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Even as old guard ages, Team USA set for future

The establishment of a deep player pool has allowed USA Basketball to sustain success rather than slap rosters together piecemeal as in the past

LAS VEGAS — Jerry Colangelo stopped worrying about the pipeline years ago.

The talent was always undeniable, it was the system that needed an overhaul.

The human resources needed to stock USA Basketball’s roster would certainly be the richest of any country on the planet, so long as the game continued to replenish itself the way it always has domestically.

Absent now from the equation is the worry about binding commitments and buy-in from the game’s best players. The trickle down effect from years of domination on the international stage — five straight major championships under former coach Mike Krzyzewski, a run that included 76 straight wins (53 official FIBA competitions and 23 exhibition games) — solidified Team USA as never before.

It was a process bolstered by the emergence of a resurgent player pool that coincided with the rise of a so-called “Golden Generation,” headed by Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chris Paul and so many more of the game’s biggest NBA stars.

That’s why Colangelo, the Managing Director of the program since 2005, beamed with pride at what he saw on the court at UNLV’s Mendenhall Center over the course of National Team’s two-day minicamp.

The initial vision for the program feeding itself played out at one basket where decorated veterans Kevin Durant and Paul George were engaged in an intense one-on-one battles with All-Star Victor Oladipo and rising stars Devin Booker and Myles Turner, the two youngest members of the 35-man roster in attendance.

It was an exhausting display by all involved, a tournament of sorts that kept everyone in the gym hanging around long after new coach Gregg Popovich had dismissed them for the day.

“It’s a blessing and an honor to be in the midst of this,” said Booker, the youngster player here at 21. “Not only learning from all of the players, but the coaches, too. These are the legends of the game. And to have an opportunity to play against these guys, to work with them and have them giving you pointers, to learn from the best of the best in an environment like this, it’s an absolute blessing for me. And I’m just trying to get better and better with every experience.”

Colangelo has seen the cycle play out time and again since rolling up his sleeves and going about the business of resurrecting the program after a string of embarrassing setbacks in the early 2000s.

“Each one, teach one” was the mantra, younger stars learning from the standard set by the veterans.

“The beauty of it is that so many of the guys here came up through our current system,” Colangelo said. “It’s a great pipeline. It gives the young guys the hope and anticipation that they can one day make the big team. So it’s a good structure to work within for all of us.”

Absent from this summer’s minicamp was the select team, a group of up-and-coming stars that worked out on their own during camp while also being used as a scrimmage opponent for the veteran crew. But Colangelo guaranteed the select team would make an appearance next summer in advance of the World Cup of Basketball in China.

That team, even with all of the superstar talent that will be available, will be vetted the same way teams have been in the recent past.

So what if it’s unclear exactly who will join Booker and Turner in that next generation? Colangelo has no interest in tinkering too much with a system and process that has worked so well.

Also absent from the process these days is the iron-clad commitments Colangelo demanded from players more than a decade ago; 23 of the members of the team were in attendance and participated in the drills and workouts while some of the biggest stars — LeBron James, Stephen Curry, Anthony Davis and others — were allowed some leeway.

“We had to start somewhere,” Colangelo said. “And I needed those commitments when we launched. Once we got those commitments, it was important for us to show them that it was going to be special and the experience was going to be phenomenal. And very quickly it became a situation where guys wanted to be here. But yeah, that’s exactly what the goal was. Put infrastructure in, make it operate like a machine and right now it’s going pretty well.”

James Harden, the reigning Kia MVP and already a two-time gold medalist (London Olympics in 2012 and World Cup in 2014), is the embodiment of the program. From stints with the select team to his ascension as a key reserve in London to serving as one of the captains in Spain in 2014 to his continued rise as the leader of a Houston Rockets team earned the NBA’s best record last season and finished its season in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals, he’s seen the process all the way through.

That’s why, at 28, he can appreciate what Booker and Turner went through the past two days. He’s also well aware of the youngsters who are on their way to the pipeline, players like Donovan Mitchell and Jayson Tatum who made huge impressions on playoff teams last season as rookies.

“We know these young guys like Book and Myles and Donovan Mitchell and Tatum and Jaylen Brown are on the radar, that next wave that’s ready to come along,” he said. “It’s crazy. Guys are doing a great job of adapting and just playing, hooping, not caring who we play against or any of that other stuff, not caring what the name says or nothing.

“Just playing one-on-one and I’m going to go out there and get you. And they’ve done an unbelievable job, that next wave I mentioned, Donovan and Book and Tatum, they’ve just got that ‘it’ you need to perform on this stage.”

Popovich, who admitted to using the two days here to build team camaraderie as much as anything, said the buy-in was even better than he expected.

He enjoyed watching the way the players mixed in without hesitation and the way they competed while also developing the sort of bonds he knows will be necessary to grind through the next World Cup and Olympic cycle and beyond.

He realizes that the sort of energy needed to continue the pipeline Colangelo spoke of comes from within, from the stars already in the system.

“That’s it exactly,” Popovich said. “A lot of these guys like Kevin and James and these other guys started out when they were really young. And they played in other championships dating back to before they were even in the NBA. And now they are the older guys. Jerry Colangelo has continued to feed that pipeline and the young guys want to be a part of it.

“They see the success and the way these guys improve and how it carries over to every facet of their life and they want to be a part of it. That’s what Jerry and (Men’s National Team Director) Sean Ford have put together over the last 12 years for guys to want to be a part of the program. So there’s no arm-twisting or anything like that. We just have to do the best we can now to continue that.”

Starting next summer in China, of course.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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