The 2019 FIBA Basketball World Cup should be fascinating.
While Team USA is favoured to win the tournament, they're not quite as loaded as usual with the likes of James Harden, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, DeMar DeRozan and CJ McCollum all dropping out.
Who should start on this roster that features some of the NBA's brightest young stars? Who has the most to prove? Who is their biggest threat? Our NBA.com Staff answered four big questions ahead of the upcoming competition.
Who should start?
Scott Rafferty (@crabdribbles): Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker and Brook Lopez.
Team USA desperately needs Walker and Mitchell's scoring after James Harden, Anthony Davis and Damian Lillard dropped out. Middleton, Tucker and Lopez aren't the biggest names remaining on the roster, but Middleton provides shooting and secondary playmaking alongside Walker and Mitchell, while Tucker and Lopez space the floor and anchor the defence. This five makes the most sense to me fit-wise.
Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13): Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.
Team USA has a long history of not starting a traditional power forward, which is one Middleton slides up to get the nod at the four as he brings decent size and can fit in alongside almost any lineup. The toughest omission is Donovan Mitchell, who might ultimately lead the team in scoring. Walker feels like the only lock to start and I wouldn't be surprised to see different combinations of starting groups in China.
Kyle Irving (@KyleIrv_): Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez.
It's a tough decision between Walker or Kyle Lowry to start at point guard, but it seems redundant for them to both get the nod. Mitchell and Tatum have the potential to be the two top scorers on the team, and I feel they should both get as much playing time as possible to score the rock. Middleton and Lopez each add consistent perimeter shooting while bringing some defence to the starting line. This is a fast and athletic group that can get out and run with Lopez holding down the paint.
Gil McGregor (@GMcGregor21): Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell, Khris Middleton, P.J. Tucker and Myles Turner.
Walker is coming off of the best season of his NBA career and makes for an intriguing backcourt pairing with the young Mitchell, who has remained steadfast in his commitment to Team USA. Middleton provides playmaking, shooting and defence on the wing while Tucker adds grit and toughness and brings this lineup up another notch on the defensive end. While the backcourt is relatively undersized, Turner will protect the rim for any and all drives to the rim.
Who has the most to prove?
Rafferty: Jayson Tatum gets my vote. He has a lot to prove with the Celtics now that Kyrie Irving and Al Horford are gone, so a strong showing this summer could set him up well for a breakout season. There's also a clear path to him making him a name for himself on Team USA as one of the team's most talented scorers, whether it's as a starter or coming off the bench.
As I detailed in his Summer Workout Plan, I'm particularly interested in seeing how aggressive Tatum is as a driver because it would help him get to the free throw line more and make more plays for others, which are two of the biggest holes in his game right now.
Adams: I'll be interested to see how Donovan Mitchell fits in alongside other scorers. Through two seasons with the Jazz, he's been asked to carry the load for a scoring starved team, which has often led to some highly inefficient play. He certainly can't play with that same approach on this team and this tournament provides the opportunity to curb some bad habits, improve shot selection and impact the game in other ways
Irving: I'm going with Kyle Kuzma on this one.
After an All-Rookie First Team campaign, Kuzma upped his scoring average to 18.7 points per game in Year 2. His perimeter efficiency took a hit, dropping from 36.6% his rookie season to 30.3% from beyond the arc last season. His rebounding numbers also dropped slightly, and questions began to surround the young forward when the Lakers failed to win with LeBron James and Lonzo Ball out of the lineup.
This Team USA roster is particularly thin at the forward spot, so the 24-year-old should have more than enough opportunity to prove how good he can be. He'll be surrounded by fantastic talent, giving him the chance to get more open looks from 3-point range. (A shorter 3-point line should help him build his confidence). He'll also be able to flash his ability as a rebounder as the team is going to need him to be productive in that area.
With the biggest season and highest expectations of his career looming this upcoming year with the Lakers, expect Kuzma to use this as a spring board into a promising NBA season.
McGregor: He didn't see much action in Rio, but Harrison Barnes is one of just two Olympic gold medalists that stands to make this roster. With that in mind, he's in the perfect spot to transition from being the 12th man on the National Team in 2016 to being a reliable force in this year's World Cup.
We've gotten to the point that Barnes is somewhat underappreciated in what he brings to a team and, in a summer in which he's signed a lucrative contract with the Kings, he has an opportunity to use a nice World Cup performance to segue into his first full season in Sacramento. The Kings are on the cusp of making the playoffs and a big season from Barnes could very well push them over the edge.
I fully expect Barnes to make his presence felt by making game-winning plays on both ends of the floor in all junctions of the game.
What is the biggest concern?
Rafferty: Consistency. Neither Kemba Walker nor Donovan Mitchell are the most consistent players and Team USA is otherwise relying on young and somewhat unproven players like Jaylen Brown, Bam Adebayo, Jayson Tatum and Myles Turner to step up. Particularly against the best teams in the tournament, an off night from their best players might be too much for Team USA to overcome.
Adams: This is the first time since sending NBA players to international competition that the United States won't have the best player in the tournament as that honour goes to either Giannis Antetokounmpo or Nikola Jokic. In years past, Team USA has been able to overwhelm almost everyone on talent alone with a few exceptions along the way with the likes of Spain or Argentina. That won't be the case in China as this team will need to execute beyond simply running the floor and hitting open 3s. When the games get tight - and they will - who will step up and execute in the half court?
Irving: I believe it's lack of experience.
This is the least decorated team the United States has ever sent to a World Cup. While leaders like Kyle Lowry and Harrison Barnes both already have gold medals in their trophy case, no other player on the roster has ever participated in a World Cup or Olympics.
Even with the number of star players dropping out of the competition, USA still has the most talented roster without a doubt. You'd likely give the "best player in the tournament" title to the likes of reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo or All-Star centre Nikola Jokic, but there is still no reason the U.S. shouldn't be able to earn gold again.
If they do not, lack of international experience would be something that could be the cause of that.
McGregor: As the amount of players to remove their names from consideration continued to rise to overwhelming levels, the prevailing concern became who would be the guy for this team. Kemba Walker proved that his size isn't an issue as he nearly carried the Hornets to the playoffs last season, but it's his first international competition in over 10 years.
Time should prove who will emerge as the team's go-to guy in crucial situations, but there is a real threat of the team running into adversity while it figures that out.
Who is the biggest threat?
Rafferty: Serbia. They're loaded with NBA players. It starts with Nikola Jokic, who, as Micah mentioned above, could prove to be the best player in the tournament, but surrounding him are Boban Marjanovic, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Nemanja Bjelica, as well as accomplished international players such as Milos Teodosic and Miroslav Raduljica. This team has the perfect balance of star power and depth - the latter being something that separates them from Greece - to give Team USA a run for its money.
Adams: The popular answers in the lead up to tip off will be Greece and Serbia given the presence of Antetokounmpo and Jokic. Spain is always a threat as is Lithuania. Although France is a perennial underachiever at both the world championships and Olympics, this could be the year Les Bleus puts it all together.
Rudy Gobert is a star and there's NBA starting calibre talent with the likes of Nicolas Batum and Evan Fournier. Guard play tends to rule the day in international play and although France just lost FC Barcelona star Thomas Huertel to an injury, former NBA player and CSKA Moscow standout Nando De Colo is one of the best players in Europe and has the chops to hang with Team USA's backcourt.
France bucked history to win last year's World Cup on the football pitch. Don't sleep on them making it 2-for-2.
Irving: It has to be Greece.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is playing at a high enough level that he could carry his country to the gold on his own.The United States are the favourites to win the tournament, but they don't have a player that can stop The Greek Freak. They'll be forced to throw multiple bodies at the reigning MVP and Antetokounmpo has talented counterparts around him that are capable of scoring and knocking down shots.
But teammates aside, I truly believe Giannis could be so dominant that he could take over the entire FIBA World Cup. We're in store for some historic performances by the 24-year-old forward and don't be surprised if he's so unstoppable that his team finishes atop of the tournament.
The Greek National Team has the league's MVP, who has already expressed how much he wants to lead his country to World Cup gold.
The latest from the @Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo before leading Greece into the @FIBAWC: "I would exchange the MVP title for the gold medal in China'' https://t.co/JXLvdEIvzE- Marc Stein (@TheSteinLine) August 5, 2019
He's got a solid team around him with pros such as his brothers Thanasis and Kostas, Nick Calathes, Tyler Dorsey, former lottery pick Georgios Pappagianis and a number of other players that have risen among the National Team ranks with one another over the years, building continuity and consistency. Greece has players that know how to play off of one another and a strong National Team program - this fact was proven when it defeated the United States en route to winning Silver in the 2006 World Cup.
This year, with the best player in the tournament, it could finish even higher.
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