The United States drew into Group E along with Japan, Turkey, and the Czech Republic. Turkey, despite producing a good number of NBA-level players in the past two decades, has really had just one good international tournament at the senior level, the 2010 World Championship, where the Turks lost to Team USA in the final. Japan has never finished in the top 10 in a World Cup and doesnt qualify for many of them. The Czechs have a few notable players, but have no history of international basketball success.
No matter who shows up for the United States, the team should be able to finish in the top two and climb out of Group E to the second round, where Team USA and the other Group E survivor would face the top two teams from Group F, which features Greece, New Zealand, Brazil, and Montenegro.
Greece was a top-tier contender in the 2000s, but they havent medalled in an international tournament since 2008. Even a United States C-level team should be able to survive Round 2.
Then come the knockouts, where United States would actually be tested as teams like France, Australia, and Canada are in the mix there. In the knockouts, with just eight teams left, some U.S. rosters could legitimately be at risk of getting sent packing. Spain remains a top competitor, Lithuania is always strong, Serbia is ascendant, Argentina also makes the United States sweat. To win this thing, assuming that other teams bring real rosters with their best players, Team USA will have to put together a roster that makes sense for coach Gregg Popovich.
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That doesnt mean that the United States needs Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, and LeBron James to survive and win gold. But at least one of those players would be helpful. You could imagine a version of the roster led by, say, Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, Andre Drummond, and DeMar DeRozan that doesnt quite do the trick against Australia, Serbia, and Spain.
This is where we find out if playing for Popovich is a draw, or if flying halfway across the world for legitimate work to represent a country in tumult and led by a president most of these top-level players are on record opposing is worth the time and energy. The players who are free agents this summer should all have their situations resolved before its time to report for camp, but you wonder if theyll sit out to be fully fresh for their new teams (if any of them switch teams). You wonder how internal player politics will factor in, especially as players like Durant are expected to flee Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in free agency — itd be awkward to turn around and play with them overseas two weeks later. You wonder how much the opportunity to play in the biggest basketball market in the world outside of the United States for a month will factor in.
Its going to be weird, folks, and it will determine how heavily favored the United States is to win the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
USA Basketball still doesnt know which players will be wearing the red, white and blue this summer in China.
The Americans quest for an unprecedented third consecutive FIBA World Cup championship will start against the Czech Republic, followed by games against Turkey and Japan later in the group stage. The draw for the 32-team tournament was held on Saturday in Shenzhen, China, which will be one of the sites for the event that starts on Aug. 31.
“We are ready for the world,” said Yao Ming, the best Chinese player ever, the longtime Houston Rockets star and one of the global ambassadors for the World Cup.
The U.S. is the top-ranked team in the world and coach Gregg Popovich – taking over for Mike Krzyzewski, whose run as head coach ended with three Olympic gold medals and the last two World Cup championships as well – will head to China with a roster filled by NBA talent. Reigning NBA MVP James Harden says he wants to play, and hes among 15 current All-Stars who are in the U.S. player pool for this national team.
“As a basketball player, thats one of the highest points you can get for basketball,” Harden said. “Obviously, youve got the NBA and you have winning a championship and all that good stuff, but with this, youre not just playing for your respective cities or where youre from, youre playing for an entire country you represent. So, its pretty awesome to be a part of it.”
Popovich, the longtime San Antonio coach, acknowledged that the World Cup has been on his mind – even in the midst of an NBA playoff push.
“Well face three well-coached teams and a variety of playing styles,” Popovich said. “Selecting and preparing the USA team in a short amount of time will be a challenge and repeating as gold medalists for a third straight FIBA World Cup is something everyone associated with the USA team will embrace.”
Turkey is the second-ranked team in Group E, USA Basketballs group. It was known Friday, a day before the draw, that Turkey had to be in the same group as the Americans because of the way that other teams from the Americas were placed into pods. So Ersan Ilyasova, who plans to play for Turkey, knew long before the rest of the group was picked that his country will face a serious challenge.
“In my experience, the World Cup is not about the first round – its all about the second round,” Ilyasova said. “Its not going to be easy. But its going to be fun.”
Second-ranked Spain will meet Puerto Rico, Iran and Tunisia in the group stage. Third-ranked France drew the Dominican Republic, Germany and Jordan as its early opponents.
Spain won the World Cup in 2006, led by Pau Gasol – and hes hoping to play for his country this summer as well.
“That was probably one of the best moments of my career,” Gasol said. “So if we have a chance to go for it this summer, we will.”
Host China is in the easiest group, Group A – where no team is currently ranked higher than No. 20. The Chinese are paired with Venezuela, Poland and Ivory Coast. The toughest group, on paper, looks to be Group H where No. 6 Lithuania, No. 11 Australia, No. 23 Canada and No. 37 Senegal will vie for two spots in the second round.
At stake for teams in the World Cup: The Naismith Trophy, which longtime NBA star Kobe Bryant brought onto the stage Saturday and handed to Yao for safekeeping, as well as a berth in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. There will be 12 teams in the Olympic field – host Japan is one, and seven other nations will directly qualify from the World Cup.
“Its a greater sense of honor to be playing for your country,” Bryant said. “When you start out the game, you hear your national anthem being played, you see everybody in the arena with their flags representing their country and color, its just such a great honor to be a part of that. Its extremely special.”
The group phase lasts through Sept. 5, and all three U.S. games in that round will be played in Shanghai. Second-round games will be played from Sept. 6-9, quarterfinal matchups are on Sept. 10-11, the semifinals are on Sept. 13 and the championship game is in Beijing on Sept. 15.
Group A: Venezuela, Poland, China and Ivory Coast.Group B: Argentina, Russia, South Korea and Nigeria.Group C: Spain, Puerto Rico, Iran and Tunisia.Group D: Serbia, Italy, Philippines and Angola.Group E: USA, Turkey, Czech Republic, Japan.Group F: Greece, Brazil, Montenegro, New Zealand.Group G: France, Dominican Republic, Germany, Jordan.Group H: Lithuania, Australia, Canada, Senegal.