The final roster is still months away. It might be May, June or even July before USA Basketball knows which 12 NBA players will be on the team that’s headed to compete at the World Cup in the Philippines next summer.
That certainly doesn’t mean the Americans are sitting and waiting.
Let the recruiting begin. The braintrust for the U.S. – managing director Grant Hill, national team director Sean Ford and coach Steve Kerr – is already well into the process of trying to get players thinking about wearing the red, white and blue at the World Cup in 2023 as well as the Paris Olympics in 2024.
”So far, it’s been really good, some really positive momentum,” Hill said. ”I’ve engaged with those who’ve been a part of the program in recent years, then also some who haven’t and have emerged as fantastic players that we feel would fit in the international game. It’s very different than our game. It’s been fun, but it’s kind of a delicate dance.”
Lots of names will trickle out over the coming weeks and months; remember, there were 52 players either invited or committed at various times for the 2019 World Cup, and 40 of them weren’t on the team that eventually made it to China for a disappointing seventh-place finish. Atlanta’s Trae Young has said he wants to play. Miami’s Tyler Herro isn’t saying no. The formula that the Americans will use for this roster-assembly project will be simple – a few versatile and mobile bigs, lots of ballhanders and lots of shooters.
Decisions will be affected by health, by how deep a player’s NBA team goes in the playoffs, maybe by contract status, and let’s not even think about how much of a mess assembling a World Cup team would be if the league has labor strife and goes into a lockout this summer. It’s a three-week tournament but not a three-week commitment; camp will start sometime in late July and, if all goes right, the team will be playing for gold in mid-September – just a couple weeks before the scheduled start of NBA training camps.
”We’re just continuing to have these conversations, talk about our vision, how we envision certain guys being a part of it,” Hill said. ”And there are lot of guys who have been very receptive to the idea.”
There is a card that Hill, Ford and Kerr have to play that past staffs haven’t had.
They can say the U.S. is being disrespected.
The Americans are the four-time defending Olympic champions, and due respect to the World Cup, the Olympics are by far the tournament that means most on the international calendar. But a couple weeks ago, bolstered by a win at the 2019 World Cup and a title at this year’s EuroBasket tournament, Spain passed the U.S. in the world rankings put together by FIBA – the sport’s international governing body.
It had been 12 years since any other men’s team but the U.S. had been in the top spot.
”Of course, this may last or may not last for long,” FIBA secretary general Andreas Zagklis said. ”This is in their hands and in the hands of the teams that are challenging for the top spot in the in the rankings. … At the end, what counts is who brings the Naismith Trophy home next year on the 10th of September.”
He’s right. But the ranking is something that the Americans aren’t thrilled to see.
”First of all, you totally respect the rankings and the metrics used to determine,” Hill said. ”You don’t like that. You don’t like what you hear. And I think there’s a certain pride that we have in terms of the game and the success we’ve had historically, but it’s an opportunity for us and a motivating factor for us to get back to that level. From a recruitment standpoint, no question, we have a chance to repair that and change that. And so that that has been used and will continue to be used.”
This won’t be easy. Mike Krzyzewski said it for years, and Gregg Popovich said the same when he took over for Coach K as the U.S. coach, that the world is catching up to – or has caught – the Americans when it comes to the international game. Kobe Bryant flat-out said it in 2019, and was proven right when the U.S. stumbled in China.
France is building a great team, one that will have projected No. 1 draft pick Victor Wembanyama and could have Joel Embiid – if he picks the French over an offer to play for the U.S., a deal where he’s truly an international free agent. Slovenia will have Luka Doncic. Oh, and Spain is still Spain.
But for now, USA Basketball thinks it is on the right road.
”We want to field a roster that gives us a chance to win gold,” Hill said. ”That’s the plan. I owe it to our coaching staff, I owe it to our program and I feel that we’re building in that direction.”
Tim Reynolds is a national basketball writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at treynolds(at)ap.org
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