5 Things Team USA Must Prove Before 2014 FIBA World Cup Begins
Following a 95-78 thumping of Brazil that allowed Derrick Rose to debut in front of his hometown faithful, Team USA only has three more tune-up games before the 2014 FIBA World Cup kicks off in earnest.
Those games, which come against the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Slovenia, might not count, but they'll still be useful for the Americans.
After all, this is a roster filled with unproven players. They might be established stars in the NBA, but not many have suited up for intense international competitions.
While Team USA is the prohibitive favorite to take home a gold medal at the end of the World Cup, the players still have to prove a few things before the games that count begin on Aug. 30. They aren't mortal locks to sweep through the slate of matchups, one that will likely conclude with a barnburner against the Spanish national team, but they could achieve that status by making a few things perfectly clear.
Even with multiple All-Stars on the roster, this event cannot, should not and will not be taken lightly.
Derrick Rose Is Healthy
Derrick Rose is admittedly more of a luxury than a necessity for Team USA.
Even if he were unable to play at his pre-injury level or if he—please no!—were re-injured, the Americans have an abundance of high-quality point guards. Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard are certainly capable of holding their own during the international competition.
But he's quite the luxury.
If Rose is healthy and playing at full strength, he brings something no other point guard on the roster carries with him: elite two-way play. Curry, Irving and Lillard are all dynamic offensive 1-guards, but none of them can lock down on defense like Rose can.
In fact, that was one of the first things that was noticeable when he began suiting up for live action during training camp. Given the inherently limited minute distributions employed by Mike Krzyzewski during these tournaments, Rose has more energy to expend while he's on the court, which allows him to become a terror on the less glamorous end.
As he told reporters, via ESPNChicago.com's Jon Greenberg, after the scrimmage against Brazil, his stated goal was "playing hard on defense, taking shots when I have the shots and letting the game come to me."
Mission accomplished so far, but it's worth noting that the Chicago Bulls point guard did have a "planned light day" to rest his knees after that return to live action, according to a tweet from ESPN.com's Marc Stein.
Should that be troubling? Not really, since it was planned. But if he's unable to play at 100 percent without weeks between games, that's when things get more troubling. We should learn a lot more when the layoffs between contest aren't as long.
So far, things look good on this front. But with Rose, there are no guarantees.
Anthony Davis Can Lead the Team
Team USA needs a leader.
Precious few members of the roster have Olympic experience: Anthony Davis, James Harden...and that's it. This is a largely young squad, one filled with players who are making their first forays into major international competition, which puts more of an onus on the vets.
Yes, Davis qualifies as such even though he's only 21 years old.
After all, he's already undergone quite a transition, as USA Basketball's official website described:
Davis traveled to London and was mostly seen but not heard. He appeared in seven of the eight games, averaging 3.7 points and 2.7 rebound per game, and afterward he was often in charge of carrying bags or going on food runs for the veteran players. What he got in return was a crash course education in international basketball and memories he still carries with him today.
'It feels like it was yesterday,' Davis said. 'I remember everything about that trip and about that experience.'
Fast forward two years and Davis is now one of the veterans at training camp for the FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain next month. As the team continues practices on UNLV’s campus, Davis joins Kevin Durant and James Harden as the only players on the roster with an Olympic gold. In a very short time Davis has gone from a player just enjoying the ride to one of the organization’s leaders.
Well, Durant is no longer with the team, which just thrusts even more responsibility onto the increasingly sturdy shoulders of the rising New Orleans Pelicans star, one who recently weighed in at 242 pounds. That's 22 pounds heavier than his listed playing weight in 2013-14.
The leadership role hasn't been too much for Davis thus far.
He dominated the Brazilian squad during Team USA's first scrimmage, recording 20 points, eight rebounds and five blocks on 9-of-15 shooting from the field. And all the while, he looked the part of a leader, encouraging his teammates and setting a positive example for everyone involved.
"Early in the game, Davis missed a few jump shots and said Kyrie Irving jokingly asked him if he was going to stop shooting," reported John Juettner of TeamUSA.org. "Davis responded with a 'no'—something you look for a star to do."
He's doing everything right.
Size Doesn't Matter
Lack of size has always been a concern for Team USA, and it's not going to be any different during the World Cup.
While there are guards and wing players galore, there just aren't too many big men. Kenneth Faried is the high-energy rebounding specialist, Davis is a star capable of playing at either the 4 or the 5 and then there's a glut of centers who aren't certain to make the final squad: DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and Mason Plumlee.
"We're more capable of getting beat than we would be in London or Beijing," Krzyzewski told reporters, via K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune, after his squad went up against Brazil. "We don't have veterans, and we're not as big."
Well, the test that was Brazil went quite well.
Tiago Splitter, Nene and Anderson Varejao were all on the floor for the scrimmage, and the Americans still emerged with a 95-78 victory in Chicago. Granted, this was only an exhibition game, and one played on home turf no less. Additionally, Splitter, Nene and Varejao are not exactly Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka.
However, the Americans handled the big opposition quite well, torturing them with Davis' quickness and Faried's relentless hustle. And that came with Cousins sitting out to rest his bruised right knee, which could put a damper on his chances of making the final roster.
Things are only going to get tougher, so Team USA must continue to showcase an effective plan against bigger rosters.
Everything is about chemistry.
Roster cuts aren't made to keep the most talented players are on the roster. If that were the case, Kyle Korver (a damn good shooter but an undeniably limited specialist) and Kenneth Faried wouldn't still be in the hunt for final spots on the 12-man squad.
No, players are picked because they're going to mesh well with everyone else on the floor.
Being able to function as a team is of paramount importance, and the easiest way to be upset during the tournament is by playing like a collection of isolation players, superstars who aren't willing to share the rock and make the right basketball play.
Durant talked to the media, via The Associated Press' W.G. Ramirez, about that need for chemistry early on in the proceedings:
Getting to know each other's tendencies on the court, talking on the bus, in the breakfast room and the meetings—we're building that camaraderie, and that's what you need. We've got all the talent in the world, it's the mental end we need to take care of as far as having chemistry, teamwork, sacrifice and I think we're getting it.
That process has been made harder by the injured players and those who have dropped out of the competition, like Durant himself. The final roster won't look anything like expected, as Durant and Paul George were both de facto locks to make the squad and suit up for their country in Spain.
Now, with the talent diminished and the roster feeling more depleted than ever, chemistry is even more important. The United States can likely rely on sheer talent against most opponents it'll face throughout the tournament, but not every match can be won in that manner.
Confidence, Confidence, Confidence
There's a big difference between confidence and cockiness.
The former is a feeling that can be backed up by performance. The latter, which is far more hubristic, reeks of entitlement.
If Team USA feels as though it can win this tournament but must put forth every ounce of effort to accomplish this goal, that falls into the realm of confidence. Even without Durant, George, LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge and so many other stars who call America home, this team is still undeniably stacked, brimming with All-Stars and high-upside players.
No one else can touch this level of talent, not even the Spaniards.
If the squad is feeling a sense of doom and gloom—it's worth noting this hasn't seemed the case whatsoever—then that could be problematic during the competition. That's the exact feeling everyone must strive to avoid, and they should easily be able to do so.
Getting a big win against Brazil was a great start. Now it's time to blow out the rest of the pre-tournament opponents and boost self-esteem once and for all.
There's no reason for this team to feel anything but confident, even without some of the most notable names throwing on the red-white-and-blue jerseys.
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