In past Olympics and FIBA World Cup years, international observers have said the guys USA Basketball cuts from the roster — or maybe even the Select Team of young players they practice against — could win gold in their own right. The USA’s talent pool is that deep.
This year that idea is being put to the test.
After a string of high-profile players withdrawing from the team — James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, and on down the line — Team USA will have just one All-NBA/All-Star player on the roster in Kemba Walker.
That roster went out and comfortably beat Spain — the No. 2 ranked team in the world by FIBA — in an exhibition last Friday. While we should be careful reading too much into a friendly, Spanish center Marc Gasol told Marc Stein of the New York Times the Americans still had plenty of talent.
“I’m sure that it’s going to fuel them,” Gasol said of the loud skepticism increasingly endured by the American team.
“The amount of talent that the U.S. generates every year is unbelievable,’’ he added. “Even with all the guys that dropped out — or if you want to say these guys don’t have experience internationally — they’re still super talented physically and technically. And they’re pretty well-coached as well. So you put it all together and it’s a great team.”
(The “pretty well-coached” line is a joke, by the way, players and Gregg Popovich have that kind of relationship.)
The USA is still the team to beat in China when the World Cup tips off Aug. 31. Spain has a puncher’s chance to knock off the USA, France has some good talent on the roster, and Greece has Giannis Antetokounmpo. However, Team USA should be able to comfortably beat any of those sides.
Serbia, led by Nikola Jokic, is the one team with a legitimate shot to knock off the Americans.
But Serbia is the underdog for a reason. Even with all the players choosing to stay home, the USA is the most talented roster in the tournament. The gap is narrowing, but the rest of the world has not caught up to the American talent level. What Serbia, Spain, and other countries do have is a familiarity of players and system — these guys grow up playing together and have a natural chemistry, something the USA tries to cram together in a couple of weeks. Popovich has focused on building those bonds with this team, knowing that is the area of both weakness and potential growth.
This USA team may not have the intimidating talent of previous years, but it still has enough to win. And the rest of the world knows that, even if the American public does not.