2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Plenty of questions, few answers as Team USA opens training camp

Only five players remain from last year's training camp

LAS VEGAS — The U.S. Men’s Senior National Team tipped off training camp on Monday. This was the start of a six-week process that they hope ends with the gold medal game of the FIBA World Cup in Beijing on Sept. 15.

This week includes four days of practice, followed by an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Before we get into the next six weeks, let’s review how we got to Monday with a much different pool of players than national team managing director Jerry Colangelo originally anticipated.

* * *

The originals

  • Last year, there were 35 players named to the 2018-20 USA roster for a 2018 minicamp, this year’s World Cup and next year’s Olympics.
  • Of those 35, only 14 were on the 20-man training camp roster for the World Cup when it was announced on June 10.
  • Between June 10 and the start of camp on Monday, nine of those 14 backed out.
  • The five remaining are Harrison Barnes, Kyle Lowry, Khris Middleton, Myles Turner and Kemba Walker.

The additions

  • As part of the 20-player training camp announcement on June 10, six players were added to the 14 from the original 35-player list.
  • Since then, one of those six — Paul Millsap — backed out.
  • Six more players were added on July 25.
  • In the 10 days since then, two of those six — Montrezl Harrell and Julius Randle — backed out.
  • Last Thursday, Bam Adebayo was added to the roster.
  • Before camp opened on Monday, De’Aaron Fox and Joe Harris were (sort of) promoted from the Select Team to the Senior Team.

The absences

Going back to who’s not here: There are 33 players — 30 from the 2018-20 roster and three that signed up and backed out this year — who have decided not to play. That’s almost three full rosters of American players, and it doesn’t include any guys that were offered a spot, but declined before being named to the roster. J.J. Redick is a player that reportedly declined an invite.

They can’t all be lumped into one group of guys who just don’t want to make the six-week commitment. Some have family business to tend to. But one reason cited by multiple players who have backed out is preparing for next season. And in that regard, the World Cup schedule, along with the travel, is not ideal.

The gold medal game is Sept. 15. So players will be returning from China (on a flight of 15 hours or so) on Sept. 16. The start of NBA training camps has been pushed back one week this year, but national team players will have less than two weeks between their return and the opening of camps. Players on the Brooklyn Nets, Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Lakers and Toronto Raptors will have even less than that, along with a trip back to Asia for early-October exhibition games in Japan or China.

Colangelo also cited the fact that the World Cup and Olympics are in back-to-back years (with an NBA season in between), instead of two years apart like they were in the past. And while this year’s World Cup is toward the end of the summer, next year’s Olympics start July 25, with training camp probably opening not long after The Finals. (If it were the same six-week period from the start of camp to the gold medal game as it is this year, next year’s camp would actually open on June 29).

17 players for 12 spots

Fox and Harris aren’t on the official Senior Team roster, but Colangelo said Monday that they have a chance of making the final 12-man roster for the World Cup.

So that makes 17 players for 12 spots. By position, they are:

  • PG: De’Aaron Fox, Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker
  • SG: Joe Harris, Donovan Mitchell, Marcus Smart
  • SF: Jaylen Brown, Kyle Kuzma, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum
  • PF: Harrison Barnes, P.J. Tucker, Thaddeus Young
  • C: Bam Adebayo, Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee, Myles Turner

There’s obviously some flexibility in there. Two point guards could play together, Mitchell could play some point guard, and all of the small forwards could play some at power forward.

Lowry, who had surgery on his left thumb just a few weeks ago, isn’t participating in camp this week. He’s hoping to be cleared to practice when the team reconvenes in Los Angeles from Aug. 13-16 for three more days of practice and an exhibition game against Spain. But right now, it’s not guaranteed that he’ll be able to play.

With or without him, it’s still a very talented group.

“Thank goodness we’re blessed with the depth of talent we have in this country,” Colangelo said. “You find guys that want to play and you go with them.”

Cutting down the list from 17 players to 12 won’t be easy. Point guard, where Lowry has the experience and Walker is the star, may be the only position where there’s a clear hierarchy. At each of the other positions, different players bring different skill sets, but it’s not clear that Player A is better than Player B, who is better than Player C.

The World Cup doesn’t require final rosters until the day before the tournament starts (it’s earlier for the Olympics), so the final decisions don’t have to be made before the team flies from L.A. to Australia for three more exhibition games.

“We’re flexible,” Colangelo said. “If we have a tough decision to make, we’ll bring an extra guy or two with us.”

The experience

Of the 17 players in camp, only three have played for the United States in an international competition on the senior level. Plumlee was on the 2014 World Cup team, and both Lowry and Barnes were on the 2016 Olympic team. However, neither Plumlee (11th on the ’14 team in total minutes) nor Barnes (last on the ’16 team in total minutes) played integral roles.

The 2010 World Cup team was similarly inexperienced — Chauncey Billups and Tyson Chandler played on the 2007 FIBA Americas team — but had four future Kia MVPs: Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.

The talent

That 2010 team had seven players who were selected in the top five in the NBA Draft. Since 1992, there have been 15 U.S. National Teams comprised of NBA players. And those 15 teams have had an average of seven top-five picks on them, with *no fewer than four.

* The two teams with only four top-five picks: The 2002 team that finished sixth at the World Championship and the 2016 Olympic team that won gold in Rio.

This 17-man group includes only three top-five picks: Brown (No. 3 in 2016), Fox (No. 5 in 2017) and Tatum (No. 3 pick in 2017). It would be a surprise if Fox makes the final roster.

Since 1992, the only one of those 15 U.S. teams that didn’t have a No. 1 pick on it was the 2000 Olympic team, which had nine players who were selected second (4), third (1), or fifth (4).

This 17-man roster includes just one player who has made an All-NBA team in the last three seasons. That’s Walker, who was a third team selection this season.

The opportunity

With the ball in his hands Walker could be the star of this team. And he sees the roster attrition as an opportunity.

“I think a lot of us are happy those guys pulled out,” Walker said Monday. “This is our chance, our chance to get on the big stage and showcase our talent. It’s a chance for us to do something new. It’ll be a new-look team. Everybody’s kind of doubting us, but I think we’re hungry.”

When he was asked why he remained committed, Walker’s explanation was pretty simple.

“I love basketball,” he said. “I love to play. What better opportunity can you have than to play for your country? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a lot of us.”

A monstrous sacrifice

Lopez has nominated himself as the player that has made the biggest sacrifice to be in Vegas, because if he wasn’t, he’d be in the Scottish Highlands with the rest of his family.

“I could be looking for Nessy!” Lopez said.

* * *

John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.