2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup

Team USA Notebook: Scrimmage could see hints of final roster

LAS VEGAS — The first week of U.S. Men’s Senior National Team training camp will come to a close on Friday night with an intrasquad scrimmage at T-Mobile Arena (10 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

For the scrimmage, the Blue Team will be the 15 healthy players on the Senior Team Roster (with Kyle Lowry and Marcus Smart injured), while the White Team will be the 11 remaining players on the Select Team roster (with Trae Young having left camp with his own injury).

In training camps of years past, Senior Team guys have been split up for the final-night scrimmage. Doing that again would allow for more playing time for everyone, but the Senior Team and Select Team (coached by Jeff Van Gundy) have been operating separately all week and not running the same stuff.

This is the last chance for guys (on either team) to earn a trip to Los Angeles for the next phase of training camp, which begins Tuesday night. And for that, it should be a pretty competitive game.

“The thing that I love is our intensity in practice,” Kemba Walker said Thursday. “We’re getting after it, every possession, every drill. The communication level is so high.”

The Senior Team lineups and playing-time distribution will be very interesting. The plan (which could change) is to announce the trimmed down roster for the L.A. camp on Saturday morning. That roster will likely have at least 15 names on it, but the roster math goes beyond the 15 Senior Team guys who are healthy, and there will surely be some cuts.

Here are some thoughts and questions regarding the roster…

Starting backcourt?

The closest thing to a certainty with this roster is that the starting backcourt will be Walker and Donovan Mitchell. The two have played together quite a bit in camp, Mitchell has looked like a budding star, and it’s fair to say that Walker has enjoyed the partnership.

“I love playing with that kid,” Walker said. “He’s such a competitor. He’s so intense. He reminds me of myself a lot. I love it. It’s going to be fun playing with him.”

And in regard to Mitchell’s ability to play the two, Walker has no doubts.

“Easily,” Walker answered. “That kid is so talented, and he wants it. That’s what I love the most.”

Lowry and Smart?

The status of Lowry (recovering from thumb surgery) and Smart (sore left calf) hang over this whole process. We’ll know more about both of them next week, but in deciding who’s going to L.A., the USA staff has to plan for the possibility that neither will be on the World Cup roster. Lowry is obviously the more doubtful of the two.

Other players (whose NBA seasons finished a lot earlier than June 13) have backed out for reasons far less severe than thumb surgery. So give the NBA champ (and 2016 Olympic gold medalist) a ton of credit for just being here. And even if he isn’t on the World Cup roster, Lowry’s presence and clear desire to play will surely earn him some equity in regard to the selection of next year’s Olympic team.

Select additions?

De’Aaron Fox and Joe Harris were promoted from the Select Team to the Senior Team before camp even started. Could another player or two leap-frog some Senior Team players and earn an invite to L.A.?

Based on impressions from the last three days, Derrick White would be the No. 1 candidate. White would still be behind Walker, Mitchell and (probably) Lowry/Fox in the ball-handler’s depth chart, but with Trae Young (eye infection) not playing on Friday, White will have a better opportunity to shine than some guys on the Senior Team. Jalen Brunson is the only other healthy ball-handler on the Select Team.

Marvin Bagley III has also drawn a lot of praise in camp, and the depth chart on the Senior Team frontline appears to be wide open. The Select Team roster is big-heavy and Bagley will be sharing playing time with Jarrett Allen, John Collins, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Mitchell Robinson on Friday. But if USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo and Senior Team coach Gregg Popovich want to get another good look at Bagley, Van Gundy will surely oblige.

On the wings

Both Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are pretty safe bets to make the final roster, and there’s a chance they could be the starting forwards. Tatum shot very well in the controlled scrimmage that the media watched on Thursday, and Brown is arguably the most versatile forward in camp. Kyle Kuzma offers similar versatility, and it will be interesting to see where he stands in the rotation on Friday.

Khris Middleton is one of only three 2019 All-Stars on the 17-man roster, but hasn’t stood out in scrimmages. Joe Harris, meanwhile, hasn’t been the best shooter. Middleton should get by on his resume, but there may be some pressure on Harris in Friday’s scrimmage.

“Obviously, you hope to make shots,” Harris said Thursday. “But you can’t put too much pressure on yourself to make it, because whether or not they go in, you’re creating space everybody else. That’s what you want, especially in settings like this, where everybody’s got a tendency to pack in [defensively] so much. If you’ve got one guy that can create just a little bit of space for somebody that can get downhill, it opens up everything offensively.”

Up front

For a few minutes of Thursday’s controlled scrimmage, we saw a two-center frontcourt of Myles Turner and Brook Lopez. And we also saw a couple of no-center frontcourts: Harrison Barnes with P.J. Tucker and Kuzma with Thaddeus Young.

Barnes and Young would seemingly be in direct competition for a roster spot. For now, give Barnes the edge because of his experience with the 2016 Olympic team and his superior 3-point shooting.

“You got to have enough shooters,” Colangelo said earlier this week, “so guys that can shoot the ball have a little bit of an edge, all [other] things being equal.”

If the roster includes four guards (Walker, Mitchell and two of the following group: Fox, Harris, Lowry, Smart and White), they have eight roster spots left. If four of those are 3/4 guys (Brown, Kuzma, Middleton and Tatum), they have four spots for bigger forwards and centers.

Would they take Barnes (or Young), Tucker and two centers? Would they remove Kuzma from the 3/4 group and add a third center? Three centers seems like a lot, but some of the best teams at the world cup have NBA talent up front: Nikola Jokic for Serbia, Marc Gasol for Spain, Rudy Gobert for France, Andrew Bogut and Aron Baynes for Australia, and Domantas Sabonis and Jonas Valanciunas for Lithuania.

One-issue candidates

In that regard, a question that could come up in staff deliberations: Is there a player that they would want for one specific matchup?

For instance, while Lopez and Turner are superior rim protectors and offensive players, neither would necessarily be the best option to defend Jokic in a matchup against Serbia (arguably the second best team in the tournament). According to Second Spectrum matchup data, Jokic scored at a higher rate than usual when defended by both of those guys last season, shooting 31-for-58 (53 percent) on 197 total possessions against the two.

Might the best option in a Jokic matchup be his own teammate? Mason Plumlee doesn’t offer much offensively, but he’s a player that coaches can trust, he’s more mobile defensively than either Lopez or Turner, and he obviously knows Jokic well.

Along those same lines, is there a player on this roster who’s best suited to defend Giannis Antetokounmpo? Tucker had some success in that regard last season, holding the MVP to just 20 points on 98 possessions as his primary defender. In fact, among the 16 players who defended Antetokounmpo for at least 60 possessions last season, Tucker is the one who held him furthest below his regular scoring rate. (Jabari Parker was next on the list, so hey, let’s not take that data for gospel.) The U.S. will likely play Greece in the second round of pool play (before the single-elimination tournament).

There will be three players in the World Cup who received MVP votes last season, and none of the three will be playing for the United States. (Rudy Gobert is the third.)