Thunder Trio Makes First Cut for Men's National Team

One-fifth of anything is a sizable fraction, something you call attention to, but in the case of the Men’s National Team roster it’s a pretty big deal. It stands out.

The USA Basketball selection committee trimmed the roster from 19 to 15 players on Wednesday and the Thunder represents one-fifth of it. Yes, that’s worth repeating: as it stands, one-fifth of the Team USA roster comes from the team that won 50 games and earned a playoff berth last season.

Kevin Durant, Jeff Green and Russell Westbrook all made the cut, and the Thunder trio is one step closer to representing their country at the World Championship in Turkey later next month. In the immediate future it’s an opportunity to continue their offseason player development program at the highest of levels. In the not-too-distant future it’s a chance to be a part of the final roster that will play for the nation’s first world title since 1994.

Having three Thunder players don USA jerseys is a testament to their development, attitude, familiarity with the USA Basketball program, performance during last week’s training camp in Las Vegas and possessing a unique skill set that the committee covets.

Joining them in New York will be five guards in Chauncey Billups, Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose; three wing players in Rudy Gay, Danny Granger and Andre Iguodala; a two power forwards in Kevin Love and Lamar Odom; and Tyson Chandler and Brook Lopez at the center spot. Because the team is thin up front, coach Mike Krzyzewski said that Green’s versatility could help them in the front court.

“That’s one of the reasons why he’s still part of the 15 is his versatility,” Krzyzewski said during Wednesday’s teleconference. “He did a good job in the scrimmage even playing at the five. Jeff’s another one of the Oklahoma City players that have been there almost every summer. Durant started with us and Westbrook and Green’s been there every summer. They’re just good guys who work hard and want to win. His attitude is tremendous.”

The committee was high on Durant for his ability to score in a multitude of ways, for being a mismatch nightmare and for the ability to play multiple positions. They liked Westbrook for his speed, athleticism, pressure defense, ability to create for himself with dribble penetration and his experience playing off the ball. Green’s versatility drew him high marks, and while he’s never been one to stuff the stat sheet the forward can play up to four positions.

Cut from the roster were JaVale McGee, Gerald Wallace, O.J. Mayo and Tyreke Evans. Krzyzewski and his staff planned to spend the next 10 days personalizing the system so they’ll be able to start preparing for the World Championship when they reconvene in New York, where they’ll also take part in a World Basketball Festival before playing a friendly game against France at Madison Square Garden.

Colangelo said on Wednesday that there’s a solid eight or nine players who have already locked up roster spots for the World Championship but that there’s a good possibility they could head overseas with the current roster; the final 12-man roster doesn’t have to be submitted until 48 hours before Team USA’s first game against Croatia on Aug. 28.

“Some people have some work to do and it’s been outlined for each of them,” Colangelo said during the teleconference. “In other words, there’s still a few spots that are open in our minds and therefore there will be some real competition for those last spots.”

Constructing the Men’s National Team is a bit like making the perfect meal: the team must have the right mix of ingredients, both complimentary and critical, in order for it to be something sustainable.

If you just take the 12 best players, or all of your favorite ingredients, chances are you’ll end up with a mess. It’ll lack in consistency.

One reason why the 2008 Olympic team was so successful was because it had the right mix of players. Tayshaun Prince and Michael Redd might not have been the biggest names available or the most talented out there, but they each brought a skill that was needed at the international level; Prince was long known as a defensive stopper while Redd brought long-range shooting.

Throughout last week, Krzyzewski said the committee was looking for players who bring those types of intangibles.

“Whenever it gets down to 12, it’s not just the 12 best players,” he said. “It’s how you feel everybody will be able to work together.”

With that said, Colangelo said several times through the week that the U.S. would bring an “unconventional” group to the World Championship, one that was going to be athletic, guard-heavy and stacked with versatile players that would give the coaching staff opportunities to do several different things.

“The three-point shot will be used quite a bit by our team,” Krzyzewski said on Wednesday.

He later added: “We’re going to try to rely on speed, penetration, spacing and really take advantage of the athleticism that we have on the perimeter to defend.”

While there’s no way of simulating what to expect from the crowds in Turkey or how the game will be officiated, each player was sent home with a FIBA regulation basketball, which is different from the leather NBA basketballs because they’re synthetic and slightly smaller in circumference. Colangelo urged them to use it as much as possible, especially at the free-throw line, where the team struggled during last week’s camp.

Before the end of camp, Krzyzewski said there wasn’t any let up from the 19 players and that each player had an opportunity to distinguish himself. He said that the four players who were cut are still in the USA Basketball player pool.

Even knowing that the training camp wasn’t the be-all, end-all for their USA Basketball careers, during Saturday’s postgame press conference several players used the word “anxious” in describing the week.

“When we first got here everyone was anxious,” Durant said then.

Said Rudy Gay: “We’re really anxious. Everyone wants to make it. It’s not possible.”

That prompted a question to Krzyzewski about how the staff will deal with “disgruntled” players who don’t end up making the cut.

“They come here not knowing if they’re going to make the team so what we tell them throughout the week is, ‘look, being a part of the system will make you better,’” Krzyzewski said. “’We’re going to be honest with you. We’re going to tell you the truth and you’re always going to be a part of our family whether you make this team or not.’”

Krzyzewski used Chandler as an example, citing how he didn’t make the Olympic team in 2008 but was back in camp this summer. Krzyzewski started to say the same thing about Durant, who was sitting alongside the coach. Durant started to shake his head as if he was still stung from being one of the final cuts on that team.

“I’m sensing he’s a little disgruntled,” Krzyzewski cracked as Durant flashed a smile.

Krzyzewski continued: “But they’re part of the family and it’s not an easy thing to do. But as long as you’re honest about it and try to make the decisions that are in the best interest of the team, it was like choosing the Olympic team: it wasn’t necessarily the 12 best players and that’s how this team will be chosen, also. But again, the players should be given an immense credit for coming here.”

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