled out for China before Friday’s game, and it’s no wonder Popovich is opting for more time to study his options.
What the U.S. team lacks in chemistry and familiarity with one another it makes up for with elite-level talent and quality depth, to go along with superior athleticism and in some case, individual breathtaking abilities.
Popovich praised the Spaniards' “astounding” array of offensive sets, no doubt the product of familiarity, but also praised his own team’s collective rebounding effort and defensive intensity as two of the main reasons they were able to survive after piling up a mind-boggling 27 turnovers.
“The way they execute, the way they read each other,” Popovich said, “we hope to get to something like that offensively. It’s going to be difficult in this short time. But it was a great example for us to see that. I was most pleased with us defensively. I thought we did a good job for a new group, communicating with each other and we rebounded well. And we haven’t done that to date consistently. And I thought we had good effort from everybody on the boards tonight.”
The key word, of course being “everybody,” which is how the U.S. team will proceed until further notice.
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