Minicamp is drawing to a close for Team USA and they will soon no longer think of Cox Pavilion at UNLV as their gym. The team will scrimmage tonight for the last time before the roster is trimmed down prior to training camp. This is a completely new manifestation of Team USA, one that has had its share of adversity before even playing a single game in competition. Shortcomings, concerns about youth, and depths issues look to be a problem heading into the World Championships but it would be unlike any modern rendition of Team USA if they did not start a competition with something to prove.
Team USA’s rebuilding efforts could not have gotten off to a rockier start. With every member of the Redeem Team choosing, for their own reasons, not to return to play for the national team at the FIBA World Championships next month in Turkey, Team USA was forced to start from scratch. Early on depth issues began to surface with the latest incarnation of the national team. Amar’e Stoudemire, who would have been the likely face of the team, chose not to participate because of contractual insurance issues with his new team, the New York Knicks. No sooner than Stoudemire had announced that he would not play on the team, Robin Lopez also excused himself from the roster so he could finish recuperation on his back. There go two of the team’s top centers. That was not the end of the team’s issues with frontcourt players. On the first day of practice in Las Vegas, David Lee injured his finger. The injury will keep him sidelined for six weeks though he plans to keep attending camp but in an observers role exclusively. It was a rocky start indeed.
However, not all the news from minicamp was negative. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has placed overarching emphasis with this squad on having players with the ability to play multiple positions. Despite the losses of Lee and Stoudemire, who can both alternate between the power forward and center positions, the team is more versatile than before. Though these losses at forward and center adversely hamper what Krzyzewski may have wanted to do with the team’s frontcourt the rest of the roster is sound. As constituted in minicamp right now, Team USA is bourgeoning with talent in the backcourt. Kevin Durant, Chauncey B-B-B-Billups (his name should always be said like the PA announcer, John Mason, announced it at the Palace in Auburn Hills), Tyreke Evans, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, Stephen Curry, Eric Gordon, and O.J. Mayo comprised the backcourt at minicamp. The team will have to play up this depth and use it as a strength if they have aspirations of winning the gold medal at the Worlds for the first time since 1994.
This heavy contingency of guards will make Team USA one of the smallest teams competing in Turkey. Their physicality and ability to crash the boards will be tested especially if they play Spain and Marc Gasol, who may actually be the biggest player the USA will face in the tournament. (Team USA will play exhibitions games against both Spain and Greece before the World Championships begin.) Speed and athleticism, which the Americans have plenty of, will have to be their weapon of choice.
To help bolster the frontcourt, JaVale McGee (a Beef favorite) was the last addition to the twenty-two man roster. McGee joined the likes of Brook Lopez, Robin Lopez (who is withdrew himself), and Tyson Chandler as options at center for the team. Jeff Green, Kevin Love, Lamar Odom, Rudy Gay, Danny Granger, Andre Iguodala, and Gerald Wallace are the forwards. At least the positions, as listed, are the technical positions which are the primary roles of the players. Durant naturally plays as a small forward but is listed as a guard on the roster. Wallace can alternate between the small and power forward positions. This is exactly what Krzyzewski wants. A player such as Rondo may have a difficult time making the national team because he is a pure point guard and cannot alternate between both guard spots. His defense will surely help his case for a roster spot but his jumpshot and free throw shooting will be further hindrances.
There are only two players on the national team who have previous international competition experience: Odom who is 30 and Billups, who will turn 34 in September. They represent the veteran leadership on the team. It seems likely that Billups will be named co-captain along with Odom. Because of their experience, they are both NBA Champions and Odom played in the Athens Olympics in 2004; they are expected to survive the roster cut from 22 to 12. Durant also appears to be a lock to make the 12 man roster as he has become the face of USA Basketball.
The youth of the squad is somewhat alarming, however, and has raised concerns. Odom and Billups are the only players on the team in their thirties. One player is 28 (Wallace), two are 27 (Chandler, Granger), one is 26 (Iguodala), one is 24 (Rondo), two are 23 (Gay, Green), four are 22 (Curry, Lopez, Mayo, McGee), five are 21 (Durant, Gordon, Love, Rose, Westbrook), and Tyreke Evans is 20. This may be the youngest team ever assembled by USA Basketball since international competition began allowing professionals to play.
Grooming this young group of players and instilling in them the pride of playing for their country should be the biggest task that Jerry Colangelo should undertake. As was seen with the Redeem Team players, many just want to play when the biggest lights are shining on them as the World Championships frequently take a backseat to the Olympics. Matters of money have also hurt the talent that Team USA can bring to the table in international competition. Surely if players were paid for their time on the national team there would be a line at Colangelo’s door every time the country asked them to suit up. Players should never be paid for playing for their country and therefore the opportunity to do so will not be a top priority for many.
This current team is raw and untested in international play. FIBA rules are completely different from those in the NBA. Being able to grab the ball off the rim is just one of the many striking rule differences between FIBA and the NBA. Will so many guards on the team it will be seen whether this rule will become a factor on the play of the team. Yes, they are young but that may work in favor for the team. Nobody has told them that they cannot win the gold. It is theirs for the taking, the road will be difficult but they are hungry to prove that they are just as capable as the super-star laden Redeem Team. Two of their teammates have represented the US before and will be influential in shaping the mindset of these “kids” for tournament play. For now, though, the players will get ready for their last scrimmage and eventual shrinking of the roster. Team USA will cut its roster to 15-16 players before the start of training camp on August 9 in New York City before making the final roster cuts down to 12 just prior to the Championships which begin for the US on August 28 against Croatia.