Khris Middleton

USA shows it still has plenty of talent, athleticism, in 90-81 exhibition win against Spain

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — For the past month, whenever anyone mentioned USA Basketball, the talk was about who decided not to suit up this summer — James Harden, Anthony Davis, etc. Everyone wanted to talk about who Team USA did not have and how much trouble the team was in.

It’s time to move on from that topic.

The United States doesn’t just have the most talented players in the world, it has the deepest talent pool. And it’s not even close.

That was on full display Friday night — this version of Team USA still had more than enough talent and skill to comfortably handle Spain, one of the world’s better squads and a medal contender at the upcoming World Cup in China.

The United States picked up a 90-81 confidence-boosting win in its first test, an exhibition game it led by double digits most of the way. After the game, Spanish coach Sergio Scariolo reminded everyone the USA was the “best team in the tournament” and that he wanted to measure his team against this squad now as a learning experience.

The USA will now head to Australia — with 14 players, not making any roster cuts (they need to eventually get to 12) — for a series of exhibition games. From there it’s on to China for the World Cup, with the American’s first game coming Sept. 1 against the Czech Republic.

For a young USA team, Friday night’s exhibition was another step along the learning curve. Especially playing against a Spanish team that has played together for years and executes a deep offense at a high level.

“There were a lot of situations we learned from this evening,” USA coach Gregg Popovich said. “The win or the loss is pretty unimportant at this point. It’s about getting better, coming together, learning to execute…

“I was most pleased with us defensively, I thought we did a good job as a new group, communicating with each other. I thought we rebounded well, we haven’t done that well, to date, consistently, I thought we had a good effort on the boards from everybody tonight.”

The USA came out and attacked as well, pushing the ball in transition and getting to the rim whenever they could. Team USA took just 19 threes (hitting 10), but when the Spanish players closed out on the shorter international three-point line the Americans put the ball on the floor and went hard to the rim. Guys cut off the ball as the defense rotated, and that led to some nice plays.

The USA was led by Donovan Mitchell, who had 13 points on 5-of-10 shooting. However, the best player on the floor for the Americans was the Bucks’ All-Star Khris Middleton, who had 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting, three quality assists, played strong defense, and always seemed to make the right decision. Kemba Walker showed off some impressive hesitation moves on his way to 11 points.

“Everybody on this team can score,” Mitchell said. “But we have guys willing to sacrifice to be a defensive player, to rebound, to take charges, to make the little plays. Maybe not play as many minutes but lead from the bench.”

Team USA came opened the game playing with urgency, and using their athleticism both on defense and in transition, something Spain could not match. The Americans also just knocked down their shots. The USA shot 5-of-8 from three and 55.6 percent overall in the first quarter Friday night, while Spain started 2-of-9 from three. The result was a 31-20 lead after one frame, and the USA kept that lead in double digits most of the way.

Spain was led by Marc Gasol‘s 19 points on 13 shots, as well as Ricky Rubio, who had 16 points on 4-of-13 shooting.

A couple of times in the fourth quarter Spain cut the lead to eight, but each time Team USA responded with a run to push the league back to the mid-teens. The fact they handled the adversity well is a good sign for the USA.

“We have a group of guys that are willing to learn, willing to listen to each other and lock in,” Donovan Mitchell said. “It’s easy to come in and say ‘it’s my show’ but we have a lot of guys willing to sacrifice for each other, and you want to be on a team like that.”

Team USA had plenty of highlights in first half against Spain

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ANAHEIM — Concerns? What concerns about Team USA?

The Americans came out in their first real test, an exhibition against a good Spanish team, and showed their athleticism and depth. The USA led 54-41 at the half, with Khris Middleton (10 points, 4-of-4 shooting, a couple nice assists) and Kemba Walker (nine points on 3-of-3 shooting) leading the way.

The Americans put their athleticism on display, pressuring on defense then getting out and running, and that led to some impressive highlights.

Ricky Rubio led Spain with 14 points on 4-of-7 shooting.

Team USA scrimmage shows team chemistry is work in progress

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LOS ANGELES — It led to some raised eyebrows in the Lakers’ practice facility, where Team USA continues its training camp for FIBA World Cup that starts in China in two weeks.

Then it led to some overreaction on NBA Twitter. Because that’s what Twitter does.

The USA Select squad — made up of G-League players and NBA fringe players — beat members of Team USA 36-17 in a 10-minute scrimmage Wednesday, about half of it in front of reporters. It was the second time that practice the select team knocked off a team of some of the USA main squad guys.

While the outcome is a mild surprise, remember this is a practice scrimmage, to read much into it would be a massive mistake. Second units beat the starters in scrimmages all the time, and this was not the USA’s top lineups being put together.

That said, two things were clear watching the scrimmage:

One team had players who had built chemistry and trust through a series of hard-fought tournaments.

While the other team looked just thrown together.

“[Team USA’s chemistry] is coming along,” the Bucks’ Khris Middleton said. “We’re basically strangers in some ways, but [coach Gregg Popovich] and the guys around here have made a huge emphasis to get to know each other, to create a bond…

“We need that chemistry, that bond, that love for one another.”

“Your off the court relationship transfers onto the court, I’ve always been big on that,” Kemba Walker said.

The USA Select team players have already formed that bond. These are guys who had put on the USA jersey and played for Jeff Van Gundy and their country through the FIBA World Cup qualifying process (which overlapped with the NBA season, so players with an NBA contract could not take part). That experience showed. During the scrimmage select players moved on a string on defense, collapsing to take away drives and covering kick-out passing lanes, they knew where guys liked to spot up on the break, and just looked comfortable with one another and the system.

The teams the USA will face in China during the World Cup already have that bond, too. Teams like the Czech Republic (the USA’s opening game on Sept. 1), or Australia, or Spain (which the USA faces Friday night in an exhibition) have played together since their youth. They know each other’s tendencies and styles, and they play as a unit.

The regular USA team players are still trying to figure all that out, which leads to rough patches.

“You don’t want everything to be seamless right now,” Brooklyn’s Joe Harris said. “These are the moments right now in practice where you want it to be difficult, take your licks a little bit, and figure it out. It’s making us come together.”

A few areas specifically appear to need work. One area of focus is finding the balance between passing and when to attack. Popovich has pushed for more ball movement from Team USA, but that has limits.

“They’re doing really well [playing his style], they’re probably overdoing it, actually,” Popovich said. “They’re a good group, they try to please, they want to play the right way, it’s a teachable group.”

Another area of adjustment is the physicality allowed in the paint. A couple of times in the scrimmage Walker or Utah’s Donovan Mitchell would drive the lane, the Select Team defense would collapse and be physical protecting the rim, Walker or Mitchell would end up on the ground, and there would be no foul call. That’s FIBA basketball.

“That’s going to be a little different for all of us,” Middleton said of the level of physicality allowed. “The NBA, FIBA are two different styles of play, the referees let it get a lot more physical, but we got to adjust to it, and adjust to it fast. We can’t just complain about calls, we’re not going to get them.”

“We have to adjust, we just have to. If we want to win, we have to adjust to this game,” Walker said.

USA Basketball — with many elite NBA players choosing to take the summer off — cannot just overwhelm the best teams in the world with talent, not this summer. Serbia is a legit challenger for the title. Spain can be, too. There are others as well. The Americans need chemistry to compete, and through a couple of weeks in Las Vegas and now Los Angeles, they believe it is coming along.

“We’ve got the group text going already,” Middleton said. “Practices, we’re constantly talking to each other. The bus rides, the breakfast meetings when there’s no phones, just getting to know each other to see what they’re all about, see how they are, just get to know them.”

“I do [think the chemistry is improving], we just have a bunch of high character guys, hungry guys who want to be here, guys who want to win,” Walker said. “So it’s been easy for us to get along.”

A good test of how that camaraderie is transferring to the court will come Friday night when Team USA takes on a Spanish squad, led by Marc Gasol, that has a masters in team chemistry.

Before that, don’t read too much into a practice scrimmage.

Marvin Bagley withdraws from consideration for U.S. World Cup team

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Sacramento forward Marvin Bagley III has told USA Basketball that he is withdrawing from consideration for the roster that will be sent to China this month for the FIBA World Cup.

Bagley’s decision was revealed Sunday, two days before he was to report to El Segundo, California, for the second week of training camp. Bagley was not immediately replaced, and unless that changes the U.S. will have 16 players still in the mix for 12 final roster spots.

The New York Times first reported Bagley’s decision to withdraw.

Bagley was on the select team – younger NBA players brought in to compete against national-team candidates – last week in Las Vegas, and earned a promotion to the national team Friday night following USA Basketball’s intrasquad scrimmage.

Sacramento still has two players left as World Cup roster candidates, with Harrison Barnes and De'Aaron Fox headed to camp this week. Boston has four – Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, Jayson Tatum and Kemba Walker. Milwaukee’s Brook Lopez and Khris Middleton remain candidates, along with Brooklyn’s Joe Harris, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Kyle Kuzma, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry, Utah’s Donovan Mitchell, Denver’s Mason Pluelee, Houston’s P.J. Tucker, Indiana’s Myles Turner and San Antonio’s Derrick White.

Lowry (thumb surgery) and Smart (calf strain) are both dealing with injuries, with clarity on their situations expected to come early this week. The Americans will practice at the Lakers’ facility Tuesday through Thursday, then face Spain in Anaheim, California on Friday night.

Mike Krzyzewski stops by USA Basketball practice

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LAS VEGAS — Gregg Popovich somehow only met Mike Krzyzewski for the first time about four years ago, when the two coaching greats saw their paths finally cross when they were together at a USA Basketball event.

They’re a whole lot closer now.

USA Basketball’s coaching past was alongside its present Wednesday, when Krzyzewski – who led the national team to an 88-1 record over his 12 years at the helm – was alongside Popovich for Day 3 of the team’s training camp in advance of the FIBA World Cup. And Popovich made no effort to hide how happy he was to have his predecessor in the gym to watch practice and some scrimmages.

“We were anxious to get Coach K in town to spend a couple days,” Popovich said. “I’ve already talked to him, as you might imagine, gotten advice. But to have him here, seeing the scrimmage, now we can all go back and talk about what we think needs to happen. Having him here with that added experience is invaluable.”

Popovich wasn’t the only one in the gym feeling a boost from Krzyzewski’s presence on Wednesday. Among the others: USA Basketball forwards Mason Plumlee and Jayson Tatum, both of whom said they relished the chance to spend some extra time with their coach from Duke.

“It was great, man,” Plumlee said. “I try to see Coach once or twice a summer, so for him to come out here … he didn’t come for me, but it was great to see him.”

Tatum chatted with Krzyzewski for a few minutes after practice, and said he got some advice.

“Confidential,” Tatum said. “But it was good advice.”

Krzyzewski won five gold medals in his tenure as national team coach – including three at the Olympics and two from the world championships, now known as the World Cup – started Wednesday in a morning meeting with Popovich and other coaches. He walked into practice at UNLV alongside Popovich and was expected to take part in more meetings before departing later this week.

“He’s really the only guy that Pop can relate to in trying to bring this together so fast,” Plumlee said.

Krzyzewski, who politely declined an interview request through USA Basketball, first met Popovich around the time that the longtime San Antonio Spurs coach was accepting an invitation to replace the Duke coach at the helm of the U.S. program. They were brought together in Las Vegas by USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo during preparations for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

Colangelo wanted to hire Krzyzewski’s replacement long before Rio, just to eliminate incessant speculation during the Olympic cycle about who would take over the program.

He wasn’t aware at the time that the coaches had never gotten acquainted.

“Once they got to know each other, they were like bonded immediately,” Colangelo said. “Pop was in all the meetings and the practices after they met. I wanted him to get his feet wet just to see how we had done things under Mike. And I think it was a great way to get him started. But I thought that was amazing, that they had never met each other.”

Krzyzewski and Popovich are loaded with similarities: Both went to service academies, both played for Bob Knight (Krzyzewski played for Knight at Army, and Knight was Popovich’s coach at the 1972 U.S. Olympic trials, a few years before Popovich got his first head coaching job at Division III Pomona-Pitzer). Both have five championships from their `real’ jobs – Krzyzewski at Duke, Popovich in San Antonio. They are both considered basketball royalty, the top of the top of their profession.

All that only adds to the oddity that they didn’t know each other until a few years ago.

“I’m a Division III guy at heart and that’s where I spent most of my time until I somehow woke up in San Antonio and never left,” Popovich said. “We never played Duke when I was at Pomona-Pitzer.”

NOTES: USA Basketball said Boston’s Marcus Smart is out with a left calf injury, and he will be re-evaluated when the team gets to Los Angeles for the second part of training camp next week. … In two 10-minute scrimmage periods Wednesday between the national team candidates and the select team – the younger NBA players brought into practice to compete against the varsity – there was no winner. Both periods ended in a tie, with Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton making three free throws with 0.7 seconds left in the first one to save his team. … Camp continues with Day 4 on Thursday, followed by an open scrimmage Friday night.