Selecting USA Basketball's 12-man roster for the 2014 FIBA World Cup
LAS VEGAS -- In contrast to its fast and furious playing style under coach Mike Krzyzewski, USA Basketball is taking a deliberate approach to the roster selection process as it gears up for the FIBA World Cup in Spain. The quick substitution patterns, high pressure defense and transition highlights will commence once the USA begins opening round play against Finland on Aug. 30; until then, USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski are milking the shot clock when it comes to narrowing their 19-man player pool down to a 12-man roster.
After three days of training camp on the UNLV campus, the roster's central pieces have emerged with no major surprises: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Paul George and James Harden look like starters. Krzyzewski has singled out Durant, Harden and Derrick Rose, all returning players for USA Basketball, as potential team leaders, while Colangelo indicated Wednesday that Davis is penciled in as the team's starting center.
A philosophical approach to selecting the rest of the roster has also emerged.
"You try to get eight or nine guys that are going to be the core and three or four guys that complement them," Krzyzewski said Tuesday.
Colangelo reiterated that plan on Wednesday, clarifying that the second group of complementary players would consist of "players you have to fill certain specific roles, a shooter, an energy guy, another big."
There is a timeline governing these decisions: Colangelo said USA Basketball plans to keep 15 players through Aug. 22, when the squad completes a domestic tour through Chicago and New York that includes exhibitions against Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Over the next three weeks, he said USA Basketball -- which saw power forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love withdraw from participating -- plans to "hang on to bigs" before it gets down to its 12-man team. Presumably, that approach would cover USA Basketball in the event of an injury during one of the pre-World Cup exhibitions or training sessions.
With those parameters in mind, here's a first look at how the FIBA World Cup roster might shake out. SI.com has selected its 12-man group and ranked the players in terms of indispensability.
1. Kevin Durant
Thunder forward Kevin Durant, the NBA's reigning MVP, had reestablished himself as the best player in the gym, by a healthy margin, within just a few minutes of the first scrimmage that was open to the media on Monday. An impossible cover one-on-one, Durant will be utilized as a stretch power forward by USA Basketball, allowing him to exploit mismatches from virtually everywhere on the court as shooters surround him, waiting to capitalize on any extra attention he draws.
A friendly reminder: At 23, Durant averaged a team-high 19.5 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 52.3 percent on three-pointers during the 2012 London Olympics. Every time he steps on the court, the four-time scoring champion creates a "pick your poison" dilemma for defenses: defend him with single coverage and pray, or send the extra defender and cross your fingers. During scrimmages, both methods have run into some trouble, as Durant has undressed Kenneth Faried in the post with a series of shake moves, and also zinged crosscourt passes to Harden for wide open corner threes when two defenders collapsed. What's more, the players who are best equipped to slow him down -- LeBron James, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard -- aren't available to any of the USA's international opposition.
2. Anthony Davis
A depleted frontline group has one bankable player: Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, who will hold down the center spot for USA. The Durant/Davis combination is, in a word, scary. Their combined length, quickness and feel for the game will look futuristic against most of their World Cup competitors.
Davis is crucial to the USA's goals on both sides of the ball. Offensively, his fluidity allows him to set perimeter screens, duck to the hoop to beat helping defenses and finish lobs over the top when his teammates attract attention. Defensively, Krzyzewski envisions both Davis and Durant being capable of switching any screen they come across, as well as switching most interior defensive assignments, allowing the USA to keep the pressure on throughout halfcourt settings. The 2012 No. 1 overall picks ranks so highly on this list because the pool's other big men -- DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond, Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap -- don't offer this same type of two-way fit.
Without question, USA's deepest position is point guard, where Krzyzewski and Colangelo have five All-Star players from which to choose. Warriors guard Stephen Curry is the safe pick as USA's top option at the position, as he combines experience, good health, excellent three-point shooting, and the type of positional versatility that the program values. The 26-year-old Curry was the NBA's most voluminous three-point shooter in each of the last two years, and his range extends well, well beyond the international three-point line.
Capable of running an offense himself -- he averaged a career-high 8.5 assists per game last season -- or moving off the ball to get shooting looks, Curry is in line for a larger role than he saw during the 2010 World Championship in Turkey, where he averaged 4.6 points in 11 minutes per game. Some of the potential lineup combinations available to Krzyzewski are pretty mind-blowing: imagine utilizing Curry, fellow Splash Brother Klay Thompson and the marksman of all marksmen Kyle Korver alongside Durant and Davis. Has a court even been stretched so far in so many different directions?
4. Paul George
The first thought when assessing Pacers forward Paul George at USA camp this week: only a superstar could get away with cutting a swirl that looks like a heart monitor into his haircut. The second thought: George's superstar talent really is undeniable. Even George would likely agree that Indiana's 2013-14 season went to Hell after a strong start, and the reports of locker room issues plus Lance Stephenson's many antics wound up distracting from a career year for George that landed him on both the All-Defensive First Team and All-NBA Third Team.
George should benefit more than just about anyone else on the roster from playing with other talented offensive players. His shooting numbers have reinforced the fact that he's doing too much with too little help from his fellow Pacers, and that simply won't be the case with USA Basketball. The late-clock bailout shots and the forced shots in isolation shouldn't happen when Durant, Harden and others are available to be lead scoring options. That should allow George to employ his two-way talents in devastating fashion: expect plenty of steals, and Slam Dunk Contest-worthy fare in transition. George looks like a no-brainer starter at small forward, ahead of Chandler Parsons and Gordon Hayward, who are also in the player pool.
5. James Harden
More than one media member has joked that watching Rockets guard James Harden apply effective full-court on-ball pressure during scrimmages this week has been like a mirage. Whether Harden is looking to put Houston's early postseason exit behind him or to set a tone as one of the roster's Olympic gold medalists doesn't much matter: it's infinitely more entertaining to watch him playing at max effort than any other alternative.
Harden, Durant and George engaged in a series of one-on-one post-practice games on Wednesday, and the match-ups gave Harden a chance to remind the captive audience how skilled he is at creating shots. Harden's full bag of tricks -- ball fakes, head fakes, stutter dribbles, step backs, fallaways -- was on display, and he found his share of buckets against the two longer, taller defenders. Like George, Harden should benefit from being one of many scoring options for USA rather than a do-it-all alpha dog, and his connection with Durant, his former teammate, should be evident early and often throughout the tournament.
I'm as surprised as anyone that Kings center DeMarcus Cousins ranks as high as he does on this list, but he just looks a cut above the rest of the bigs in camp, aside from Davis. Although personality and behavioral issues could always undo his roster candidacy in the blink of an eye, Cousins has regularly punished defenders around the basket this week, and he's easily the best-equipped to handle Spain's Marc Gasol, the USA's biggest individual threat, from a physical standpoint.
Above, Colangelo said that he might select "another big" as one of the complementary players, and that tag just might apply to Cousins. His sheer size offers a different identity from much of the rest of this roster, and it's easy to envision Krzyzewski preferring to deploy him situationally against certain match-ups so as to maximize his roster's versatility.
7. Kyrie Irving
Honing in on the roster's second point guard might be the most difficult decision in this process. Over the years, Krzyzewski has made no secret of his fondness for Irving, who went one-and-done at Duke, to the point that Irving has been viewed as Chris Paul's heir apparent at the position. Here, Irving gets the nod because of his overall offensive game: he can break down a defense off the dribble, he can shoot from deep, he can make the right pass or the highlight pass, and he can shift between on-ball and off-ball roles.
Settling on Irving here involved some head-to-head process of elimination. Unlike Derrick Rose, there are no lingering injury concerns for Irving. Compared to Damian Lillard, Irving is more dynamic off the dribble, capable of freeing up other shooters. Next to John Wall, he is a far superior outside shooter.
8. Klay Thompson
Remarkably, the seven names listed are all capable of being No. 1 scoring options for their individual teams. Filling out the rest of the roster therefore requires finding complementary pieces, and Warriors guard Klay Thompson nicely fits that bill. Blessed with good size and instincts, Thompson plays with high effort on both ends. One of the league's most prolific three-point shooters, he feasts largely on opportunities that are set up for him and generally understands that he doesn't need to do too much to create for himself.
His spot behind Harden on the two-guard depth chart seems pretty secure: Thompson is more experienced, bigger and more polished than Bradley Beal, while also being a far better outside shooter than DeMar DeRozan. As mentioned above, things start to get tantalizing when you envision Thompson as part of units stocked with other three-point shooters, especially if he logs minutes alongside Curry.
9. Kyle Korver
This selection probably strikes many observers as the biggest surprise on the list, but it shouldn't. Hawks forward Kyle Korver shot a ridiculous 47.2 percent on three-pointers last year, even though he launched more than five attempts per game and didn't have any All-Star players to set up his looks. Grantland's Zach Lowe broke down in detail how Korver made that happen through constant off-ball motion and excellent shooting mechanics. Give Korver a shorter porch three-point line plus Durant, Harden, Curry, Irving, and George to set him up and this tournament could easily turn into the Three-Point Shootout.
Colangelo mentioned his desire for a "shooter" as one of the complementary pieces, and Korver is clearly the pick among the available wing options (Beal, DeRozan, Parsons, Hayward). A designated shooter could very well play a bigger role on this team than a third-string point guard, especially when it comes time to face off against the Spanish.
10. Derrick Rose
The USA Basketball brass has been pumping up Derrick Rose's play for three straight days in Las Vegas. Given that the Bulls guard was coming off of two lost seasons due to knee injuries, the mere fact that he's moved well and played well enough to draw rave reviews from Colangelo, Krzyzewski, assistant coach Tom Thibodeau and his fellow players is a great sign. Still, one wonders if it's fair to expect Rose to beat out the other All-Stars at his position after so much time away from the court.
Rose admitted Wednesday that he hasn't yet overwhelmed defenders one-on-one with his physicality, but he was quite pleased that his body has responded well to three consecutive days of scrimmages, even if his conditioning needs a little work. On Monday, Rose was used as the starting point guard alongside Harden, George, Durant and Davis, and he did a little bit of everything by knocking down shots, setting up Durant and applying pressure defense. A successful World Cup for Rose would simply see him hold up through what could be nine games in 16 days, including two back-to-backs. Anything more than that would be icing on the cake.
11. Kenneth Faried
Colangelo has repeatedly mentioned the need for an "energy guy," and he singled out Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried as a candidate for that role in an NBA TV interview this week. "We looked at tapes of yesterday’s scrimmage, and within a minute he was responsible for six points for his team," Colangelo said of the high-flying Faried , who averaged 8.6 rebounds per game.
Although the Morehead State product is lacking in the polish and range departments, compared to his USA Basketball teammates, he brings an electric presence that could help shake USA out of the inevitable slumbers that come with playing against weaker competition. An accomplished rebounder and lob finisher, Faried is comfortable running the lanes in transition and his 100 miles per hour style is infectious. This just seems like putting a square peg in a square hole.
12. Damian Lillard
The 12th and final roster spot offers plenty of interesting options: Blazers guard Damian Lillard, Wizards guard John Wall, Pistons center Andre Drummond, Hawks forward Paul Millsap and Wizards guard Bradley Beal are among the candidates. Given that Cousins, Korver and Faried are filling the complementary roles laid out by Colangelo, Lillard seems like a solid pick as one of the top nine core players. Like Irving, he's equally capable of playing on or off the ball and he's a strong outside shooter.
The biggest knock on Lillard has been his lacking defense, although he has been quick to point out that it's easier to apply pressure in quick bursts rather than over huge minutes like he plays in Portland. There are some signs that point in Lillard's favor: Krzyzewski raved about Lillard after last summer's camp, Lillard was extended an invitation before Wall to this year's player pool, and Lillard has expressed a clear desire to be a part of USA Basketball for the long-term. Using the upcoming World Cup to groom the 24-year-old Lillard, who earned All-NBA Third Team and All-Star honors last season, as a possible star for the 2016 and/or 2020 Olympics makes a lot of sense.
This final spot could easily come down to how comfortable Colangelo and Krzyzewski are with carrying only three bigs (Davis, Cousins and Faried). The big-bodied Drummond looks like the best alternative to Lillard if USA Basketball decides to bring a fourth big man. His level of mobility isn't quite in line with USA's preferred style, but he would represent another large option to throw out there against Gasol.