Team USA’s training camp for the upcoming World Cup got underway this week, with a series of exhibition games helping to fill the August basketball void before competition begins in earnest in September. While the American roster is bereft of its usual star power for the most part, it would be wrong to characterize this year’s group as undermanned. Unproven might be the better word, at least at the international level—point being, it’s anyone’s guess how the personnel situation shakes out, particularly given it’s Gregg Popovich’s first go-around as head coach.
Friday’s national team scrimmage and the forthcoming trial runs will deliver some clarity, but in the meantime, picking out a 12-man group from the available players does serve as a worthwhile thought exercise. On paper, here’s what USA Basketball’s ideal roster for the World Cup could look like.
Kemba Walker, Celtics
Walker is all but a lock to make the team, given what he brings to the table from the standpoints of ability as well as experience. Arguably the biggest-name player to remain committed to the cause this summer, Walker will have a nice platform to raise awareness as to exactly how good he’s been over the past few seasons, before suiting up for a remixed Celtics team in the fall. The 29-year-old evolved into one of the NBA’s most unheralded stars during his time in Charlotte, and his natural creativity as a playmaker and scorer should set the tone and pace for this group offensively. This is a no-brainer.
Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
In past years under Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA tended to favored multiple-ballhandler attacks that play into the skill and athleticism advantages it often held on the perimeter. There’s not much reason to stray from that winning formula, and the 22-year-old Mitchell, whose star continues to rise nationally, is an easy name to sharpie onto the roster. He’ll likely be asked to play a lower-usage role than with the Jazz, ceding some of the ballhandling duties to Walker and upping his energy defensively, but his ability to play and defend either backcourt spot will give Team USA some lineup versatility, and also the ability to unlock Walker running off screens or going downhill. The more playmakers you can fit onto the floor in the international game, the better, and Mitchell should be a valuable all-around piece for this team.
Kyle Lowry, Raptors
Although Lowry is still recovering from left thumb surgery, he’s in training camp with the team and is one of the only players in the mix with previous senior team experience, winning gold at the 2014 World Cup. Fresh off a championship with the Raptors, if Lowry is healthy and ready to go, he’ll deserve the nod, presumably helping to spell Walker and supplying toughness, playmaking and scoring punch. Particularly going into a contract year, you have to respect Lowry’s desire to be part of the group, and his leadership and big-game seasoning should earn him a nod.
De’Aaron Fox, Kings
It’s possible that Fox’s candidacy is somewhat contingent on Lowry’s health status—if the latter can’t go, the Kings’ 21-year-old playmaker is a natural choice at backup point guard. But if Lowry makes the trip to China, the fourth backcourt spot figures to be a battle between Fox and Marcus Smart, both bigger guards who are willing to defend at a high level and can conceivably fill the same role. Fox is the more talented player, and if it were up to me, his gamebreaking speed and improved outside shooting would earn him the nod here. While Smart brings tremendous quality in terms of intangibles and is more comfortable playing off the ball, this should be a case where Fox’s more dynamic offensive skill set wins out.
Missed the Cut: Marcus Smart, Joe Harris
Khris Middleton, Bucks
Middleton is the easiest name to slot in on the wing, coming off another outstanding year in Milwaukee and boasting an attractive all-around game. He’s a strong set shooter, underrated shot-creator and ball-mover, and also supplies this group with size, rebounding and plus defense. His ability to guard multiple positions and capably space the floor is an ideal fit for the international game, and he’ll be cast into his natural role as a complementary scorer on the wing. He’s an easy choice, and could be in for heavy minutes at both forward spots depending on whether Popovich chooses to go with big or small lineups.
Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Watching Tatum adjust to international play should be an interesting subplot, and his size at forward and gifts as a scorer should earn him a place on the roster. He’ll be asked to move the ball and make decisions faster as part of this setup, and while Gregg Popovich and the Spurs certainly share his affinity for midrange jumpers, the 21-year-old Tatum is still working on shot selection and efficiency, taking too many contested shots and tending to stop the ball at times. These are long-held tendencies that date back to high school, and time will tell if Tatum is willing and capable of taking the next step toward legitimate stardom. This USA team should be a good litmus test for him.
Kyle Kuzma, Lakers
Kuzma’s gradual improvement and ability to score from all over the floor should add a valuable element to the frontcourt, even if he gives something up defensively. He should end up with better looks at the basket and more spot-up opportunities with this group, and if he shoots the ball well from outside, Kuzma could conceivably establish real equity in the rotation. His size and ball skills make him worthy of a spot, and his ability to put up points in a hurry adds a dimension to the team.
Jaylen Brown, Celtics
On this team, Brown would likely be tasked with a defensive-oriented role, using his superior athleticism and strength on the perimeter to help corral opposing wings. Versatility is always at a premium in these tournaments, and Brown appears well-suited for a situational role here. Taking all three of Tatum, Kuzma and Brown slants this roster toward the younger side, but as long as they all buy in, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue. It does’t hurt that Brown has a good deal of playoff experience at this stage of his career. He can play the two in bigger, defensive-oriented lineups.
Harrison Barnes, Kings
After winning gold as part of the 2016 Olympic setup, Barnes figures to have an inside track for a roster spot, supplying above-average perimeter shooting and multipositional defense, and capable of slotting into a low-usage role without much of a hiccup. It’s possible he cedes minutes to some of the other forwards, but Barnes’s overall solid game makes sense as a bench piece.
Missed the cut: P.J. Tucker
Myles Turner, Pacers
The 23-year-old Turner supplies a valuable shot-blocking element in the middle while also knocking down threes at a useful clip, making him a nice fit in the international game and a solid bet to make his debut with this group. He continues to emerge as one of the NBA’s better centers, and should fill an important role for this team up front. His shooting ability should help pull opposing centers away from the basket, and could be a vital spacing element that allows the American guards to play pick-and-pop or drive-and-kick. Turner makes sense on multiple levels for this roster.
Brook Lopez, Bucks
Lopez’s late-career evolution into one of the NBA’s better true stretch fives makes him a natural fit for the international game. He also supplies the requisite size and heft to square up with top international centers like Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gobert, all capable of causing problems for the U.S. in the later rounds of the tournament, an element that can’t be undersold. The 31-year-old has continued to add real value at this point in his career, and should be able to help this team situationally, at minimum.
Bam Adebayo, Heat
In past tournaments, Team USA has often carried a third center to help contend with the best international bigs, and Adebayo gets the final spot on this hypothetical roster with his ability to play uptempo, defend on the perimeter, and handle the dirty work. His athleticism and natural rim-running ability differentiates him from the more plodding Turner and Lopez, and could make him a nice change-of-pace option on either side of the ball, depending on game flow. You can’t waste roster spots in these competitions, and while guys like P.J. Tucker and Marcus Smart have great cases from a toughness perspective, I like Adebayo best of this group as an extra frontcourt piece that would enable this team to get in transition and impose pace.
Missed the cut: Thad Young, Mason Plumlee